On Tuesday, President Biden announced that he will nominate Julie Su to replace Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh. Walsh has previously stated that he intends to resign in March.
Ms. Su was responsible for overseeing the Department of Labor in an administration that made strong overtures towards organized labor and workers through communication support for striking workers and seeking to join unions, as well as a series of legislative, regulatory and enforcement actions.
These initiatives include a rule making it easier for workers to be considered employees and granting them access the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. There is also legislation that encourages owners of clean energy projects and provides wages comparable to those paid to union members.
These administration successes were made possible by Ms. Su, who won widespread support from the labor unions.
"Julie Su is widely respected by unions. She cares about workers' plight and people appreciate her ability manage the plumbing within D.O.L. Patrick Gaspard, an ex-senior union official who was also an ambassador to South Africa, now heads the Center for American Progress. It is a liberal think tank.
If she is confirmed, Ms. Su would take over the department in a time when labor organizing is gaining popularity. The National Labor Relations Board is responsible for enforcing labor rights. While the labor secretary plays a minimal role in encouraging unionization, it has a much more formal role. To encourage workers to join the union, Mr. Biden turned to his first labor secretary by naming Mr. Walsh to a task team to examine ways to increase membership and include him in a White House meeting of union organizers.
Ms. Su would probably be deployed in a similar way and make the case for legislation that the administration had failed to enact, which could benefit Mr. Biden politically even if it was unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House over the next two years.
Among the tasks she may be assigned to include promoting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (or PRO Act), which would make it easier to organize workers by threatening employers who violate labor law and elevating the importance workers in service professions such as child care.
While Mr. Biden proposed that hundreds of billions of dollars be spent to benefit workers in the health care system, the proposals were not included in the legislation Congress passed during his first two terms. In 2021, the House passed the PRO Act but it was stalled in Congress. It was reintroduced in Congress Tuesday.
Mr. Biden announced that he urged the Senate for Ms. Su to be approved quickly, "so we can finish the work for America's workers." This is a refrain that he seems to have used to support a likely re-election campaign.
If Ms. Su is confirmed, her opportunities to push a new regulatory agenda may be limited. As deputy labor secretary she was responsible for overseeing the department's efforts to push for Covid-19-protective rules. This rule would make it easier for gig economy workers to be classified as employees, rather than contractors. It also would likely increase the wages of workers working on federally funded construction projects. These two rules are not yet final.
Some Republicans expressed concern about her involvement in the development of such regulations. "Deputy Secretary Su has had a troubling track and is currently overseeing Department of Labor's creation of anti-worker regulations which will dismantle gig economy," stated Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana in a statement.
Few high-profile regulations are still in existence. Most prominent is the proposal to increase the threshold below which salaried workers are eligible for overtime pay time-and-a half. The current cutoff for overtime pay is $35,500. The Biden administration will likely propose to raise it significantly, which could be a challenge for the business community.
A federal judge ruled against a rule that was proposed by Obama in 2016 to raise the cutoff to $47,500.
Ms. Su is a Mandarin speaker whose parents were immigrants. She joined the Biden administration in 2021.
While the agency was praised by worker groups for its quickness to set up rules to protect workers from Covid-19 hazards, critics pointed out that it had paid out billions of fraudulent unemployment claims. Ms. Su acknowledged that many of the unemployment insurance payouts made during the pandemic were improper. Republicans used those allegations to oppose her nomination for deputy in 2021, which was approved by the Senate 50 to 47.
Before taking over the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, Ms. Su was California's labor commissioner. She was the state's top enforcer of overtime and minimum wage laws. She was a pioneer regulator and was well-known for reorienting the agency to use worker complaints rather than random inspections of workplaces.
With a public-relations campaign declaring that "Wage theft is a crime," she helped to draw attention and focus on cases where employers had cheated workers on overtime and minimum wage.
She was well-known for her 1990s work for several dozen Thai seamstresses, who were forced to work in a sweatshop in Southern California for far less than the minimum wage. Ms. Su assisted the workers in obtaining compensation from the suppliers of the sweatshop. When the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a grant for "genius", in 2001, it cited her efforts on behalf of workers.