President Biden appears to have accepted the fate of his secretary of Labor nominee Julie Su, who will continue to serve as acting secretary even though her confirmation bid is all but doomed in the Senate.
But the White House, which has praised Su as a preeminent dealmaker, especially when it comes to California labor issues, has been reluctant to have her intervene in the Hollywood strikes.
“We are monitoring the situation closely,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told The Times.
Su, who served as California’s labor chief before joining the Biden administration as deputy U.S. Labor secretary in 2021, has played a key role in leading an agency that’s been crucial to Biden’s domestic agenda and reelection message. If confirmed, she would be Biden’s first Asian American Cabinet secretary.
Biden, a self-described “pro-union president,” kicked off his 2024 campaign with a speech to union workers in Philadelphia in June and has made union members central to his reelection strategy. But several labor disputes heating up across the country — including the Hollywood strikes — threaten to upend that argument.
The president has thrown his support behind union workers and called for fair pay and benefits for striking screenwriters and actors in their ongoing dispute with studios that has ground Hollywood to a halt.
At the same time, Biden has struggled to get his own top Labor official confirmed. The White House recently called on centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) to seek their support for Su.
Manchin had said he would oppose her confirmation over concerns about her “more progressive background.” Sinema has not said how she plans to vote, but a White House statement Friday saying Su would continue on as acting secretary amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that she did not have enough votes to win confirmation.
The White House had hoped that Su’s role in brokering a deal between California dock workers and their employers in June would bring new momentum to a bid that had been stalled since February. Su, who has relationships with both sides in the ports dispute, was able to help break a yearlong stalemate on a collective bargaining agreement.
Administration officials cited the incident as evidence of Su’s sharp abilities as a mediator, and as another reason that the Senate should confirm her.
“She is highly qualified, experienced, and has proven herself time and time again when it comes to delivering for America’s workers and our economy,” a White House official said Friday. “Acting Secretary Su recently secured a major labor agreement at the West Coast ports, which ensured our supply chains remain strong for America’s businesses, farmers and working families.”
But as the Hollywood strikes and a separate strike of hundreds of L.A. hotel workers escalate, the White House has kept its public involvement to general statements of support for unions. No one person is in charge of monitoring the talks, but several officials scattered across the administration are in contact with all sides involved, a White House official told The Times.
Su has also been quiet on the Hollywood strikes. She has no plans to repeat a trip she made to L.A. in June to intervene in the ports dispute.
The unions, too, appear uninterested in a heavy-handed response from the Biden administration.
Ellen Stutzman, the Writers Guild of America’s chief negotiator, thanked “President Biden, his administration, and all of our elected allies’ support for writers” in a statement, but added that “the studios are the only ones who can end the strike — by negotiating a fair deal.”
SAG-AFTRA declined a request for comment.
Su’s position in Washington, meanwhile, remains awkward. She still has the emphatic support of the White House, which has promised to keep pushing her nomination despite little evidence of a campaign to secure her confirmation.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say Tuesday whether senior officials still convened nightly in a “war room” to share updates on her nomination.
Instead, the White House has relied on a little-known federal code to keep her in her acting role indefinitely. When then-Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh left the administration in March, Su, as his deputy, automatically became acting secretary. That role allows her to perform the duties of the Labor secretary until a successor is confirmed.
Su’s opponents have criticized the White House’s new strategy. For months, they have called on Biden administration officials to withdraw her nomination. Now that the White House plans to keep her in the acting position indefinitely, those calls can be expected to intensify.
“It is my view that this use of the Succession Act violates the constitutional provision of advice and consent and would potentially open any [Department of Labor] action under Julie Su’s leadership to legal challenges,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in a letter to Biden, calling on the president to withdraw Su’s nomination.
“If your administration believes Ms. Su cannot receive the necessary votes for confirmation, then you should rescind her nomination,” wrote Cassidy, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Any attempts to bypass the will of Congress, especially its constitutionally mandated advice and consent role, is unacceptable.”
A spokesperson for Stand Against Su, which describes itself as “a coalition of small businesses, freelancers, tipped workers and franchisees working together to oppose Julie Su,” said that the new strategy represents Biden not wanting “to face the truth.”
“Julie Su flew in last-minute to preside over a West Coast Ports deal that was nearing completion. The Labor Department’s subsequent lack of action in other labor disputes speaks to her lack of negotiation skills,” Rachel Tripp, a spokesperson for the group, told The Times in a statement.
Tripp criticized Biden and Su for allowing union leaders to “hold the American economy hostage,” and pointed to the president’s decision to tap White House senior advisor Gene Sperling to monitor talks with autoworkers as evidence that Su “wasn’t up to the task.”
“This is not what leadership looks like,” she added. “It’s further evidence that Su is the wrong pick for the top Labor job.”