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National Groups Crank Up Support for Su as Biden Labor Secretary

Dec. 4, 2020, 4:55 PM

A broadening coalition of progressive organizations—including advocates for immigrants, Asian Americans, and workers’ rights—is mounting a lobbying blitz to persuade President-elect Joe Biden to pick California’s top labor official, Julie Su, for U.S. labor secretary.

While Su’s stature within the president-elect’s inner circle remains a tightly-guarded secret, the elevated external pressure on Biden to select her for his Cabinet is intensifying the jockeying for a critical post responsible for protecting workers during the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

A series of developments this week demonstrates how advocates on both sides of the aisle are zeroing in on Su as a serious candidate to lead the U.S. Labor Department:

  • one of the foremost immigrant rights’ nonprofits, the National Immigration Law Center, is circulating a Su endorsement letter, and at least 27 mostly national groups have already signed on, a spokesman for NILC said Thursday night;
  • a super PAC for Asian American and Pacific Islander voters is aggressively phoning national union leaders and the Biden transition team, urging them to consider Su, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, as a diverse and qualified choice;
  • a California business association placed a full-page ad in Friday’s Washington edition of The Wall Street Journal attacking Su’s candidacy by citing her leadership of an agency that’s failed to prevent fraudulent unemployment benefits paid to prisoners.

In the letter the NILC plans to send to the president-elect later Friday, the group and its allies describe Su as “a visionary and innovative leader who will be able to maximize the impact the Labor Department can have in addressing economic inequality and racial injustice.”

Prominent national organizations coalescing behind Su, including the National Partnership for Women & Families, United Farm Workers of America, and One Fair Wage, comes after several major U.S. labor unions announced support for either Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former construction union leader, or Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former organizing official at the AFL-CIO.

‘A Different Moment’

Su’s growing list of supporters is driven by a combination of her reputation as an ardent fighter for workers’ rights, dating back to her time as a public-interest attorney; efforts to ensure Biden makes good on his pledge to select a diverse Cabinet; and a recognition that Su is not actively promoting her own name, creating an urgency for backers to place her on Biden’s radar.

As of Thursday night, Su had not been contacted by the president-elect or senior members of his team, a source close to her said.

“Marty Walsh or Andy Levin would, I’m sure, make great labor secretaries. They’re more the traditional types of labor leaders that you would normally expect. We’re in a different moment in this country right now,” NILC Executive Director Marielena Hincapié said in an interview. After a multiracial coalition helped push Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to victory, “the two of them have really talked about having a Cabinet that represents America.”

While Walsh and Levin are both White men, Su “has a proven record and represents that mirror image of America,” Hincapié added.

Su became secretary of California’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency in January 2019, overseeing a vast bureaucracy with oversight of unemployment insurance, worker safety, and wage enforcement. She was appointed in 2011 as California labor commissioner, running the state’s equivalent of the federal Wage and Hour Division. The worker rights’ community has praised her for devising innovative enforcement tactics to punish employers for violating the law.

Attack Ad

Su’s rising status has prompted a business-community attempt to derail efforts to promote her.

The ad in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which was placed by the California Business and Industrial Alliance, or CABIA, contends that “Californians need Julie Su focused on fixing the state’s broken bureaucracy, rather than looking for her next job as Biden’s Labor Secretary.”

CABIA formed in 2017 to mount opposition to California’s Private Attorneys General Act, which authorizes an employee to sue their employer for labor violations on behalf of the state, and to collect civil penalties. But the ad is focused more on California’s unemployment system administered by Su’s department.

A law enforcement task force recently found evidence of fraudulent claimants preying on the state’s UI system, with tens of thousands of claims paid to incarcerated Californians.

“This is what she’s in charge of and anybody else would’ve been fired ten times over, so why should she be put in a position where she could do exactly what she’s doing in California to the United States?” CABIA founder Tom Manzo said in an interview.

Other members of the business community are coordinating an op-ed further criticizing Su’s leadership, Manzo added.

A spokeswoman for Su at the California labor agency declined to comment about the ad.

But other California business leaders have expressed appreciation for Su’s willingness to listen to the business community and for targeting bad actors who tilt the playing field against law-abiding employers.

AAPI Backing

The super PAC AAPI Victory Fund has been actively working this week to galvanize support for Su among national union leaders, members of Congress, and the Biden transition team, said the group’s founder and chairman, Shekar Narasimhan.

Narasimhan said the response to his pitch from Biden senior advisers was “very cagey but not negative.” He added that he was able to secure commitments from some union leaders that they would do their own research and consider telling Biden they’d embrace her as labor secretary, if he asked for their advice.

“It became our job to say, ‘She is willing to do this, she wants to do this, please recognize her, give her a call, call your affiliate in California, ask about her,’” he added. “We feel like at least in a couple of cases we made headway to get her that attention and that traction, which I believe is one of the reasons why her name is in serious contention right now.”

Su has already been championed by California union leaders, but they are subordinates to national officers who are traditionally more engaged with a presidential transition on personnel selections.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus will have a chance to put in an additional plug for Su during a meeting scheduled for Monday with Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain and other members of his senior transition team.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Ca.), who chairs the caucus and has already endorsed Su for labor secretary, said in an email: “I’m of course encouraged by her consideration, but I’m more encouraged by the deep experience and support I know Julie Su has in the labor community. I’m not shy about speaking up about her years of work in my state of California.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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