As labor union organizing efforts continue to gain steam and the economy slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, “the fight for workers’ rights and civil rights go hand in hand,” according to acting U.S. labor secretary Julie Su.

She spoke at the national NAACP convention in Boston’s Seaport Tuesday, alongside her predecessor (and former mayor of Boston) Marty Walsh, at a panel focused on labor. Su, who started in the role in March, has been serving in an “acting” capacity with the support of the Biden administration without confirmation from Senate. She carved out a strong pro-union stance in her Tuesday speech, saying her department will be “embedding equity” in all of its work and pitched her support for unions as a tool to close the racial wealth gap.

She emphasized the importance of job access and building wealth for Black Americans.

“There's been a continual exclusion from the full promise of economic opportunity and prosperity,” Su said in her remarks. “We are pulling every lever we have at the Department of Labor to change that.”

To Su, that means investing and building up apprenticeship programs, promoting trades, empowering labor unions and financially supporting Black-owned businesses.

“From the first time I came into the Department of Labor, I asked, ‘What are we doing to uplift Black workers?’” Su said in an interview Tuesday with GBH News. “I don’t think you can build the economy that the president envisions without paying attention to the inequities that Black workers have faced.”

The average Black and Hispanic or Latino households own about 15 to 20% as much net wealth and earn about half as much as the average white household, according to data from the Federal Reserve. Due to the racial wealth gap, experts project that the U.S. economy will ultimately lose out on $1 to $1.5 trillion dollars in spending between 2019 and 2028.

Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su speaks at the NAACP convention in Boston, August 1, 2023
Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su speaks at the NAACP convention in Boston, August 1, 2023
Tori Bedford GBH News

Since taking over for Walsh, Su’s role has been precarious and controversial. The acting labor secretary first joined the department in 2021 as deputy secretary, coming from California, where she led the state’s unemployment agency.

Now, she’s spent nearly six months in Senate limbo, waiting for a stalled confirmation vote as Republicans have called on President Joe Biden to withdraw his nomination. Su has been criticized as an “activist” in an ongoing national war between labor unions and corporate interests. Her opponents have also criticized her leadership of California’s unemployment agency during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more than one million legitimate applicants had delayed or frozen claims and at least $20 billion was fraudulently acquired by scammers.

While Su does not appear to have the Senate votes to be officially confirmed, sources in the Biden administration believe she’s entitled to stay in her current “acting” role indefinitely Last month, Biden indicated that she’s not going anywhere.

Walsh took a similar tack when he introduced Su at the NAACP.

“Now, they have ‘acting’ in front of her name. That’s B.S., there’s no acting,” he said. “She's been doing the job, she's been fighting for workers in America, and she's been traveling this country.”

But some are still challenging her legal authority. Last month, Flex Association, a trade group representing app-based companies including DoorDash, GrubHub, Lyft and Uber, sent a letter to the Biden administration arguing that rules and regulations issued under Su lack constitutional authority and political power.

Su told GBH News Tuesday that she and Biden “will still work for confirmation, but not be confined by that process.”

“I'm privileged to get to do it, and my plan is to keep on doing it,” Su said. “The president has said that he wants me to be in that position to do it.”

When asked what she's taken away from California’s challenges with unemployment payments during the pandemic, Su said the Biden administration is investing in state infrastructure to “do what needs to be done to build a stronger system for next time.”

Even before the pandemic, the unemployment insurance benefit program “was like a house with a leaky roof,” Su said. “It didn’t have the technology or the flexibility that was needed, and frankly, many of those benefits are not enough in hard times. Once COVID hit, it was like a situation where you can’t change the roof in the middle of a storm.”

The pandemic sparked a “labor moment” in “industries that were long-shots for a long time,” Su said, referencing a national wave of Starbucks union drives and a vote in May to unionize at an electric bus manufacturing facility in rural Georgia.

“Some of it is workers seizing a moment, especially coming out of a pandemic in which workers saw how essential they were,” Su said. “But without some basic protections like paid leave, we can and we have to do better.”

The labor wave is “exciting,” Su said, and “demonstrates what is possible: workers are given a real chance to organize and come together to demand better working conditions.”

Biden and top officials across his administration are embracing the power of unions. Last year in Boston, Vice President Kamala Harris said she and the president are “determined to lead the most pro-union administration in America's history.”

“I’m so proud to lead the Department of Labor under the most pro-union, pro-worker president in history,” Su said during her speech. “We all know that when we center equity in everything we do, all workers thrive because equity and excellence go hand in hand.”

She cited a 2022 study from the congressional joint Economic Committee showing that union members earn an average of 10% more than their non-union peers. The difference increased for Black workers, who earn an average of 17% more, and Latino workers, who earn 23% higher salaries on average.

“Union organizing is one of the most important ways to strengthen and expand the Black middle class,” she said during her NAACP remarks. “We talk a lot in this country about the value of a college education. But a union job increases lifetime earnings more than a college degree does.”

Though Su has been criticized by Congressional Republicans for her support of labor unions, she’s open about her work to strengthen protections for workers and unions.

“I really respect the collective bargaining process ... and the desire and choice to form a union is up to workers, full stop,” Su said. “But I also think continuing economic policies that create good jobs and that create upward incentives on wages and working conditions is a good thing for all workers.”

Su began her legal career at the Asian-Pacific American Legal Center and served as litigation director for the nonprofit civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles. Su represented garment workers in the El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case in the 1990s, in which she secured visas for victims of human trafficking. It opened up a new legal avenue for attorneys and advocates and ultimately led to Congress creating a new kind of visa to protect victims of crimes. She later became California’s labor commissioner and, in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her to lead the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which oversees unemployment payments.

While her Senate confirmation remains stalled, Su remains focused on what she can do in her current position.

“As long as I am your acting labor secretary, it will be my top priority to make sure that we are embedding equity in everything we do,” Su said during her remarks. “For those of us who get to step into positions that are not seen as available to us at the beginning, when we get there, watch out. Because we do make it count.”