What Biden’s Labor Department Pick Could Signal for Working Class Americans

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delighted in the election of former Vice President Joe Biden, saying he was confident he would be “the most pro-union president” ever. If Biden is able to implement half of the plan to rebuild unions that he released during the campaign, Trumka might be right. But that would be very bad news for America’s workers, particularly those in low-skilled jobs looking for an opportunity to climb the employment ladder.

Though not a Cabinet slot usually thought of having much to do with issues of immigration, the Department of Labor (DOL) is involved in the management of foreign worker programs, enforcement of workplace laws (including those barring the hiring of illegal aliens), wage levels. It also happens to be the agency that promulgated regulations in the last year to curb the ability of businesses to undercut American workers by giving preference to foreign visa holders, specifically regarding H-1B visas.

In selecting the next secretary, will unions really hold that much power? Yes and no. According to the New York Times, unions have enough sway within the Biden administration that they were able to kill the chances of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo leading Health and Human Services. On the other hand, unions are engaged is some internecine warfare over their preferred candidates.

AFL-CIO’s Trumka is moving behind closed doors in support of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, while Michigan Rep. Andy Levin is getting backing from the Communications Workers of America. With two Democratic members of the House already heading to the Biden administration, his chances are slimmer. Ironically, the one person who is garnering more support every day does not have a typically union background.

Judging by the momentum she holds and Biden’s apparent desire to have his Cabinet represent every ethnic and racial, the frontrunner today is Julie Su, the current head of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Her selection is being viewed by prominent Asian-American groups and leaders within the Democratic Party as a litmus test for the president-elect.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus has circulated a letter warning Biden that not picking an Asian-American would be “unacceptable,” as has Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

She has been endorsed by several progressive pro-labor groups, such as the Center for Popular Democracy, National Partnership for Women and Families, and United Farm Workers of America, as well as immigration activist organizations.

Su, the child of Chinese immigrants whose career began advocating for low-wage immigrant workers, is the pick of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), which also went public with a letter endorsing her. The mass immigration group highlighted several qualifications unrelated to her actual ability to fulfill the duties of the job, such as her immigrant background, and also her work in creating stronger protections for illegal alien workers in California, which is part of Biden’s agenda.

NILC failed to mention recent controversies that should raise questions about her leadership skills. The first involves the website used by Californians to file unemployment claims that continued to crash as millions tried to file in the midst of the pandemic.

In an effort to resolve the issues, Su’s agency signed a no-bid contract with Deloitte Consulting despite having experienced years of performance oversight issues with the consulting firm. Deloitte is also prolific user of H-1B visa workers, so giving taxpayer funds to a firm relying heavily on foreign workers to do a bad job for Americans who don’t have jobs in California is either extreme arrogance or ignorance. After continued delays, the state ran an audit and discovered that almost $1 billion in COVID-19 stimulus funds had been distributed to prisoners.  

But it is her efforts to extend all manner of protections to illegal alien workers that is most concerning. Her career started as an advocate for illegal aliens, focusing on Asians working in sweatshops in California’s garment industry and eventually co-founding Sweatshop Watch. Prior to working for the California Labor Commission, she worked for the immigrant activist organization, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice.

In 2017, Su showed her outright animus toward immigration enforcement when she sent her agency’s staff a memo telling them to refuse entry to any Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) agents who showed up at labor offices with­out a fed­er­al war­rant. In addition, she was a big supporter of the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, which was one of the most anti-enforcement, pro-illegal worker bills enacted – even by California standards – in 2018.

“California leads the way on labor standards and we’re not going to let employers do end runs around those standards. We want to support businesses who look at their role in a holistic and humane sense,” she said about the law after its passage.

While focused on holism, Su ignores the whole picture. The presence of illegal alien workers depresses the wages of legal workers, which has been shown to be true by multiple studies dating as far back as 1988 when the General Accounting Office (GAO) studied the issue.

But today’s labor unions no longer have concerns about the negative impact on native workers because they increasingly see illegal immigrants, as well as foreign workers, as a needed constituency.

As the New Republic noted in 2013, “No group in America, aside from Latino activists, is a more steadfast champion of generous immigration reform than organized labor.”

Nothing has changed since then. Unions see fighting immigration enforcement as part of their broader agenda, even getting involved in anti-deportation rallies in the last four years.

 “We have unions right now who would crumble if it was not for immigrant workers. That’s why the issue of immigration reform, the issue of criminal justice reform, the issue of social justice in this country has to be on the tip of the spear of the labor movement in everything we do. Because if we don’t take care of that, we are actually dying out,” said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre.

If Biden does choose Julia Su, those union bosses who did not back her still win because they share the same radical goal of normalizing (and even legalizing) illegal alien workers. And it will be rank-and-file union members and all workers who will lose.

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