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SF Building Trades

Deputy Labor Secretary Fought Slave Labor

Biden's Su fought against trafficking and exposed American slave labor in the 90's

Brian Young's picture
Feb 10, 2021

During the process to select a new Labor Secretary, President Biden was given a plethora of good choices, including former union Presidents, organizers for the AFL-CIO, and people who had run state labor departments. One of these front runners was Julie Su. Although she was not selected to run the Department, Biden has now chosen her to be the deputy Labor Secretary under Marty Walsh.

Su has a long history of advocating for workers. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Su started off her career as the lead attorney helping 72 enslaved Thai garment workers obtain a multimillion-dollar settlement from brand-name clothiers at the top of the labor supply chain. Her work is regarded as groundbreaking in making Americans aware of the labor conditions that their clothing is made under. It also exposed the existence of modern-day slavery in America. This led to a sweeping federal anti-human trafficking law that was passed in 2000. Her 15 years of work as an attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center helped her to build close ties with low-wage workers, often in the Asian and Hispanic communities. Su speaks both Spanish and Mandarin.

Following her work at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Su was named California Labor Commissioner, which runs the state’s equivalent of the federal Wage and Hour Division. As Labor Commissioner, Su’s work on punishing wage violators earned her attention and acclaim. She would then be promoted in January of 2019 to California’s Labor Secretary, the position that she currently holds. In this role, Su was in charge of overseeing worker safety programs and jobless benefit programs. Su was put in the spotlight in 2019 when the state passed AB 5, a high-profile law that required companies to classify workers as employees, not independent contractors. Her office was put in charge of informing millions of gig workers and independent contractors about their rights under the new law.

Following her nomination, the Teamsters put out a statement touting their close working relationship with Su.

“Su has been a friend to the Teamsters in their fight for justice at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Her leadership has led to a crackdown on the misclassification of port truck drivers there, and her work to revamp the California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement has changed the culture and made it work much more efficiently and effectively to uphold workers' rights. When the Teamsters have needed a partner in California, the union and its members have always been able to rely on Julie Su," Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said. "We look forward to her bringing that vision to the nation's capital to help all workers."

Before Walsh was selected to be the next Secretary of Labor, Su's name was being pushed hard by a number of prominent Asian American politicians and groups. Biden’s choice of Su for deputy labor secretary “sends a clear message that experience and compassion have returned to our government,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a prepared statement.

“From her time as a workers’ attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice through her current role as California Labor Secretary, Julie has fought for workers from all different unions and of all different backgrounds,” Chu added. “But she has been particularly involved in serving the under-served, those earning the least and being exploited the most.”

While Su didn’t receive any national union endorsements for Labor Secretary, unions have released statements highlighting the pick and supporting her for Deputy Secretary.

“Julie Su has an impressive record standing up and winning for working people. She understands that economic and racial justice are inextricably linked, and has stood up for immigrant communities that are too often demonized and preyed upon,” Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, said in a statement. “We have worked together on California’s Future of Work Commission, and I can attest to her dedication to improving the lives of working people and the fact that she hears the demands of essential workers to be respected, protected, and paid,” Henry said.

Walsh had his Senate confirmation hearing on February 4th and sailed through it with little trouble. The Senate Labor Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday to vote on advancing the nomination to the full Senate.

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