Senate panel advances Biden Labor nominee Julie Su

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su on Wednesday, setting up an uncertain floor vote.

Su, the former California labor secretary who served as Biden’s deputy Labor secretary since 2021, sailed through the committee on a party-line vote.

Things won’t be as easy in the full Senate, where Su is still trying to win undecided Democratic holdouts, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), along with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine), who often vote with Democrats.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee’s chairman, praised Su’s support for union organizing and strong worker protections. He said that Su has “made it clear she’s prepared to stand up for working families.”

Business groups are running ads pressuring the senators to reject Su’s nomination, while labor unions are responding with a pro-Su campaign.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the committee’s ranking member, said that Su failed to respond to senators’ questions following last week’s confirmation hearing. He criticized Su’s support for a California law aimed at overhauling the gig economy.

“The economy of 2023 is the economy that they’re attempting to limit,” Cassidy said.

Lobbying battle underway

Business groups are running ads in key senators’ home states taking aim at Su’s record in California. They point to pandemic-era unemployment fraud under her watch and Su’s support for California bills that drew opposition from big business.

Su was confirmed as deputy Labor secretary in 2021 with no Republican votes, receiving the support of all Senate Democrats, including the current holdouts.

Most of the unsure Democrats are up for reelection in 2024. Manchin and Tester are increasingly voting with Republicans as they prepare for difficult elections in red states. Tester has already announced his reelection bid, while Manchin is yet to formally announce his plans for 2024.

Franchisers are currently fighting to block California’s FAST Act, a bill to bolster wages and working conditions for fast food workers, while gig companies pushed back on the state’s Assembly Bill 5 law to reclassify many independent contractors as employees who are owed benefits.

“Don’t let Julie Su turn Arizona into California,” reads an ad from a business coalition dubbed Stand Against Su.

The powerful International Franchise Association is warning that Su might aggressively crack down on the franchise model as Labor secretary. Some of the largest West Virginia and Arizona business groups are also urging their senators to vote no.

“Today’s party-line vote is another reminder that Julie Su is no Marty Walsh, who advanced in a bipartisan 18-4 vote only two years ago,” said Michael Layman, a top lobbyist at the International Franchise Association, in a statement following Wednesday’s vote.

The AFL-CIO is fighting back, running ads in Arizona and D.C. backing Su’s efforts to counter wage theft in California. The ads tell viewers that workers are “tired of getting ripped off by big corporations.” The labor federation is also mobilizing its members to lobby senators.

“We’re going to defend Julie against these baseless corporate special interests attacks,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told reporters last week. “Every senator, especially those that haven’t yet said that they’ll vote yes, needs to be aware of how much this confirmation means to working people’s lives.”

Su responded to business concerns during her confirmation hearing last week, stating that she wouldn’t implement the strict “ABC” test to determine whether an individual is a contractor. California is one of a few states that use the test, which makes an employee classification more likely.

Su referenced her working relationship with former Labor Secretary Walsh, who was confirmed with bipartisan support and endorsed Su as his replacement.

Senators debate Su’s qualifications

Cassidy argued Wednesday that Su could find ways to enact stricter contractor classification rules without using the ABC test. He added that Su was “unable to provide a single instance in which she handled a successful negotiation,” noting that 150 labor contracts are set to expire this year.

Republicans don’t have the votes to defeat Su alone, so they’re putting pressure on the undecided Democrats to vote no.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) criticized Su’s nomination by pointing to corporate opposition and a relatively small number of meetings with business groups on her public calendar.

Sanders noted that Su was endorsed by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, one of the few business groups to back her nomination.

Democrats argued that Su’s lack of support from business interests isn’t relevant to the Labor Department’s mission statement of protecting workers’ rights.

“It’s the Department of Labor, not the Department of Labor and Corporations,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said. “It’s there for workers.”

Updated at 11:05 a.m.

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