WASHINGTON ― Julie Su, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Labor Department, faces an uncertain path in the Senate, with unanimous Republican opposition and key Democrats still undecided on her nomination.
Su, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, first made her legal mark advocating for California sweatshop workers in the 1990s. She rose to become California’s top labor official, overseeing workplace safety and policing wage theft in the country’s most populous state — an ideal prologue to running the Labor Department in Washington, her backers say.
Labor unions, worker centers and progressive groups have lined up solidly behind Su’s nomination, saying she would aggressively enforce workplace protections, particularly for the most vulnerable low-wage workers. Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said there’s “no one more dedicated and qualified to defend the fundamental rights of working people” than Su, who became the Labor Department’s second in command in 2021 and now leads the federal body in an acting capacity.
If confirmed, Su would become the first Asian American to serve as a Cabinet secretary under Biden, something that advocates consider long overdue.
But Su’s progressive stance on worker rights and enforcement hasn’t won her many fans among business groups. As California labor chief, Su supported the enactm of AB 5, a state law that makes it harder for employers to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Groups opposed to Su have made AB 5 central to their campaign against her.
In Arizona — where independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist, could play a pivotal role in the labor secretary confirmation — the anti-Su coalition has run advertisements saying, “Su’s gig could be destroying your gig,” according to Reuters.
Groups have also spent heavily in West Virginia, the home of Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who reportedly has serious reservations about Su, as well as in Montana, whose Democratic senator, Jon Tester, has been noncommittal about her nomination.
“I’m very ambivalent,” Tester told reporters Tuesday. “I voted for her before [for deputy labor secretary]. I don’t have a problem with her right now. We’ll see how things go.”
Business groups are currently lobbying those three senators for a specific reason: They’re all up for reelection in 2024, and they’ve all played a role in tanking top Biden nominees this year, including ones tapped to lead the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
Manchin, in particular, has expressed his preference for someone more ideologically aligned with former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who stepped down last month to lead the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
“From what I can see, she lifted all safeguards that would have prevented the fraud from being so widespread, and she did not have a good response to that,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told HuffPost on Wednesday, accusing Su of being “very anti-business.”
But some of Su’s advocates in Congress have suggested that there might be another factor at play: the fact that she is a woman and a member of a minority group. Two Democratic senators — the only Asian Americans currently serving in the upper chamber — said that multiple Biden nominees faced racist and sexist attacks from far-right campaigns before ultimately withdrawing from consideration.
“They have not treated nominees who are women, especially women of color, well, so let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Tuesday when asked about GOP opposition to Su’s nomination.
“Some of the concerns I’ve heard expressed are not factual,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) added. “If you track some of the people who have had to withdrawn their nomination, there seems to be a pattern.”
Senators will get a chance to grill Su on Thursday when she sits for a hearing with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Her performance will be closely watched by swing votes like Manchin, who has turned up the heat on the White House while he weighs a run for reelection next year.
The extended health absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) due to shingles could also complicate Su’s path to confirmation. It’s unclear when Feinstein will return to the upper chamber, leaving Democrats with an even smaller margin to work with.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chair of the Health Committee, called Su “eminently qualified” for the position.
“We need a secretary of labor who is going to fight for working people,” he added. “There is a reason why large corporations are spending millions of dollars trying to defeat her.”