In early February, a few weeks after President Biden announced that he would be nominating Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to head the Department of Labor, California Labor Secretary Julie Su was told the president wanted her as Walsh’s deputy.

This leap into federal policy-making has been a long time coming for Su, who has spent almost three decades building up a strong résumé as an advocate for the underrepresented. Su, a short woman in her early 50s with a degree from Harvard Law School, was born in Madison, Wis., to immigrant parents (her mother, unable to afford a ticket on a passenger ship, came to the United States on a cargo ship from China; her father is from Taiwan). The family moved to the Los Angeles area when Su was a young child, and Southern California has been the family home ever since. Su has picked up numerous prestige awards over the decades, ranging from a Skadden Foundation Fellowship that allowed her to work on racial and economic justice issues during the first decade-plus of her career—including a high-profile case seeking back pay for exploited Thai garment workers being held in near-slavery conditions in the town of El Monte, just east of Los Angeles—to a MacArthur “genius” award. But she is modest in touting these accomplishments, and she seems reluctant to acknowledge the pedestal upon which these organizations have placed her.

Recently, Su, working remotely from her home office in South Los Angeles, has played a leading role in two groups established by Governor Gavin Newsom: the Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, which brought together top figures from politics, business, labor, academia, and racial and economic justice groups to strategize how to rebuild the economy during and after the pandemic; and the Future of Work Commission, which is mandated to study wage and poverty data in every county in the state, as well as triggers for poverty such as high housing prices and declining trade union power, and come up with a series of 10-year “moonshot” proposals for fundamentally reimagining the work force and workplace in more socially and economically equitable ways.

The FWC’s recommendations were sent to Governor Newsom on March 2. If implemented in the coming years, they could serve as the blueprint for an ambitious recalibration of employer-employee relationships—not only in California but nationwide, with Su using her new position in D.C. to push an ambitious set of changes throughout the 50 states.

The FWC report stresses the need for a new social compact. Its suggestions include an aspiration for full employment in California—along with a request that the federal government move toward job guarantees for all Americans. It urges the state government to coordinate environmental, housing, and public health policies with socially just job creation strategies, including a target of creating 1 million jobs as part of a decade-long push to meet state climate change goals. And it recommends that California set a target of eliminating working poverty by 2030, through policies aimed at increasing wages in the hospitality, retail, and care sectors, in particular, and using state purchasing power as a bargaining tool to reward companies that treat their workers fairly and pay them living wages. Su and her colleagues term this approach “lifting up the job.”

The commission’s report also recommends a “California Job Quality Index,” which would allow employees to easily track benefits offered by employers across a variety of sectors; and the creation of a collective benefits pool, funded by employers and administered by the state on behalf of employees, that would allow gig workers with multiple employers (housecleaners, for example) to get health care and other benefits. The model, pioneered in recent years by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is one that Su and her colleagues believe is now adaptable at both the state and federal level.

Labor Secretary Su at a grantee event for the Irvine Foundation in 2019. (Credit: Robert Durell)

Labor Secretary Su “likes bringing different people together and wrestling issues to the ground,” explains James Manyika, chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute, research fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, and former member of President Obama’s Global Development Council. Manyika, who worked with Su on several subcommittees of the Future of Work Commission, talks about her ability to quickly grasp complex, systemic issues, from the rise of artificial intelligence to the workplace automation, and synthesize these into her analysis. He says she also has the “velvet glove”: the ability to steer a group of people toward policy goals that she believes in, but in a way that leaves them feeling listened to and empowered.

Su talked to me via Zoom with a friendly, disarming smile, a conversational style that instantly puts one at ease, and a refreshing lack of pretension. Far from using her job title to intimidate people, or to build a protective wall around herself, she has long built a reputation for fighting on behalf of working people—first as an attorney at the LA-based advocacy group Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, then as California Governor Jerry Brown’s labor commissioner, and, since early 2019, as Governor Newsom’s labor secretary, heading up the sprawling California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Over her career, Su, who is fluent in Mandarin and Spanish, has built a well-deserved reputation for aggressively using the law to crack down on wage theft and other widespread forms of labor exploitation, especially involving members of California’s large immigrant population. (In 2013, while serving as labor commissioner, she also made waves by successfully pushing ICE to stop conducting immigration raids inside Labor Commission offices statewide.)

The results of Su’s anti–wage theft campaigns have been tangible. Antonio Zamora, who worked for several years as a construction worker, hired out by an unscrupulous labor contractor in Los Angeles to work on drywall installation and metal framing, recalls how he found out that the contractor was billing various government agencies up to $60 an hour for his employees to work at hospitals, schools, and other sites; that the contractor was giving $40 of it to a labor broker to find individual workers; and that the labor broker was then paying Zamora only $100 per day, or about $12 per hour.

Zamora and several of his fellow workers eventually contacted the Carpenters/Contractors Cooperation Committee, a worker rights advocacy group, and sued the middlemen for wage theft. Using legal tools put in place while Su was labor commissioner—she set up industry-specific investigative and prosecutorial teams to identify and target bad apples in the restaurant industry, agriculture, janitorial work, construction, and car washes—they were able to reach a settlement. Zamora walked away with enough money that he and his brothers were able to set up their own pest control business. “The Labor Commission were the only ones who could help us,” Zamora, 32, recalls. “I got more than I expected. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

These are the sorts of stories that energize Julie Su. “Our work made history,” she says, in a rare burst of immodesty. “Many people thought these workers would be too afraid to speak up. We proved that if you do it right, if government is a true partner, we find cases with millions of dollars of wages owed.”

