The Senate voted on Tuesday to approve Julie Su as the United States Deputy Labor Secretary, the second highest ranking position in the Department of Labor. Su, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was previously serving as the Labor Secretary for the state of California, and was a leading pick for United States Secretary of Labor during the Biden Administration’s transition period, reportedly competing for the agency’s top spot against current-Secretary Marty Walsh. Su’s nomination has been rotting in the Senate for months — her ultimate confirmation, 50-47, came more than five months after President Biden formally submitted her name to the Senate in February 2021. Left-wing voices have celebrated Su’s longstanding commitment to progressive ideals, and throughout her decades-long legal career she has built a reputation as a fierce advocate for working people, especially immigrant workers, and a champion of labor rights, first at a nonprofit public interest organization and then, for the last decade or so, in California state government. According to a profile ran by The Nation last summer, Su has spent her career “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 1995, as a fresh graduate of Harvard Law School and a young lawyer with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Su achieved national notoriety as the lead attorney in a groundbreaking federal lawsuit that liberated and won millions of dollars for dozens of enslaved Thai garment workers. After spending 15 years at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Su was appointed as the California Labor Commissioner, where she was an architect and aggressive enforcer of AB5, the famous bill that has reclassified thousands of laborers in the state, including Uber and Lyft drivers, as employees entitled to benefits and labor protections rather than as independent contractors. Steven Greenhouse, longtime labor reporter for the New York Times and contributor to this blog, called Su’s confirmation “good news for workers,” and Mary Kay Henry, the President of SEIU, affirmed that Su “has an impressive record standing up and winning for working people.” On the other side of the aisle, conservative voices and industry lobbyists have fanatically opposed Su’s confirmation, and not a single Republican senator voted in her favor. Julie Su and her fierce commitment to raising wages, protecting marginalized workers, and building a fairer economic system will surely be a strong addition to the Biden Administration and its efforts to implement the sweeping pro-labor agenda that President Biden campaigned on.
In other news from the upper chamber, top Senate Democrats announced late Tuesday night that they have reached an expansive $3.5 trillion budget agreement, which Politico claimed was “masterminded by Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT).” Though precise details were sparse, the sprawling budgetary blueprint promises billions of federal dollars poured into social welfare programs championed by the progressive movement, particularly those ‘human infrastructure’ items left out of the emerging bipartisan infrastructure compromise, including expanding Medicare, providing free community college, free school meals, and paid family leave, investing in infrastructure and requiring that workers on those projects be unionized and paid “prevailing wages,” extending the child tax credit, subsidizing childcare expenses, and combating the effects of climate change, among many other things. Democratic leaders intend to push a budget resolution reflecting the agreement through Congress in the coming weeks, before lawmakers leave for recess later this summer, which will pave the way for a more detailed funding bill in the fall. Though the budget resolution will allow the funding bill to pass by only a simple majority, thereby circumventing the Republican filibuster, successful passage of both bills will still require holding together the entire Democratic caucus, and it remains to be seen whether centrist Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Jon Tester of Montana, support the plan. Indeed, Senator Manchin (D-WV) recently averred that “we need to pay for it…all of it.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), speaking to reporters inside the Capitol building on Tuesday night, insisted that “we are very proud of this plan,” and that “we’re going to get this done for the sake of making average Americans’ lives a whole lot better,” and Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proclaimed this to be “a pivotal moment in American history,” calling the bill “the most significant piece of legislation passed since the Great Depression,” vowing that it “is going to address long neglected problems of the working families in this country” and that “the wealthy and large corporations are going to start paying their fair share of taxes, so that we can protect the working families in this country.” Senate Banking Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) affirmed that “the most important thing is we go big. The public wants us to go big. We make a difference for a generation on some of these issues.” Though particulars have not been released, moderate Democratic senators maintain that the plan will be “fully paid for” by imposing substantial tax increases on the richest Americans and massive corporate conglomerates, including, more specifically, raising taxes on overseas profit, large inheritances, and capital gains, and eliminating tax benefits for fossil fuel companies. At the same time, the bill will prohibit any tax increases on small businesses and individuals earning less than $400,000 annually. The budget agreement may yet encounter opposition from moderate and centrist Democrats, but, when combined with the emerging bipartisan infrastructure compromise, it represents a major step for congressional Democrats toward implementing President Biden’s astoundingly progressive economic proposals.
In union news, a tsunami of labor activism and union organizing has been crashing over the journalism industry in recent years, with an astounding rate of success. According to the Poynter Institute, “union leaders at newspapers, digital outlets, and broadcast stations are seeing record levels of organizing that show little sign of stopping.” Indeed, workers in the journalism industry have already launched at least 29 unionization drives so far this year, after more than three dozen last year, which labor leaders in the industry have recognized as historic. Since 2015, writers at a spate of major digital media companies have unionized with the Writers Guild, including Gawker Media, Salon, Vice, HuffPost, Guardian US, and Al Jazeera America. In other union news, SEIU Local 73, representing 29,000 public workers in Illinois and Indiana, announced on Tuesday that after 10 months of negotiations, they had reached a tentative agreement with Cook County, the most populous county in Illinois, and have ended their 18-day strike of more than 2,500 workers, the longest in Local 73 history, and one of the longest public-sector strikes in Chicago history. The agreement includes across the board raises and bonuses, hazard pay, and better healthcare, which Local 73 President Dian Palmer described as a contract that has “real wins for workers.” In Pittsburgh, members of the United Steelworkers ratified a new four-year contract with steelmaker Allegheny Technologies, Inc. last week, that raises wages, provides lump-sum bonus payments, and protects healthcare for current and future workers, ending a strike of 1,300 workers across nine locations that began on March 30th and, according to USW international President Tom Conway, “beating back demands for concessions that would have hurt generations of workers.”
In international union news, the United States and Mexico announced a comprehensive plan last Thursday to ensure that workers at a General Motors facility in the country are able to vote on a collective bargaining agreement in “free and democratic conditions,” after Mexico’s Labor Ministry found “serious irregularities” in the union certification vote earlier this year, amid accusations that plant managers had interfered. The move represents a hopeful implementation of the sweeping labor law reforms that the Mexican Congress, under the direction of then newly-elected President López Obrador, enacted in 2019, which I wrote about earlier this year here, on this blog. U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh recognized that “protecting workers’ rights at home” requires ensuring “that those rights will not be undermined by exploitative labor practices…around the world,” and pledged that this agreement “promises to result in meaningful gains for workers on both sides of our border.”
Finally, a Reuters analysis of decades of wages for retail workers confirmed the universal law of nature that unionized workers earn substantially more than their non-union counterparts — and in the retail sector, the union pay advantage is only strengthening. The report, released on Monday, found that the weekly pay differential between union and non-union workers more than doubled in the last decade, rising from $20 in 2013 to more than $50 in 2019. The article concluded by noting that “the latest Reuters analysis confirms what many other studies have shown: Unionized workers get paid more and have better benefits, and the dearth of unionization in the country is linked to skyrocketing income inequality.”