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California’s Su Rises in Biden Labor Chief Race as Unions Split

Nov. 24, 2020, 10:01 AM

Organized labor’s divide over at least three White men they’re promoting for Joe Biden‘s selection as labor secretary has vaulted another candidate with a lower national profile, California Labor Secretary Julie Su, into stronger contention for the job.

The splintering in union support spread among Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has created an opening for Su to quietly gain momentum in the race to be the president-elect’s U.S. Labor Department leader, according national and state labor officials, Obama administration alums, worker advocates, and others in close communication with the Biden transition.

Although not traditionally an upper echelon slot, Biden’s labor secretary choice takes on heightened political gravity due to the urgent economic priorities of rescuing the workforce from pandemic-induced ruin. The DOL leader is charged with coordinating states’ processing of unemployment benefits, protecting workers from on-the-job Covid-19 infection, and enforcing emergency paid-leave benefits.

One source, relaying the content of conversations with numerous transition team officials, said it’s widely agreed that the unions’ split is aiding Su’s candidacy.

Concern about the lack of diversity in unions’ publicly endorsed candidates for a post with significant responsibility for workplace gender and racial equality is fueling her rise, said the sources, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Su’s spent a quarter century collecting accolades in the civil and worker rights’ communities for her passionate advocacy for vulnerable workers—first at a nonprofit public interest organization and for the past decade in state government.

Despite her recent experience shepherding California’s massive state bureaucracy through an unprecedented workforce crisis caused by the pandemic, she isn’t a household name entrenched in Washington politics like some of the most talked-about male candidates for Biden labor chief. Still, several international union officials told Bloomberg Law that even though they’re not formerly endorsing Su and not as directly familiar with her record, they’re well aware of her West Coast reputation and would get behind her if nominated by Biden.

“I think she’s very, very viable,” said Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, who said he’s personally hoping Su gets the nod. “She has really been a warrior for us” in confronting scourges like companies’ misclassification of employees as contractors, said Herrera, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters vice president.

“If they got to see her work, if they got to know her,” Su could win over union leaders around the country as well, he said.

Progressive nonprofits and pro-labor groups have publicly praised Su or privately recommended her to the transition team, according to people familiar with the conversations. The AFL-CIO’s California chapter has weighed in on her behalf to the union federation’s President Richard Trumka, said spokesman Steve Smith.

However, her lack of a public endorsement for labor secretary from a single national union and lack of an established rapport with Biden are seen as obstacles.

“There are many strong contenders for Labor Secretary, Julie Su among them,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Tim Schlittner, in a statement. “President Trumka has said all along his criteria is someone who will have clout with President-Elect Biden, members of the Cabinet, and leaders on the Hill so we are best positioned to move our agenda forward.”

While Biden is expected to take the labor movement’s recommendations seriously to fulfill his promise to be “the strongest labor president you’ve ever had,” he’s also under pressure to satisfy a pledge to appoint a diverse Cabinet, a factor weighing in Su’s favor, depending on the racial and gender composition of Biden’s initial selections. The transition announced its first few Cabinet appointments Monday, including the first female intelligence chief and the first Latino Homeland Security head.

Willing to Serve

A Biden transition spokesman declined to comment on whether they’re vetting Su for Labor. Su declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

But she’s privately said she’s interested in the job and would accept if offered, said Doug Bloch, political director of the Teamsters Northern California council, relaying a recent conversation he had with Su. Other sources close to Su echoed this sentiment and were thrilled to speak up on her behalf, while saying that Su is the antithesis of a person who’d mount her own campaign to land on Biden’s radar.

“I’d be very confident that she’d be willing to serve,” said Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who’s known Su for 25 years. “Secretary of labor would be the position that she has really spent her entire career preparing for.”

Those advocating for Su to land the job argue that what she lacks in national brand, Su compensates for in technocratic skills from leading a complex workforce agency, a perch she’s used to assertively advocate for the rights of union and nonunion workers.

Her supporters say she’s the most qualified candidate, whose governance of the world’s fifth-largest economy would enable her to immediately pivot to the national stage.

