Julie Su, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Labor, was just 26 and two years out of Harvard Law School when she took on the defining case of her career that led to profound immigration and labor reforms.
In 1995, as a staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Su led a team of lawyers to secure legal immigration status and $4m in stolen wages for 72 enslaved Thai nationals in a garment sweatshop in El Monte, California. The case eventually led to federal protections for victims of human trafficking. Su, a Wisconsin-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, later earned a MacArthur genius award for her representation of the garment workers.
“She’s a creative, rigorous, incredibly committed public servant,“ said Ai-Jen Poo, a labor activist and the president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Growing up in an immigrant household and working as a civil rights lawyer gives her a unique perspective on both the incredible opportunities and the inequities that exist in this country.”
Su, now the deputy labor secretary, was nominated to lead the labor department in February, to replace outgoing Marty Walsh. She’s facing an uphill battle to confirmation, though, with business lobbying groups and prominent Republicans campaigning against her. That was on display in the first confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee, where Republicans criticized her record as California’s labor secretary and a handful of moderate Democrats remained noncommittal about voting her through. (The Senate narrowly confirmed Su as deputy secretary in 2021 by three-vote margin, along party lines.)
Labor advocates say Su’s political career has been shaped by the enduring legacy of the El Monte sweatshop case – a grassroots campaign that “turned my life upside down and changed me forever”, Su has written.
If confirmed, the veteran civil rights attorney and California’s former top labor official – who’s endorsed by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and more than a dozen Asian American advocacy groups – would be the first Asian American cabinet secretary to serve under Biden.
After federal and state authorities freed the Thai garment workers in a pre-dawn raid, they were immediately sent to an immigration detention center and forced into orange prison uniforms. Su and her team secured their release after a week.
The workers, most of whom were women and undocumented, had been locked up in a factory surrounded by barbed wire, forced to toil from dawn to midnight for less than $1 an hour – some for as long as seven years.
The case pushed Congress to pass a landmark anti-trafficking law in 2000, which established a federal taskforce on human trafficking and created a new visa category for victims of crimes who assist law enforcement.
“The combination of having been a non-profit attorney representing workers of color in civil rights litigation, then moving into government, is unique among people in higher ranks of government,” said Julia Figueira-McDonough, an attorney who has worked for Su for more than a decade at both Advancing Justice and the California labor commissioner’s office. “She has a level of empathy and compassion that comes from her personal experience.”
Over the past three decades, as California’s labor commissioner and labor secretary, Su has spearheaded programs to educate and protect garment workers who still toil in sweatshop conditions.
Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, worked closely with Su while she was the California labor commissioner from 2011 to 2018. She said Su was particularly skilled at bringing together diverse stakeholders, including community organizers, business owners and elected officials, to address issues affecting domestic workers. In 2014, Su launched a sweeping “Wage Theft Is a Crime” campaign to inform low-wage workers of their rights and how to report labor law abuses.
The El Monte case played a pivotal role in Su’s career, but it also won her detractors. Some community organizers said Su, and the media, greatly exaggerated her involvement in the seminal 1995 anti-sweatshop movement that catapulted her to fame.
“Julie and the Legal Center completely hijacked the case from the Thai community and turned the spotlight on themselves,” said Chanchanit Martorell, founder and executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, one of the social services groups that helped liberate, resettle and obtain redress for the garment workers.
In a 2020 letter to Biden opposing Su’s nomination for deputy secretary, Martorell noted that, in contrast with Su’s stated position as “lead attorney”, she played only a “minor role” winning the multimillion-dollar settlement against the clothing manufacturers, nor was she responsible for securing the garment workers’ release from immigration detention. More experienced lawyers bore the brunt of the legal work, including filing briefs, Martorell said, and social services groups attended to the survivors’ housing and basic daily needs.
“For the Thai community that stands for social justice,” she said, “we really consider her exploiting the case for her own self-aggrandization as a betrayal.”
Stewart Kwoh, then the executive director at the Legal Center (now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California), said that Su and her team put in thousands of hours preparing garment workers for their depositions. He said that Su learned to speak some Thai and kept in touch with the workers long after the case settled. At the same time, he said, the settlement was the result of a multiyear, grassroots effort involving many LA-based lawyers and organizers whose roles were diminished in the news coverage.
“In my view, it was a collective victory, but we don’t control the media,” said Kwoh, who worked with Su at Advancing Justice for 17 years. “There were a lot of people who contributed to it, and they should all take credit for the work done.”
As the California labor secretary, a post she held from 2019 to 2021, Su expanded apprenticeship programs that trained workers without college degrees and initiatives to curtail wage theft. But she also faced fierce criticism from Republicans for the $30bn in unemployment fraud the state lost during the pandemic, and from business groups for helping craft AB5, a law that required companies to classify some independent contractors as employees.
Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center who has known Su since the mid-1990s, said the heat she had received for the unemployment fraud scandal is unfair, since it was a result of an overwhelmed, outdated system ill-equipped to handle an avalanche of demands for cash assistance.
“It was a problem in the making for decades,” he said. “To hold the last person in charge responsible is wrong.”
Meanwhile, Wong said, her stance on policies like AB5 is precisely what makes her such a qualified candidate for labor secretary.
“We’ve seen unbridled corporate greed during the pandemic, epitomized by the Silicon Valley Bank scandal,” he said. “To have someone who’s dedicated her life to supporting a living wage and the end of exploitation is a huge breakthrough.”
The committee is expected to vote this week on whether to advance Su’s confirmation to a full vote in the Senate.
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