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Julie Su: Biden’s pick for labor secretary is a civil rights lawyer and the department’s acting chief

<i>Win McNamee/Getty Images</i><br/>Julie Su
Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Julie Su

By Maegan Vazquez, CNN

Julie Su, a civil rights attorney who has held numerous state and federal roles focused on labor issues, was formally nominated to be the next secretary of labor by President Joe Biden in late February 2023.

Su, currently the Department of Labor’s acting secretary, first joined the Biden administration in 2021 as the deputy secretary of labor. She was confirmed to the role with the unanimous support of Democrats in the Senate and no support from Republicans.

In her role as then-Labor Secretary Marty Walsh’s deputy, the Labor Department said she worked “as the de-facto chief operating officer for the department, overseeing its workforce, managing its budget and executing the priorities of the secretary of labor.”

After serving in the agency’s second-highest ranking role, Su, 54, became the acting secretary of labor upon Walsh’s departure from the administration earlier this year.

Su, a former California state government official who spent years representing low wage workers as a civil rights lawyer, was long seen as a frontrunner to permanently replace Walsh and was championed by a number of labor groups and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. If confirmed, Su would be the Biden administration’s first ever Asian-American Cabinet secretary.

During the Senate’s confirmation hearing considering her nomination, Republicans scrutinized Su over her policy record and what they argued was a lack of negotiation experience integral to the role.

Much like her first nomination to be deputy secretary, Su is not expected to have any support from Republican senators for the top labor role. And despite a Democratic majority within the Senate and past unanimous support for Su from senators in the party, some Democrats have yet to get on board with her nomination this time around.

Democrats’ noncommittal stance may be paving the way for a high-stakes nomination process.

If Su cannot convince enough senators to get on board with her nomination, she would be the highest-ranking political nominee yet to fail among a recent string of Biden picks who have withdrawn their nominations from consideration by the Senate due to a lack of support.

Su’s career in civil rights and labor law

Much like Walsh, who served as a union official before seeking political office, Biden’s second labor secretary nominee has a background that largely reflects his administration’s emphatically pro-labor and pro-union stance.

Su, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, said in a speech at the White House last month that her mother first arrived in the United States on a cargo ship and worked a union job. And in her opening remarks at her confirmation hearing on Thursday, Su is expected to describe how her family “owned a dry cleaning and laundromat business, and then a franchise pizza restaurant.”

Su graduated with a B.A. from Stanford University and then a J.D. from Harvard Law School, after which she was awarded a Skadden Fellowship, which is granted to recent law graduates pursuing public-interest law. She has taught at UCLA Law School and Northeastern Law School.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1995, Su described organizing and participating in acts of civil disobedience at both Stanford and Harvard, protesting over different social justice issues. At Stanford, where she led the university’s Asian American Students’ Association, Su and other classmates were detained following a peaceful sit-in protesting racism. Although she was arrested, Su said the charges were dropped.

In 1995, federal agents raided a sweatshop in El Monte, California, surrounded by barbed wire and under the surveillance of armed guards, encountering 72 Thai workers, mostly women, who had worked from sun up to sun down sewing brand-name clothing for less than $2 an hour.

At the Asian Pacific American Legal Center not long after graduating from Harvard Law, Su made a name for herself as a public interest lawyer when she brought forward a landmark case against clothing companies that benefited from the labor of the Thai sweatshop workers. She helped negotiate the workers’ release on bond and find housing for them. And the case led to the recovery of over $4 million in back wages and significant labor reforms.

In 2001, Su was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, gaining recognition for her work fighting for the rights of disadvantaged people, particularly Asian and immigrant communities.

Before joining the Biden administration, Su was the secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and the state’s labor commissioner, tasked with enforcing the state’s labor laws.

Su’s critics argue that her policy stances are hostile to small businesses and that she lacks relevant qualifications to handle labor negotiations.

In particular, Su has been criticized by business interests over her time in leadership in California as well as her support for A.B. 5, a California law that aims to reclassify certain gig workers as regular employees. Concerns have also been lodged over her support of the Fast Act, a law detractors say takes away control from franchise operators and jeopardizes their businesses.

Su has long faced scrutiny for California’s handling of unemployment benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly her oversight of the state’s Employment Development Department. During the pandemic, the department, one of the offices under her purview, delayed approving unemployment benefits and paid out billions on fraudulent claims. Su has said EDD’s systems were not prepared for the number of unemployment claims made.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Manu Raju, Phil Mattingly and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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