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Julie Su speaks during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her to be Deputy Secretary of Labor, on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 16, 2021.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

President Joe Biden is nominating Julie Su, the current deputy and former California official, as his next labour secretary, replacing the departing incumbent, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

Su, a civil rights attorney and former head of California’s labour department, was central to negotiations between labour and freight rail companies late last year, working to avert an economically debilitating strike. She also has worked to broaden employee training programs and crack down on wage theft. If confirmed by the Senate, Su would also be the first Asian-American in the Biden administration to serve in the Cabinet at the secretary level.

Biden, in a statement on Tuesday, called her a “champion for workers.”

“Julie is a tested and experienced leader, who will continue to build a stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive economy that provides Americans a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead,” he said. “She helped avert a national rail shutdown, improved access to good jobs free from discrimination through my Good Jobs Initiative, and is ensuring that the jobs we create in critical sectors like semiconductor manufacturing, broadband and health care are good-paying, stable and accessible jobs for all.”

Su was considered to lead the department when Biden won the White House but instead became the department’s deputy. Walsh announced his intention to leave the administration earlier this month to lead the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Su will serve as the acting secretary until the Senate acts on her nomination.

Biden had been under pressure from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and other Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates to select Su to head the department. This administration was the first in more than two decades to not have a Cabinet secretary of AAPI descent, despite its regular declarations that it was the most diverse in history. Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai are of AAPI descent but don’t lead a Cabinet department.

Su, if confirmed, would also expand the majority of women serving in the president’s Cabinet. She was confirmed by the Senate to her current role in 2021 by a 50–47 vote.

Su’s nomination drew swift support from Democrats on Capitol Hill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying she would be “phenomenal” in the job.

“The president couldn’t have picked a better nominee,” he told reporters. “I’m really excited about her, and we’re going to move to consider her nomination very, very quickly.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who will preside over Su’s confirmation hearing as chair of the Senate health, education, labour and pensions committee, praised the selection. Sanders had urged consideration of Sara Nelson, the president of the flight attendants union, but made clear Su had his strong support.

“I’m confident Julie Su will be an excellent Secretary of Labor,” he tweeted. “I look forward to working with her to protect workers’ rights and build the trade union movement in this country.”

In a tweet, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, praised the selection and thanked Biden for “nominating your first AAPI Cabinet Secretary!”

“I am elated that President Biden is nominating Julie Su to be our nation’s next Labor Secretary,” Chu wrote. “She’s eminently qualified to lead the Department and will successfully deliver results for our workers on Day 1.”

Her nomination also comes at a key moment for labour unions, which have been facing a decline in membership for decades. Unions gained some momentum as workers at major employers such as Amazon and Starbucks pushed to unionize. But Biden – an avowed pro-union president – had to work with Congress to impose a contract on rail workers last year to avoid a possible strike.

The Labor Department said just 10.1% of workers last year were union members. That figure has been cut nearly in half since 1983 and could fall further, as younger workers are less likely to belong to unions.

“There’s no one more dedicated and qualified to defend the fundamental rights of working people than Julie Su,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “It’s her life’s work.”

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