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Republicans Took Their Shots at Biden’s Labor Nominee. They Missed Every Single One.

Did Julie Su defend herself? Mostly she let Senate Democrats do that for her.

Julie Su
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Julie Su

President Joe Biden’s nominee for labor secretary, Julie Su, who is currently deputy secretary and acting secretary, appeared Thursday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The confirmation hearing clarified a few things about Su’s Republican opponents.

1. Committee Republicans are not much concerned about the Biden administration’s recent much-publicized failure to keep thousands of migrant children from working in slaughterhouses and other dangerous facilities in violation of labor law.

As Hannah Dreier reported on April 17 in The New York Times, the Health and Human Services Department blames these labor violations on the Labor Department, and the Labor Department blames HHS. Republican partisans would, one might think, feast on this scandal when the Labor Department’s deputy secretary comes under consideration for labor secretary.

But except for committee member Mitt Romney of Utah, no Republican mentioned it. The others who raised the subject of child labor were all non-Republicans: Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, Democratic committee member Alex Padilla of California, and Democratic committee member Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Romney wanted to know whether the Labor Department told the White House before this year that child labor violations were up 70 percent since 2018. Su said she didn’t know. Romney didn’t follow up. Nobody else questioned Su on the topic at all. Su brought up a recent enforcement action that the Labor Department took against a slaughterhouse that employed 102 children aged 13 to 17 who worked overnight. Su was too polite to say that the company, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., is owned by Blackstone, the world’s largest private equity firm.

Did Republican senators stay silent on the issue of child labor violations in a spirit of bipartisanship? Of course not. They stayed silent because, at the state level, the GOP is committed to dismantling child labor laws, most recently in Iowa.

2. Republicans think Su is an activist, which she is not.

Ranking committee member Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Republican committee member Tom Tuberville of Alabama both used the a-word. “You have tried to assure critics,” said Tuberville, “that you would wear a different hat and be less of an activist, but I find that very hard to believe.” I find that hard to believe too, but not for the same reason Tuberville does. I just can’t picture Su describing herself as an activist. Su spent the past dozen years working as a government official, first in California as labor commissioner and secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and then in Washington as deputy secretary at the Labor Department. Call her a paper-pusher if you like; she is not a rabble-rouser.

Late in the hearing, Republican Mike Braun of Indiana spiced things up by revealing that Su was at one time a student activist who participated in sit-ins as a Stanford undergraduate and as a law student at Harvard. Asked about this, Su said, “There are many ways to make change. There are many ways to make the world a better place. And I have been somebody who sits down at the table and is willing to talk to anyone … to find common ground.” That doesn’t sound very up-against-the-wall-motherfucker to me.

3. Republicans think that as labor secretary, Su would be biased against business.

Romney wanted to know “how we can have any confidence that you’d be seen as an unbiased, neutral arbiter.” Tuberville and Republican committee member Markwayne Mullen of Alabama also accused her of being biased in favor of labor.

Su replied blandly to Romney that “business leaders and associations who’ve worked with me would paint a different story about both my openness and my desire” to talk to them. Romney shot back that she hadn’t met with any business associations until six weeks ago. Su replied (again, blandly) that she is “communicative, transparent,” and recognizes significant common ground between business and labor.

It fell to Democratic committee member Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to point out that it’s never been the Labor Department’s job to balance the interests of labor against those of business. Reciting the department’s mission statement, which predates the current Democratic administration, Casey said the Labor Department’s mission is

to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.

“It is not the Department of Corporations,” Casey said. “It is not the Department of Employers and Employees.… It is the Department of Labor!” It’s a sad comment on our politics that had Su made this factual point herself, she would have doomed her nomination.

4. Republicans think Su wants to destroy the franchise model.

Exhibit A was a Su statement Braun read from a 2014 panel sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit. The quote itself is long and boring, and I can’t confirm that Braun got it right. But the gist was that new enforcement tools were needed to address what has been called “the fissured workplace,” wherein large businesses have come to be separated from frontline employees through subcontracts and franchise arrangements. This is an entirely uncontroversial statement if you’re at all concerned about eroding enforcement of wage and hour laws in place since the 1930s.

Su had a ready answer to the accusation that she wants to kill franchising, one that she was called on to repeat throughout the hearing. Her own father owned a franchise pizza business. “For years,” Su said in her opening statement, “my dad would work his day job and then head right to the pizza shop, returning home after 10 p.m., often with leftover pizza for our school lunches the next day. I know small-business owners are the engines of our economy, because I watched it every day.”

The Trump administration promulgated a regulation that defined as narrowly as possible the legal concept of “joint employment,” which the Biden administration rescinded. Asked whether the Labor Department planned to craft a new regulation defining joint employment, Su said, “There is not a joint-employer rule on our regulatory agenda. It was not on our agenda that came out last year, and it will not be on our agenda that comes out in June.” The agenda in question comes out twice a year; Su pointedly did not say whether a joint-employer rule will be on the regulatory agenda due out in October, and no Republican senator asked her, because these guys don’t actually know very much about how regulation works.

5. Republicans think Su wants to impose California’s ABC test, which strictly limits the circumstances where businesses can treat workers as independent contractors rather than employees, on the nation as a whole.

This came up more times than I can count. Su stated, over and over, that the Labor Department is on record saying that it can’t impose California’s ABC test, which Su oversaw as labor commissioner there, without an act of Congress. No, she said, she does not want to impose the ABC test. That was perhaps a little white lie, but given that Su won’t likely see Congress California-ize federal labor laws, we can let it pass.

In summary, Su did not say anything memorable. She was polite to a fault, even when insulted. At one point, Mitt Romney accused Su of being an illustration of the Peter principle, wherein managers get promoted to their level of incompetence. It was a condescending white male shithead thing to say, and I would have liked Su to reply that she doesn’t even have a peter. But she ignored Romney’s insult, which was probably the right move.