Who’s Afraid of Julie Su?

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Conservatives are not pleased with President Biden’s nominee for secretary of Labor. Earlier this year, he tapped Julie Su, the deputy secretary of Labor, to succeed the outgoing Marty Walsh. During her recent appearance before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Republicans cast her as an unreliable and perhaps even dangerous figure. “I do not think that you should be secretary of Labor,” said Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who added that the nation deserves a Labor secretary “who is fair and unbiased when enforcing the nation’s labor laws, who should be a leader who is responsible, experienced, and skilled, not an activist, with a demonstrated record of competence as an administrator and a demonstrated record of successfully concluding labor negotiations.”

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was hardly more hospitable to Su, criticizing her record as California’s former top Labor official. Eleven percent of the aid distributed by the state’s pandemic-unemployment-insurance program had gone to fraudsters, he said. “Your record there is so severely lacking, I don’t know how in the world it makes sense for the president to nominate you to take over this department,” he told her. Movement conservatives have joined the chorus. Su “isn’t an ordinary nominee,” the National Review wrote, arguing that she’s incompetent, unqualified, and radical. Business groups loathe her too. One coalition launched a campaign called Stand Against Su. Its website brands her “a fiery critic of capitalism” and says Su so despises our political economy that she is “opposed” to the free market itself. It stops just shy of calling her a communist.

Although the right wing would not embrace any Labor secretary candidate Biden puts forward, the campaign against Su is notably pitched. The reaction to Walsh, her erstwhile boss at the Department of Labor, was more muted. It’s worth asking why conservatives consider Su such a threat.

The right’s trouble with Su may begin with her biography. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Su has said her mother arrived in the U.S. on a cargo ship before finding a union job that helped her move the family into the American middle class. “I believe in the transformative power of America, and I know the transformative power of a good job,” she said in March, when Biden announced her nomination. “To all workers who are toiling in the shadows, to workers who are organizing for power and respect in the workplace, know that we see you.” Su’s mother could form the basis of a typical — and conservative-friendly — bootstraps narrative. The raw material is there: Su’s parents later owned a dry-cleaning business and then a franchise pizza restaurant as they climbed the economic ladder. As Su tells her family’s story now, there is a trace of American exceptionalism; this is politics, after all. But she largely forgoes pat answers in favor of a more complex conclusion. Hard work alone did not lift up her family. They got ahead with the help of a union.

Su has routinely sided with workers during her career as a civil-rights attorney and later as a Labor official. As NPR reported at the time of her nomination, she was the lead attorney in a 1995 case “that helped recover more than $4 million in wages stolen from trafficked Thai garment workers in a Los Angeles County sweatshop.” She then led the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement before becoming Labor secretary under Governor Gavin Newsom. Much of the right’s hostility to Su stems from her role enforcing AB 5, a law that makes it more difficult for employers to misclassify workers as independent contractors.

As Vox pointed out when the bill passed, AB 5 meant that millions of workers, including Uber drivers, janitors, and hotel housekeepers, would receive “basic labor rights” such as “overtime pay and unemployment benefits.” Misclassification is a big problem for workers and unions alike. In California alone, a 2017 audit of 8,000 businesses found that “nearly half a million employees had been misclassified or otherwise left off payrolls,” Vox added. That severely restricts the rights a worker can expect on the job. “Most federal and state labor and employment protections are granted to employees only, not independent contractors,” explained the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in 2019.

Business interests have attacked Su over California’s FAST Recovery Act, which as Eater reported would convene a council of workers, corporate and franchise representatives “to ‘establish sector-wide minimum standards on wages, working hours, and other working conditions related to the health, safety, and welfare’ of fast-food workers.” The restaurant lobby fears a minimum-wage hike and increased regulations. Fast-food workers and their advocates point to California’s high cost of living and dire conditions on the job as proof that a higher wage, and stiffer regulations, are overdue. (The bill is currently on hold thanks to the efforts of the International Franchise Association and will be subject to a referendum in 2024.)

Claims that Su allowed fraudsters to bilk California’s pandemic-unemployment-insurance program can look more damning — until they’re scrutinized. Fraud did occur but at lower rates than other states, as Senator Bernie Sanders pointed out during Su’s hearing. “Here is what my colleagues conveniently ignore,” said Sanders, who chairs the HELP committee. “During that same period, the unemployment-insurance-fraud rate was 15.4 percent in Tennessee, 15.3 percent in Arizona, 14.3 percent in South Carolina, and over 14 percent in Massachusetts.” Those states had Republican governors and Republican Labor secretaries, he added.

There’s no evidence Su is an anti-capitalist firebrand. Although her record is worker friendly, it’s relatively mainstream for the modern Democratic Party. To the right, though, the truth doesn’t matter. That she has sided with workers is sin enough to damn her. Su would also be Biden’s first Asian American Cabinet official, and in the eyes of the right, her race and gender count against her nomination. The gap between conservative hyperbole and her actual record recalls attacks on Barack Obama, a centrist whom the right characterized, ludicrously, as a Black radical.

When a conservative like Cassidy says he wants a Labor secretary who is not an “activist,” who has “a demonstrated record of successfully concluding labor negotiations,” he defends power as it is currently composed. He wants to elevate a boss who will crush the American worker. The battle over Su’s nomination is thus part of a broader class war with conservatives and some centrists allied to business. To succeed Walsh, Su must win over Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the newly independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and that won’t be easy. Workers have an ally in Su, but elsewhere, friends are scarce.

Why the Right Fears Julie Su