(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden intends to nominate Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su to lead the department, moving to fill a vacancy at an agency critical to his domestic agenda.
Su would become the first Asian American Cabinet secretary in Biden’s administration. She would replace Marty Walsh, who is the first Biden cabinet department chief to leave. Walsh is expected to become the head of the National Hockey League players’ union.
“Julie is a champion for workers, and she has been a critical partner to Secretary Walsh since the early days of my administration,” Biden said Tuesday in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with Julie to build an economy that works for working people.”
Su, 54, led California’s labor department before joining the Biden administration. The Senate must vote to confirm her, and Biden urged the chamber to “take up this nomination quickly.”
Su is seen as supportive of labor rights, spending nearly two decades as a civil-rights attorney advocating for worker protections before entering state government. As California’s Labor Commissioner earlier in her career, she went after companies for wage theft, and later — as the most populous state’s labor secretary — worked closely with unions and companies on jobs training.
Progressives in the Senate are expected to back Su, as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers and advocacy groups who urged Biden to nominate her.
“I’m confident Julie Su will be an excellent Secretary of Labor. I look forward to working with her to protect workers’ rights and build the trade union movement in this country,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive stalwart who leads the panel that will consider her nomination, said in a statement.
If confirmed, Su would also increase the number of women serving in Biden’s cabinet. She is expected to lead the department on an acting basis until the Senate takes up her nomination.
Some congressional Republicans warned Biden against appointing Su to the role, saying she oversaw “destructive” labor policies while leading California’s labor department. The Senate voted 50-47 along party lines in 2021 to confirm her as deputy labor secretary.
“Deputy Secretary Su has a troubling record and is currently overseeing the Department of Labor’s development of anti-worker regulations that will dismantle the gig economy. This does not inspire confidence in her ability to hold her current position, let alone be promoted,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The White House also defended Su’s record in California, when asked about reports that the state mishandled a flood of unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, red and blue states were dealing with fragile, outdated technology, and under Julie’s leadership, California took important steps to process a historic number of claims — one in five in the entire nation,” said White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton.
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Su is poised to inherit some tough policy problems, including a months-long negotiation over a new contract for workers at West Coast ports. She played a role on the team that intervened in negotiations between freight railroads and unions last year to avert a painful work stoppage.
Other key issues she’s worked on include cracking down on trafficked workers, pushing for an increased minimum wage, and a Labor Department initiative to provide information to workers and employers about improving pay and curbing harassment.
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Su’s nomination also comes as the US labor movement continues to face headwinds, posing a challenge for Biden, who vowed to be the most pro-union president in history.
Union membership fell to a record low in 2022, according to Labor Department data, even as workers organized the most work stoppages since 2005, including at well-known companies like Amazon.com Inc. and Starbucks Corp. Just 10.1% of wage and salary workers last year were union members.
Biden last year also worked with Congress to impose a contract on freight-rail workers that did not include expanded paid leave after a tentative agreement fell apart, angering some progressives and union figures.
--With assistance from Katia Dmitrieva, Erik Wasson and Justin Sink.