What a Landmark Sweatshop Case Tells Us About Julie Su’s Approach to Labor

In 1995, dozens of garment workers, most of them women, were freed from a California sweatshop. Their lawyer was Julie Su—now Biden’s nominee to head the Labor Department.

Julie Su (at podium), flanked by Thai workers, other lawyers and workers’ rights advocates. On behalf of 62 Thai immigrants, Su filed a federal lawsuit against “garment contractors” alleging charges of involuntary servitude, false imprisonment, racketeering, fraud, assault and civil rights and labor law violations. (Dan Groshong / AFP via Getty Images)

This article was originally published by The 19th.

Nantha Jaknang’s shift started at 7 a.m. and ended at 1 a.m. She earned 2 to 4 cents for each pocket she sewed onto a garment. Every window that surrounded her was boarded up to keep her and 71 other Thai immigrants—most of them women—inside and working. 

Some of the workers had been working inside that El Monte, Calif., sweatshop for years when they were freed by federal agents in August 1995. Their captors were arrested, the sweatshop shut down, but the workers’ future seemed in limbo: Most of them, including Jaknang, spoke little English, didn’t have a job and were far from family. 

Federal prosecutors quickly sought convictions for indentured servitude and other crimes, but justice and remedy for what Jaknang endured would come years later. That happened with the help of a young lawyer who took the lead of a landmark case against the clothing companies that benefited from the workers’ labor. She secured millions in back wages, advocated for a visa that allowed Jaknang and others to remain in the United States and helped her find a fair job.

That lawyer, Julie Su, was nominated last month to head the U.S. Labor Department, tasked with enforcing laws involving workers, workplaces and labor unions. Jaknang, 64, described Su as a “kind and hard-working woman” who empowered her to fight for justice at a vulnerable time. This early episode in Su’s career, supporters say, illustrates something important about Su: that the daughter of Chinese immigrants has cultivated a passion for advocating for the nation’s most vulnerable workers, including those who are low-wage, who are immigrants and whose English is limited. 

Su’s path to confirmation won’t be smooth, as she faces objections by major business groups who say her career shows hostility toward small businesses. Supporters of Su’s nomination, including major labor, women and immigrant advocacy groups, say America’s most vulnerable workers also stand to benefit from her confirmation, along with businesses who take the high road. 

“For so long we’ve had folks [leading the department] that are either anti-worker or for whom workers’ rights, especially marginalized workers’ rights, is not their primary issue,” said Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for restaurant workers. “It’s time for workers, communities of color, women, to have representation—and I don’t just mean representation of her identity, I mean, representation of what she’s dedicated her life to and what she fights for.”

Su’s nomination was also widely celebrated among Democratic Asian American leaders in Congress and elsewhere, who had proffered Su’s name for the role at the start of the Biden administration, and who have decried that the president’s Cabinet doesn’t include any secretaries who are Asian American or Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Su is currently the acting secretary and if confirmed would replace former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who left the post last month to lead the NHL Players’ Association, a labor union that represents men hockey players. 

“There are a lot of AAPI deputy directors and senior folks within the different agencies, but never one at that level, who comes from the immigrant community,” said Luisa Blue, a longtime labor organizer and the vice chair of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a progressive group that works to build political power among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. “There is a real sense of pride that somebody that looks like me could possibly be a top official in the administration.”

During a ceremony in which Biden announced her nomination, Su marked the moment by nodding to her mom, who “came to the United States on a cargo ship” from China because she couldn’t afford a passenger seat. Su has said her parents’ experience inspired her work advocating for vulnerable workers.

“As the daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to this country with limited English skills, I have seen from my family’s experience just how challenging it can be to start over in a new country, and that immigrant workers’ essential contributions to our economy are often undervalued,” Su wrote in a 2021 essay about the El Monte case. 

Aileen Louie, the chief of staff at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, said she remembers Su arriving at the organization for a fellowship, fresh out of law school. Su, who grew up in Los Angeles and went to Stanford University, told her that she didn’t quite fit in among her peers at Harvard Law School heading off to corporate law. She  wanted to do legal work that directly served her Asian-American community in California.

When a call came in about a raid involving Thai garment workers at an apartment complex in El Monte, California, Su was quickly on the case. For Jaknang and the dozens of other workers found in an apartment complex sewing garments in sweatshop conditions, the road ahead was a complicated one: Most had limited English proficiency and few sources of support in the United States. They  faced deportation. Some had been in captivity for as long as seven years.

Su, along with a team from a local community group, the Thai Community Development Center, helped negotiate the release of the workers from detention by the U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service and helped them find housing and jobs. 

It was the civil case that followed that cemented Su’s name in the world of labor law and that secured justice and financial compensation for the workers. Su successfully pushed back on retailers and manufacturers who placed the blame for sweatshop conditions on subcontractors.

Louie said that an important part of the process that followed was Su’s commitment to empowering the Thai garment workers to lead decisions about the civil lawsuit, and to work closely with community groups to drive the case forward. The case also included about a dozen Latina workers found at a different site run by the same captors. (Su is fluent in both Mandarin and Spanish.)

“I remember at our offices, for Julie and the team, it was really important that the case be focused and driven by the workers themselves. They would lay out options about what could be done, and lay out the pros and cons, but they really wanted the decision-making around how far to take the case to be informed and directed by the workers themselves,” Louie said. 