With legal muscle provided by the passage of AB 1897—a change in California state employment law that makes employers more culpable for the illegal actions of those with whom they contract—Su began going after not only labor contractors but also the companies using laborers provided by them: restaurants, growers, and others who were winking at the bad-faith practices of these contractors. She began legal proceedings against trucking companies that were treating their drivers as freelancers and making them pay for their own insurance and vehicle repairs. And she started working with legislators on ways to reclassify more independent contractors as employees entitled to benefits. “One of the things she has done,” avers Christina Chung, who has worked with Su for over 20 years, most recently as senior adviser on law and policy at the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, “is set a model for thinking strategically and being smart about how to leverage resources to enforce labor protections and combat unscrupulous businesses.”

In the past few years, Su’s efforts to protect workers have increasingly been taken up by California legislators. Among the more high-profile results of that shift was AB 5. This sprawling bill, passed into law in 2019, required Uber and Lyft to provide benefits to their workers. It also reclassified an array of freelancers—from writers to language translators to entertainers—as workers whom employers had to bring on as staff, with full benefits. The result, in the latter part of 2019, was significant economic dislocation in many industries, with employers simply not renewing the contracts of many freelance workers.

In the months leading up to the pandemic, AB5 was widely criticized as having caused thousands of creative workers, especially in the entertainment industries, to lose work. As a result, there was a voter backlash, which, unfortunately, Uber and Lyft were able to exploit this past November, convincing a majority of California voters to support an initiative, Prop 22, that exempted the two companies from AB5’s requirements. The result was a rather dysfunctional limbo: AB5 no longer applied to the two companies it was primarily aimed at—companies that surely should be compelled to provide benefits to their drivers—but it did still apply to miscellaneous other freelancers who didn’t have the muscle to fight it politically and who were arguably always a poor fit for the legislative protections AB5 aimed to secure.

Su recognizes the complexity of this issue, acknowledging that AB5 is a work in progress, but she also fiercely defends the underlying principles of the legislation. She talks about janitorial and car-wash workers who were previously misclassified as freelancers and forced to buy their own supplies, and how now, as a result of AB5, they can’t be treated this way. “The reason for labor protections is because you have an imbalance of power, and the law is there to try to create a balance. We wouldn’t need them if workers had an equal power in the workplace.”

After Biden’s win in November, worker rights advocates, as well as those pushing for more Asian American representation in the cabinet, began lobbying hard for Su to be the president’s nominee for labor secretary. In The American Prospect, Occidental College politics professor Peter Dreier, arguing on her behalf, explicitly compared her to Franklin Roosevelt’s crusading labor secretary Frances Perkins. Su herself, as she engaged in conversations with the Biden team, spent time thinking about the values, ideas, and leadership style she would bring to a Labor Department that had not only been eviscerated but turned into a pro-employer, anti-union vehicle during the Trump years.

She concluded that her personal story—her sense of empathy, and her desire and ability to hear workers’ experiences and walk in their shoes—was central to understanding what motivated her. She also felt that her work in California, her effectiveness in ramping up efforts to corral employers who withheld mandated overtime and benefits, as well as labor contractors who stole wages from the men and women they contracted out to companies, and her ongoing efforts to work with the governor on a series of 10-year goals aimed at restructuring the work force and retilting the playing field to the benefit of workers showed what priorities she would bring to Washington should the opportunity arise.

After Su’s parents arrived in the States, and as they were working toward university degrees that would eventually give them a foothold in the middle class, they scrambled to make ends meet and provide for her and her younger sister. She recalls that her father, who was trilingual (in Mandarin, Japanese, and English) and training to become an engineer, “flipped burgers, made change at casinos.” Her mother, who would eventually land a job as a social worker for Los Angeles County, worked long hours and late into the night trying to earn additional money so that she could give her children more than just the basics: things like piano lessons for Julie, a hobby that Su still indulges. Over the years, the family owned a number of small businesses—a laundromat, a sandwich shop, a pizza place. “Pieced together, that’s how they built a life, afforded a home. I saw how hard that was. I also saw what the struggles of small-business owners are. My dad was always very clear: ‘We’re going to do this the right way.’ It built my commitment to workers.”

Loyola Marymount constitutional law professor Kimberly West-Faulcon, a longtime friend of Su and over the years a cocounsel with her in several high-profile class-action lawsuits, recalls how Su, who sleeps only a four to six hours each night, would attend workers’ meetings into the small hours, with a “dogged commitment.” Her friend exhibited, she thought, a David-versus-Goliath sensibility, a laser-focused determination to do right by her clients and “to upend the status quo and accomplish progressive ends through the law.” She has, says West-Faulcon, a “deep commitment to the dignity of low-wage workers. They are a forgotten community in this country, particularly in these times.”

When Su moves to D.C. as deputy labor secretary, she will bring with her an array of progressive values that will stand in stark contrast to the reactionary ideas of Eugene Scalia and other senior officials in the Labor Department during the Trump years. “We have been paving the path for the high road,” Su argues, “and we’ll continue to do that. Building the proper government systems, with bridges, making sure they’re aligned with companies’ and with employees’ needs. We need to recover better than we entered. It’s not just because it’s good for workers, but it is the key to a stronger, more resilient economy.”