Biden Labor Department nominee Su fends off Republican attacks
Sign the petition to demand Su's confirmation. See the link in the story. | AFL-CIO/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Fending off Senate Republican attacks, notably over jobless insurance payment fraud when she was California’s Labor Commissioner, U.S. Labor Department Under Secretary Julie Su appeared on her way to Senate Labor Committee approval as DOL Secretary.

But her fate beyond the scheduled April 26 confirmation vote on the Democratic-controlled committee is uncertain, for factors beyond her control, and went unmentioned in the two hours she spent in the panel’s witness chair on April 20. All 11 panel Democrats, led by Labor Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., expect to support her. Almost all the 10 Republicans plan to vote “no.”

“The debate over Ms. Su really has nothing to do with her qualifications,” Sanders, a strong Su supporter and workers’ longtime Senate champion, said to open the hearing. “This debate, really, has everything to do with the fact that Julie Su is a champion of the working class of this country who will stand up against the forces of corporate greed.”

But one extremely ill Senate Democrat (Dianne Feinstein) and two waverers (West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema) imperil Su’s nomination, assuming all 49 Republicans, out of 100 senators total, will vote “no.” Corporate lobbies are running multimillion-dollar anti-Su TV ad campaigns in Arizona and West Virginia.

Unions, led by the AFL-CIO, strongly back Su. The federation mounted an online petition drive for her, too.

“Julie Su’s testimony reinforced what the labor movement has always known: Su has the necessary experience, values, and leadership qualities to be our Secretary of Labor,” federation President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “Her record of standing up for working people and marginalized communities is stellar and unimpeachable. She is the right person for the job. We call on the U.S. Senate to swiftly vote to confirm Julie Su.”

“Julie Su has made a career out of representing not only workers but the most vulnerable workers in America,” the petition, at declares.

“Her record speaks for itself. As a young attorney representing trafficked Thai garment workers outside of Los Angeles, she won $4 million in stolen wages. Her case set a huge precedent, and that was just the beginning of a storied career.

“The problem? Well-heeled lobbyists and corporate special interests are spending big to block Su’s confirmation…Simply put, we can’t let that happen.

What workers deserve

“Workers deserve a Labor Secretary who will fiercely defend us.”

Su spent her time smilingly defending her record as California Labor Commissioner and turning away mean-spirited Republican attacks.

The main attack, from Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was against the alleged $31 billion in “fraud” in California’s unemployment insurance payments while she was state Labor Commissioner. That was 11% of the total jobless aid the state paid out during her tenure.

Su explained 95% of the “fraud” was in a special Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program Congress approved. Its aim, she noted, was to shovel out jobless benefit checks, fast and often, during the coronavirus-caused depression to workers—gig workers, independent contractors, musicians, and others—who don’t qualify for regular jobless benefits.

When Congress OKd that program, including 96-0 in the Senate, it set no guardrails. As a result, people seeking aid didn’t have to prove they had worked for any number of weeks beforehand or meet other standards. That opened the door to fraud. As soon as her Inspector General alerted Su to the extent of the fraud, she slammed that particular door, she testified, by requiring proof of prior employment. Doing so prevented $60 billion more in fraud, she said.

Her answer let Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., note “fraud” percentages in “red” states were higher: 27% in Kansas, 15% in Tennessee, and 14% each in Alabama and South Carolina. Right-wing Republicans from those four states are part of the Labor panel’s ten-person GOP bloc.

Other attack lines against Su included:

  • Her support of AB5, a California law reining in firms’ misclassification of workers as “independent contractors,” who can’t unionize, draw jobless benefits or workers comp and who must pay both the employer’s and the worker’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. Voters overturned AB5 after a $200 million campaign led by Uber and Lyft who claimed it would hurt their gig economy drivers. Su said that as Labor Secretary, she would not use the independent contractor “ABC test” AB5 imposed. Only Congress could do so, she said.
  • Whether Su would revive a Labor Department rule, outlawed by a Republican East Texas federal judge in an instance of “judge shopping,” to hold joint employers—think local McDonald’s franchises and corporate headquarters—jointly responsible for obeying or breaking labor laws. Her answer was “No.” The judge’s ruling reinstated the Trump-era joint employer rule Biden’s DOL overturned. That rule leaves workers bouncing from pillar to post.
  • Su’s alleged lack of experience in bargaining. She replied she was constantly involved with her predecessor as Labor Secretary, Marty Walsh, in brokering a proposed settlement of last year’s acrimonious bargaining over a new national freight rail contract.

Sen. Tina Smith, DFL-Minn., said the head of the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach wrote of Su that “she’s been on the phone day and night with us” in its talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union over a new contract. Smith, looking at her phone, said it’s settled.

  • Her support for unions, as a labor lawyer, and for raising the minimum wage. She didn’t back down from either. Su’s answers prompted Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., to remind the Republicans that DOL is responsible for protecting the interests of all workers. It’s not, he said, “The department of employers and employees.”
  • Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., nastily demanded a series of “yes” or “no” answers about if Su ever ran a business and handled its aspects, including his characterization of fending off a flood of federal rules. After he kept cutting her off, Su settled for one-word replies. Most were “no.” Even before making his demands, Mullin vehemently said he’ll oppose her.

Access the link to the petition HERE.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.