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Biden Nominates Julie Su, Former Top CA Labor Official, As US Labor Secretary

A close-up shot of Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su, who is wearing a bright blue blazer. A man is standing behind her out-of-focus in an orange t-shirt and bright pink hat.
Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su
(Roy Rochlin
Getty Images)
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President Biden said Tuesday he will nominate Julie Su, formerly California’s top labor official, to be the next U.S. labor secretary.

If confirmed by the Senate to replace outgoing secretary Marty Walsh, Su would become the first Asian American secretary in Biden’s cabinet. Right now it’s the only White House in 20 years to not have an Asian American in a secretary-level position.

Su is currently serving as the department’s deputy labor secretary, a post she accepted after serving as California's labor commissioner from 2011 to 2018.

In a statement, Biden cited Su’s past “fighting to make sure that everyone has a fair shot, that no community is overlooked, and that no worker is left behind.”

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The president continued: “Over several decades, Julie has led the largest state labor department in the nation, cracked down on wage theft, fought to protect trafficked workers, increased the minimum wage, created good-paying, high-quality jobs, and established and enforced workplace safety standards.”

Biden’s announcement was celebrated by labor and Asian American Pacific Islander organizations who had vigorously lobbied Biden to pick Su after Walsh’s exit to lead the National Hockey League Players’ Association was announced last month.

“She's one of the most principled people I know,” said Aileen Louie, chief of staff at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-SoCal, which pushed for a Su nomination, along with groups such as the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the California Federation of Teachers. “She is not accommodating when people do things that she does not believe are right.”

Louie befriended Su more than 30 years ago when both were working at AAAJ-SoCal, then known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Su, a civil rights attorney newly-graduated from Harvard Law School, had joined the organization hoping to support low-income immigrant workers.

Then in 1995, the El Monte Thai garment slavery case broke open and Su became the lead attorney for dozens of undocumented workers who had to be freed from the compound where they had been working and living.

Su inventively used immigration visa law so the workers could stay in the U.S. and strove to hold not just the sweatshop owners accountable, but also the large retailers who exploited immigrant labor. With other advocacy groups, she pursued a civil lawsuit against retailers and manufacturers and won $4 million for her clients.

“Most people didn't think that it was wise that she pursued (the lawsuit),” Louie said. “But Julie's super tenacious. Ultimately, Julie's biggest accomplishment in that space was to be able to hold the people that really had the money accountable for what was actually happening.”

Louie said back then Su could have never imagined she would be working for the government.

“She was used to kind of fighting against the system, not necessarily being part of the system,” Louie said. “But I think she recognizes the opportunity to make change that she has.”

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If her confirmation hearing to be the deputy secretary was any indication, Su will face tough questioning from Republican senators challenging her nomination. In that hearing, they pointed to widespread fraud during the pandemic in California’s unemployment system, which Su oversaw as the state’s labor commissioner.

Hours after Su's nomination was announced, California Republican Rep. Michelle Steel attacked Su's tenure in state government, citing the unemployment fraud and Su's support of Assembly Bill 5, which required many companies to reclassify workers as employees instead of contractors, granting them new benefits and labor protections. Critics say AB 5 has worsened the business climate since it took effect in 2020 and made it harder to find jobs.

"It is disappointing that the President welcomes this record of failure to his Cabinet," Steel said in a statement.

Should Su win confirmation, she would be the second Californian to hold the country’s top labor post in the last 20 years. Hilda Solis, now an L.A. County supervisor, served as President Obama’s labor secretary from 2009 to 2013.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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