Women Need Julie Su as Our Next Labor Secretary. The Labor Movement Is Ready to Fight for Her

This is about more than representation. It’s about better lives for working women and all families.

Julie Su (at podium), flanked by Thai workers, other lawyers and workers’ rights advocates. Su filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a group of migrant workers 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)

In August 1995, federal agents broke down the doors to a garment sweatshop in El Monte, Calif. What they found was horrific: 72 Thai workers, almost all women, forced to work 18-hour days in a small room with boarded up windows. They earned 2 cents per pocket. By the time the agents closed the sweatshop, some had worked there for years.

When prosecutors won convictions against those who ran the shop, many saw a case closed—a terrible wrong made right. Julie Su saw a fight that was just beginning.

Su was a young, first-generation lawyer with immigrant parents. She saw human beings in limbo: women who spoke little English, didn’t have jobs and were far from family. She knew real justice wasn’t only putting those responsible behind bars. It was supporting the workers who had been ruthlessly exploited and taking on the entire system that did it to them. 

She led an historic case against the clothing companies, winning more than $4 million in back wages. She helped the workers get visas to remain in the United States and aided many in finding fair jobs. It is a study in what leadership looks like: someone who wouldn’t stop until the powerful were held accountable and the vulnerable were supported. 

Years later, that same leader is in a fight we need to help win. After the departure of her predecessor, Marty Walsh, Su is the acting secretary of labor—and as President Biden’s nominee, she’ll go before the Senate next week for confirmation. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

If you’ve been paying attention the past 18 months, you know workers across America are having a moment. Women are leading the way, as we have so often in the labor movement’s history. We’re leading strikes at Starbucks, and organizing unions at companies like Amazon and Google.

Julie Su will help workers at the highest levels of power, too—the same way 90 years ago, the country’s first female labor secretary, Francis Perkins, did pioneering work under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to define the New Deal. As the first woman to lead the AFL-CIO—a federation of unions that represents 12.5 million working people, from construction workers to actors to teachers to WNBA players—I couldn’t be more excited.

But the truth is: We aren’t there yet. Across every sector, women tell me the same things: We still don’t make the same as our male counterparts. In 2022—the year 2022—women still made 83 cents for every $1 paid to a man. For Black women, the gap is 67 cents to every $1.

We still don’t have enough protection from harassment in the workplace. And the U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world without some form of guaranteed paid family leave.

Unions are the antidote. Women in unions make nearly 21 percent more per week than their non-union counterparts. They are more likely to have strong workplace protections and more likely to have paid leave. When we speak in one voice, with power coming from the grassroots, we are unstoppable.

We need leaders in Washington who understand that union difference—and who are committed to labor laws rooted in fairness, justice and equity. 

Julie Su is that kind of leader. She was confirmed by the Senate just two years ago for her role as deputy labor secretary and has done nothing but incredible work since as acting secretary of labor. Alongside Secretary Walsh, she has taken historic steps to support labor and workers: Driving through legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Protecting vulnerable workers. Strengthening support for those who are unemployed and freelance workers.

Corporate interests and well-funded lobbyists are terrified of seeing somebody like Julie Su—someone who actually looks out for working people and cannot be bought—in this pivotal role.

Su would make history as the second-ever Asian American woman to hold the role and only the fourth-ever woman of color. But this is about more than representation. Her story has driven her to take on wage theft, immigrant worker abuse, companies trying to misclassify workers in the ‘gig’ economy and so many more of the pressing issues working people face. Su’s knowledge of labor law is encyclopedic. But she also has a deep understanding of what’s happening on the ground. I’ve watched her meet workers, visit apprenticeship training centers, and learn from local unions and small businesses. 

Julie Su, President Biden’s nominee to be the next secretary of labor, at the White House on March 1, 2023. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

As I write this, corporate interests and well-funded lobbyists are plotting behind closed doors to stop her confirmation. Why? They’re terrified of seeing somebody like Julie Su—someone who actually looks out for working people and cannot be bought—in this pivotal role. The National Restaurant Association and others, who have long used their influence to harm workers, have already put significant funding behind a dark-money campaign to unfairly attack Su and distort her record. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: This vote is going to come down to a few key senators. At the AFL-CIO, we’re laser focused on key states and making sure every senator understands the entire weight of the labor movement is behind Julie Su. This isn’t about ‘red’ or ‘blue.’ It’s about whether they will stand with corporate CEOs, billionaires and lobbyists … or with tens of millions of working women and people. 

We need everyone in this fight. Keep your senator’s phone line ringing off the hook. Show up to rallies. Tell five friends or neighbors about Julie Su, and encourage them to get involved. Because this moment, right now, will define the next generation for working women: Whether we have a champion for equal pay. Whether we see stronger protections around sexual harassment and abuse. Whether women have access to the good union jobs of the future—from clean energy to manufacturing to engineering. Whether we finally pass paid family leave.

All of it is on the line, right now. I can’t think of anyone more prepared to lead on Day 1 than Su. She has the experience, the values and the ability to get things done.

A win for Julie Su is a win for women and workers all over this country. Let’s get it done.

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Liz Shuler is the president of the 60-union, 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO—America's largest labor federation.