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What awaits Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su on the path to Senate confirmation


You would have thought Beyonce just entered the room at a White House event last week.


CHANG: The actual guest of honor? - Julie Su, President Biden's nominee to be the next U.S. labor secretary. News of her nomination brought an outpouring of support from labor unions and Democratic lawmakers, particularly Asian Americans. But that doesn't mean she'll have an easy time getting Senate confirmation. NPR's Mary Yang has more.

MARY YANG, BYLINE: The 54-year-old mother of two, daughter of Chinese immigrants, stood in front of a room packed with members of Congress, Cabinet officials and union leaders.


JULIE SU: Sixty years ago, my mom came to the United States on a cargo ship because she couldn't afford a passenger ticket. Recently, she got a call from the president of the United States telling her that her daughter was going to be nominated to be U.S. labor secretary.

YANG: Asian American Democrats and other lawmakers have been pushing Biden since he took office to name Julie Su the country's top labor official. But in 2021, he went with former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and named Su his deputy. Now that Walsh is leaving to lead the NHL players' union, those lawmakers could see their first pick through.


SU: I believe in the transformative power of America, and I know the transformative power of a good job.

YANG: If confirmed, she will be the first Asian American member of Biden's Cabinet at the secretary level. Su's supporters say that there's really no better person for the job. The heart of her career has been promoting the rights of immigrant and low-wage workers, many from Asian American and Hispanic communities.

AILEEN LOUIE: Julie just cares a lot about individual people.

YANG: That's Aileen Louie, who worked with Su at what was then called the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Su was fresh out of Harvard Law when she led a landmark case. Her team won more than $4 million of stolen wages for Thai garment workers who had been trafficked by a California sweatshop.

LOUIE: There were, like, these huge meetings, with multiple translators and small groups, where the workers could really engage and try to understand what was happening.

YANG: That case set a big precedent. Not only are sweatshops liable for violating workers' rights, even the fashion labels are on the hook. After that, Su won a MacArthur Genius Grant and continued representing people in vulnerable situations.

Now, she's poised to be the most powerful voice on labor issues in this country. But it's not going to come without a fight. She was narrowly confirmed by the Senate as deputy with just 50 yeses - none from Republicans. The biggest holdup was over unemployment fraud. Su was California's labor secretary during the pandemic, when the state paid out billions in fake unemployment insurance claims.


SUSAN COLLINS: These fraudulent payments are incredible - $21,000 payment to our colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein; $800 million worth of payments that were - went to prison inmates.

YANG: That's Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican. In total, the fraud cost California at least $11.4 billion. Su, for her part, said that the pandemic short-circuited an already failing system.


SU: You know, when the pandemic hit, unemployment insurance funding was at a 50-year low nationwide. Along with technological challenges or a failure to invest in technology, the fraud really created, again, like, a perfect storm of challenges.

YANG: Su's also drawn some fire in the gig economy. She supported a controversial law, again in California, that classifies some contract workers as employees. That increased costs for some companies that had to give more people paid time off and benefits. It's currently tied up in a long legal battle that's still in state courts. The Senate has yet to set a date for Su's confirmation hearing.

Mary Yang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.
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