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In 2011, I worked in the CLEAN Carwash campaign. I was assigned to work with then California Labor Commissioner Julie Su to train her entire field investigation team about the most pressing issues car wash workers were facing at that time. I was 23 years old, undocumented, and new to union organizing.
I was intimidated by Julie and her team. She had famously defended low-wage workers in the El Monte garment worker case of 1995, and I was overly self-conscious that I was not an attorney. “I am not a labor law expert, but we do have clear recommendations that come from the lived experiences of the carwash workers we work with,” I told them.
Julie calmly assured me that there was no one else in that room who knew better than I about the workers’ experience, and that was why she wanted the CLEAN Carwash Campaign to train her staff on the best practices they could deploy to conduct more effective investigations and enforce workplace protections for car wash workers across the state.
That was Julie Su — a principled and practical leader who you want in your corner in a time of need. President Joe Biden got it right when he appointed her deputy secretary of labor: She will be an exceptional leader and serve all working people at a time when the country is facing overwhelming economic and public health crises.
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated poor working families. While urging her colleagues to pass a renewal of unemployment benefits on the Senate floor earlier this month, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) noted that “there are three unemployed workers for every job opening right now. The numbers are stark, the reality heartbreaking.”
We at Unemployed Workers United know this because we are living it. U.S. women lost 140,000 lost jobs in December alone. Meanwhile, The Century Foundation’s Unemployment Insurance database finds that 900,000 unemployed workers have exhausted their unemployment benefits since March 2020.
Numerous states across the country have faced a raft of challenges that include an outdated and underfunded unemployment insurance (UI) system, an unprecedented influx of claims, and low barriers to entry for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that allow sophisticated fraudsters to game the system. Amid these challenges, Su has shown strong, effective, and transparent leadership, steadfastly pursuing solutions that have enabled California to process 1 in 5 claims across the country and to pay over $100 billion in claims. Su has simultaneously advocated to modernize and improve the unemployment insurance system on both the federal and state levels.
This crisis has been compounded by mass evictions that have forced the unemployed and underemployed to risk Covid exposure to feed their families. Millions were already living paycheck to paycheck before Covid-19, but the pandemic has exposed and deepened the extreme wealth gap in our country. According to one estimate, former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw his net worth increase by $70 Billion in 2020.
As Secretary of Labor of California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, Julie spearheads an agency of more than 11,000 employees with a $26.4 billion budget, overseeing worker health and safety, labor law enforcement (including paid leave and hourly wages), workforce development, unemployment benefits, apprenticeships, and worker training. Among her many innovations, she has instituted on-the-job protections for workers affected by Covid-19 and launched a statewide initiative to educate high-risk industries about maintaining healthy and safe workplaces. Her comprehensive approach to workforce development has resulted in new programs preparing workers for good jobs, as well as systemic changes to the workforce system that prioritize those facing the greatest barriers to employment.
I cannot think of a better leader to get us back on track and operationalize the vision of “Build Back Better” than the woman behind a Future of Work Commission that: explored wage and poverty data in every county in the state of California (along with the damaging effects of high housing prices and declining trade union power); and provided a series of 10-year “moonshot” proposals to forge a more socially and economically equitable workplace.
Su has also co-chaired a Pay Equity Task Force that expanded innovative partnerships between labor unions and employers in targeted industries to create quality, high-end jobs while pioneering a community-based model of socially responsible small business development and investment in immigrant communities.
We need our U.S. Department of Labor to be led by individuals with long track records of defending those of who have borne the brunt of the last economic recession. We need leaders who will fight to improve working conditions for the most marginalized among us and are best qualified to lead our economy back from the brink through a smart, inclusive recovery. Anyone who has worked with her knows that Julie Su is that person.
During a recession, people of color and women in particular are almost always the first to lose their employment. Then when new jobs are created, they are among the last invited back into the workforce. Our communities contribute so much to this society, yet we often can’t make ends meet. Most of our families are stuck in a cycle that creates generational poverty.
With Su as our U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor, we will have a forward-thinking public official willing to fight for all of us. Her commitment to combat wage theft, create inclusive legislation to help all people of color, and prioritize jobs for minorities is the leadership we need to build a more egalitarian new normal. Su is the right woman for the job because she is already leading by example, and her confirmation would be a triumph for working people.
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Neidi Dominguez is the Executive Director Unemployed Workers United (UWU), a movement project to organize precarious and jobless workers, as well as a national immigrant and workers rights activist and organizer.