WASHINGTON — Republican senators grilled secretary nominee Julie Su on her union sympathies during her confirmation hearing Thursday, questioning her willingness to keep employer interests in mind.
President Joe Biden nominated Su to the role in February, highlighting her work fighting wage theft and engaging with unions — something U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also highlighted as a strength during the hearing. Biden had also highlighted her tenure as California’s State Secretary of Labor — during which she raised the state’s minimum wage and sought to improve her state’s workplace safety standards — as accolades that made her fit for the new role.
As deputy to Marty Walsh — now the head of the NHL Players’ Association — Su worked on a 20-hour-long marathon negotiation with railroad workers in September 2022 to prevent a strike.
Still, Republican members of the HELP Committee appeared unconvinced that Su has business owners’ interests top of mind and sought to sear her accordingly.
Su paired her professional chops with personal anecdotes
Su at least appeared open to bipartisan problem-solving and, at best, she offered her lived experience as additional qualifications for the DOL secretary role.
“As Deputy Secretary of Labor, I have worked hand in hand with Secretary Marty Walsh to deliver on the president’s promise of an economy built from the bottom up and the middle up. And the results speak for themselves,” Su told the packed room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “The U.S. economy has added a record 4.6 million jobs. The lowest unemployment rate has been less than 4% for more than a year, which is close to the lowest it’s been in 50 years — all while labor force participation by prime-age workers has returned to pre-pandemic levels.”
Striking a more personal tone, Su spoke to her immigrant background and her strong belief in fair labor practices as influenced by that. “When he announced my nomination for Secretary of Labor, the President called me ‘the American Dream.’ My parents believed in it. I benefited from it. And I want to do my part to make sure it is a reality for workers across the nation,” she said, explaining that her parents worked minimum wage jobs throughout her childhood.
But Republicans harped on receipts
Republican senators have continually held Su’s feet to the fire. Lawmakers lamented Su’s pro-union background on social media; from their point of view, Su’s support of AB5 has led to widespread gig worker misclassification in her home state. (California courts have upheld that Lyft and Uber drivers are independent contractors.) Republican senators have kept the pressure on Su since before Biden’s February nomination.
In the 2021 vote to confirm Su as Deputy Secretary of Labor, no Republican said “yea” to Su’s appointment.
Fast forward to Thursday’s hearing: HELP Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., needled Su on two points: her union sympathies, which he correlated with employer apathy, and the rise of unemployment insurance fraud in California throughout the pandemic.
Counterarguments came from Sanders, along with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Democratic senators pointed out that unemployment insurance fraud was high across the board throughout the pandemic.
Per the U.S. government’s Pandemic Oversight map, the government paid an estimated $18.7 billion to California fraudsters in pandemic unemployment insurance since March 2020. Texas, the state with the second-highest population, experienced an estimated $2.5 billion in fraud, by comparison.
Still, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was adamant that the fraud in California made Su unfit for the job.
Romney also claimed that Su has had standing appointments with unions since 2021, and only began to meet with business associations weeks before Thursday’s hearing. His concern is that Su isn’t familiar enough with business owners, he said, and therefore, employers’ interests.
Su, however, said her upbringing imbued her with that understanding. “When I was growing up, my family also saw an opportunity there, in the middle class, in the form of small business. They owned a dry cleaning and laundry business, and then franchised a pizza restaurant,” Su told the Congressional audience. “I know small business owners are the engines of our economy.”
Su touts a level-headed approach
Su sought to emphasize that her friendliness toward unions does not negate her commitment to supporting employers and human resources professionals.
During Walsh’s tenure, DOL expanded its compliance assistance for employers and employees with respect to employment of minors, she said. Su also said she has helped employers make accommodations for workers with disabilities, and that the DOL has aided employers in adopting workplace health and safety programs — “including how to find and fix hazards,” she said, “to keep workers safe on the job.”
Only time will tell whether Su — who would be the first Asian American person in Biden’s cabinet — can garner enough votes to clear the Senate. Various media reports indicate a few Democrats could split from the party line, putting her confirmation in jeopardy.
Still, Su worked to present a level-headed approach and reassure lawmakers. “President Biden asked me to finish the job that Secretary Walsh and I started. If confirmed as Secretary of Labor,” she said. “I would work to preserve and expand the American Dream for all Americans.