- California labor activists are asking President-elect Joe Biden to select Julie Su as his Secretary of Labor.
- Su, once dubbed the “bane of deadbeat employers,” has served as California’s Labor Secretary since 2019.
- Previously, Su served as the state’s labor commissioner. She also co-founded the group Sweatshop Watch.
- “Thinking about Julie Su as Secretary of Labor is almost a physical sense of relief,” one source in the labor movement told Business Insider.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Labor organizers in Southern California are pushing President-elect Joe Biden to pick a progressive, hometown hero for Labor Secretary, arguing that the state’s top labor official — an anti-sweatshop campaigner dubbed the “bane of the deadbeat employer” — is supremely qualified to protect workers’ rights during the pandemic.
Julie Su has served in statewide office since 2011, when former Gov. Jerry Brown picked her to lead the state’s enforcement of labor laws. Before that, at the age of 26, she represented dozens of undocumented Thai workers who were effectively enslaved at a garment factory outside Los Angeles, a landmark case that prompted federal and state efforts to combat human trafficking; that work was cited by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her its “genius” award in 2001.
As labor commissioner, Su turned the state’s under-resourced team of worker advocates into “what could be the most aggressive and effective state labor law enforcement division in the country,” according to a 2013 report from In These Times, a progressive magazine.
Under Su’s reign, California sought the largest-ever judgment against an employer in state history, assessing almost $12 million in citations against a construction company. “[E]mployers who steal from workers will end up paying for it,” she said at the time.
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom promoted her to Secretary of Labor, a role that has seen her oversee worker safety and unemployment checks amid a pandemic and recession — experience her advocates believe has well prepared her to do the same on a larger scale.
“Workers, especially workers of color, are hurting across the country,” Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, told Business Insider. “They need and deserve someone with a demonstrated record of leadership and expertise in fighting for working individuals and families, and Julie’s record is exemplary.”
As Bloomberg Law reported last week, Su’s odds for a cabinet pick have been aided by a split in union support among contenders who are better known on the national stage, such as US Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Andy Levin. “I think she’s very, very viable,” Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, a supporter, told Bloomberg. “She’s really been a warrior for us.”
But, the outlet noted, a lack of public support from organized labor has also been one factor hindering Su’s candidacy.
A letter sent to the president-elect on Sunday aims to address that gap.
“It is a critical time for women’s leadership and we need a strong woman as US Secretary of Labor, especially a woman of color who understand what it’s like to grow up in an immigrant household,” states the letter signed by Dolores Huerta, the famed farm worker organizer, and the leaders of groups such as the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.
“She fully enforced the rights of farm workers, janitors, and domestic workers,” the letter says. “In short, Su has been at the forefront of some of the most innovative policies and enforcement strategies in our state’s history.
A senior staffer at a national labor organization, requesting anonymity to speak freely, said a Su cabinet post would be seen as a big win for the labor movement.
“Thinking about Julie Su as Secretary of Labor is almost a physical sense of relief,” the source told Business Insider. She’s spent years leading enforcement in the world’s fifth-largest economy and before that fought for workers’ rights as an activist exposing labor conditions in the garment industry.
“She is widely respected as a labor rights and civil rights attorney, so she truly ‘speaks the language’ of workers’ issues,” the source said, noting she is also fluent in both Spanish and Mandarin.
Su “will walk in that door fully capable, ready to work, and without any serious shadows of past transactional relationships or controversies,” they added.
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