“Julie Su is a visionary and effective labor standards enforcer and public leader, and throughout her career has advanced the rights of workers of color inclusive of immigrant workers,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the left-leaning organization National Employment Law Project. “We are glad that she is among the excellent candidates for secretary of labor.”

NELP has deep ties to the Biden transition, including a current employee and consultant serving on the Biden DOL agency review team.

Diversity Questioned

At an AFL-CIO internal meeting last week to discuss recommendations for the transition, the only labor secretary names floated were Boston’s Walsh, a former construction union leader; Levin, a former AFL-CIO organizing official; Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), who hails from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and Obama’s former Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris, sources familiar with the meeting said. All four are White men.

Union leaders supporting Walsh have emphasized the importance of his existing friendship with the president-elect.

Su’s name arose as a possible lower-ranking DOL official, such as deputy secretary, the sources said.

Notably, three of the nation’s largest unions—the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, and the National Education Association—aren’t part of the AFL-CIO and have yet to announce who they’d prefer for labor secretary.

NEA President Becky Pringle said last week that her union was working with the transition team to ensure “there are strong advocates for unions” in the Cabinet.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, who has served with Su on California Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s Future of Work Commission, told Bloomberg News earlier this month that her union expects “to have a lot to say about it in the future.”

A Teamsters spokesman declined to comment.

California Leadership

Some in Washington are just now familiarizing themselves with her work, but the name Julie Su draws instant praise among liberals on the opposite coast.

In 1995—as the Los Angeles murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson played across American television screens—Su, then 26 and a year out of Harvard Law School, was profiled in a Los Angeles Times piece that declared her LA’s “most celebrated, young, non-O.J. lawyer.”

At the time she was lead attorney for 72 enslaved Thai garment workers whom she’d recently helped free. Su eventually obtained a multimillion-dollar settlement from brand name clothiers at the top of the labor supply chain, such as Montgomery Ward and BUM International. Today, historians regard the case as groundbreaking for awakening the public to the existence of modern-day American slavery, holding the manufacturers liable for the conditions of their contractors, and leading to passage of a sweeping federal anti-human trafficking law in 2000.

A 2001 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work as a human rights lawyer, Su was known for building close ties to the low-wage, often Asian and Hispanic workers she represented, taking advantage of her fluency in Spanish and Mandarin. After more than 15 years as an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, she went into government, first as the California labor commissioner, running the state’s equivalent to the federal Wage and Hour Division.

It was there that Su’s strategic enforcement work punishing wage violators earned her acclaim at some of the nation’s leading progressive think tanks.

Pandemic Struggles

Her promotion to labor secretary in January 2019 meant she’d begin overseeing a much larger portfolio, including worker safety and jobless benefits programs that have proven critical when Californians were hard-hit by the spread of Covid-19.

Su’s office has worked to highlight Californians’ rights under A.B. 5, the state’s high-profile 2019 law requiring companies to classify workers as employees, as opposed to independent contractors, if their work is in the “usual course” of their business, a standard congressional Democrats are pushing to take nationwide.

California’s woes in efficiently processing the spike in pandemic-induced jobless benefits claims further exposed Su to scrutiny.

“Having Julie Su at the U.S. Department of Labor will mean millions more on the unemployment line, as independent contractors and freelance workers will have to fight for their survival (AB 5),” California State Senate Republican leader Shannon Grove said in a prepared statement.

California’s business community, which has communicated closely with Su this past year and has criticized the state’s employment test, saluted her “professionalism” in a statement from California Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Allan Zaremberg.

“Julie Su has always been open to the views of employers and is willing to listen to the concerns of the business community,” Zaremberg said.

When it comes to informing Biden’s labor secretary pick, it will be union officials, not business leaders, more likely to have a say. Whether they’ve endorsed her or not, union leaders coordinating with the Biden transition acknowledge Su is a force.

“I think that her name has been out there for awhile, so I think the administration is aware of that,” said Tom Conway, president of the United Steelworkers, who said he’s been in contact with the Biden camp about personnel. “I think it’s in play.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com; Josh Eidelson in Palo Alto, California at jeidelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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