“We would have these large meetings in the office, and it was like the United Nations — several translators working in smaller groups to be able to explain what was happening to both the Thai workers as well as the Latina workers, and then translating back to the attorneys and advocates what the different workers were thinking.”  

The case resulted in a $4 million settlement that included back wages. The case was hailed as groundbreaking and prompted legal reforms in California that held retailers responsible for minimum wage requirements along the chain of garment production.

“That case was then followed up with a lot of legislative advocacy to create stronger labor laws to help to change that whole industry,” Louie said. 

Through an interpreter, Jaknang said she feels Su secured her justice. She said that with the help of Su and a Thai community advocate, she found a sewing job where she stayed for 11 years. She became a U.S. citizen and eventually was able to help her daughter immigrate to the United States to join her. She now lives with her daughter in a small home that she owns in Los Angeles.

“Julie works hard and lost sleep at night to help us. She helps support people who have no way to fight back against their employers and anyone who is bullied by others,” Jaknang said. 

Jaknang said she hears from Su every August. Sometimes Su joins her and the other workers for a cookout marking the anniversary of their freedom. Jaknang said she’s watched Su’s rise in government throughout the years, and strongly supports her confirmation as labor secretary. Laughing, Jaknang recalled facing Su and asking, “Why do you have to work so hard?” Jaknang said that from Washington, D.C., Su can help “a bigger group of people.”

Su, 54, has served as the second-highest-ranking official in the Labor Department since 2021, when the Senate narrowly confirmed her to the post on a vote of 50 to 47, with no Republican support. Su’s confirmation hearing for the top job is planned for April 20. Two moderate Democrats and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the independent from Arizona, would not say whether they will support Su, Politico reported. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he was undecided; Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said he only supported Su’s first confirmation out of confidence in her predecessor, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Su is likely to face sharp questions about her time as the top official at California’s labor and workforce development agency under Gov. Gavin Newsom. In that role, Su pushed for aggressive enforcement of the state’s minimum wage and overtime pay laws on the state’s restaurant and manufacturing sector, and also enforced a new state law that makes it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors who are not entitled to workplace benefits. The proposed regulations are not popular with business groups.

Su has also been widely criticized for an estimated $30 billion in unemployment benefits paid as the result of fraudulent claims during the pandemic, when California and nearly every other state faced an avalanche of jobless claims and pressure to pay out claimants. 

“There is no sugarcoating the reality,” Su said during a news conference in early 2021. “California did not have enough security measures in place.”

The California Business and Industrial Alliance, a trade group representing business interests, featured the fraudulent payouts in a 30-second ad opposing Su’s nomination that aired in the Washington area last month.

Jayaraman, who worked with Su in California, said she saw an agency head who understood the politics of labor and the economy, and sought creative ways to advocate for workers while supporting small businesses. Jayaraman said she worked with Su to launch a program called Highway Kitchens, which offered grants, training, technical assistance and importantly, public recognition, to restaurant owners who agreed to raise their workers’ wages. The idea was exported to a handful of other states who recognized its potential amid stalled fights for minimum wage increases in some states and at the federal level. 

“As women of color, immigrant women, we have to be innovative,” she said. “Workers were suffering terribly, but also employers were suffering. What do we do in a moment like that to continue to uplift conditions for workers?”

It’s a key moment for labor, too, Jayaraman said. 

“She’s stepping in at a point where workers actually have leverage in the economy in a way that we’ve not—I’ve not seen in 25 years of doing this work, and certainly we haven’t seen in generations, frankly, in this country.

“The press called it the great resignation. Many of our low-wage worker members are calling it the great revolution.”

Jayaraman noted that Su won’t be the first Asian American woman to serve as labor secretary; Elaine Chao led the department for eight years under President George W. Bush. Chao’s Labor Department, a government watchdog found, did not fully investigate wage theft complaints filed by low-wage workers. Chao also maintains a hostile relationship with labor unions. 

Louie said that low-wage workers, particularly those who are immigrants and whose English proficiency is limited, remain vulnerable, and could benefit from a creative advocate at the highest levels of government. 

“We always, and I think Julie, always saw herself as the advocate, you know, fighting for change. I don’t think she ever really saw herself as being part of this system,” Louie said. “When we think about this kind of political leadership, I don’t think that’s the background we typically associate with folks that have that kind of authority and power. It’s exciting to think of Julie in that space of opportunity.” 

In the 2021 essay about the El Monte case, Su said federal agencies continue to identify sweatshop conditions in the garment industry across the country. She added that more broadly, some of the same systematic weaknesses that led to the El Monte case — the need for good jobs, fair wages and strong worker protections — are ongoing work. 

“Though we’ve made important progress, unscrupulous employers are still taking advantage of workers, particularly workers who don’t speak English or who may be reluctant to report violations for fear of retaliation,” Su wrote. “The El Monte case is both a reminder that we have a long way to go—and that change is possible.”

Editor’s note: Jandranima Pakawat, a legal advocate with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles, provided interpretation services. 

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Mel Leonor Barclay is a political reporter. She has a decade of experience covering government and elections, from tiny South Florida localities to Congress. Most recently, Leonor Barclay was a Virginia politics reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and previously covered federal policy at POLITICO. Leonor Barclay is an immigrant of the Dominican Republic and native Spanish speaker.