WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Labor said she is playing an active role in ongoing negotiations between West Coast dockworkers and their container terminal employers, including progress reported on Thursday.
“I have been engaged with the parties and our role is to help support them to stay at the table and support them in resolving their issues,” labor secretary nominee Julie Su said during her nomination hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday.
“I recently pressed upon them the urgency of the issue, and I’m pleased they’ve made some progress. There are still issues that need to be resolved, but I think this is a good example of how the collective bargaining process really works.”
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., read to her a quote from Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka praising Su for her close communication and being “on the phone with us morning, noon and night.”
Su stated that her role, if she is confirmed, “would be to — when asked — help make sure that the parties stay at the table, that they are able to grapple with some of the hard issues that they face. If asked to assist I would do so, but I would not give up on the negotiations at this time.”
News of a tentative agreement on several issues, according to reports, comes just two weeks after labor unrest between the Pacific Maritime Association, representing the terminals, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down operations at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.
During the hearing, Su, who became acting secretary of the department after Marty Walsh resigned in February, also touted her experience working with Walsh and Biden to forge a tentative agreement with the Class 1 railroads and their unions during tense negotiations last September.
But GOP members of the committee as well as other Republicans in Congress strongly oppose her nomination given her support for California’s AB5 law on independent contractors. Because the law implements what is known as the ABC test, which essentially requires that truck drivers working with a carrier through lease agreements be classified as employees, that opposition is shared by drivers and carriers that thrive on the business model.
“We are concerned that Ms. Su would continue to pursue an ideologically motivated agenda towards worker classification that ignores the thousands of small-business truckers that depend on the ability to work as an independent contractor,” said Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
“Make no mistake: If Ms. Su were to advance the same policies that she championed in California, it would force hundreds of thousands of truckers to change their business model and put their livelihood in jeopardy.”
Spencer added that OOIDA is ready to work with senators “to address misclassification and improve working conditions in the trucking industry. But we believe that Ms. Su’s confirmation would make it extremely difficult to fix these issues in a way that benefits America’s truckers.”
Su attempted to dispel those fears when asked if she would commit to not trying to force an AB5-type regulation on the rest of the country through a Labor Department rulemaking currently in progress.
“The short answer is yes,” she told the committee. “The California legislature did pass AB5 that codified the ABC test. But when the Department of Labor issued our rule on independent contractor versus employee classification, we explicitly did not include the ABC test in our rule. Only Congress can adopt the ABC test.”
However, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., pointed out that federal agencies can implement rules in a way that accomplishes an agenda that might not reflect the intentions of lawmakers. “So is there an equal commitment to not attempt to do through a rule what would otherwise have the same effect [as including the ABC test]?” Cassidy asked.
“I will commit with absolute certainty that I will always have full faith and fidelity to federal law,” Su responded.
“That’s different,” Cassidy said. “A smart attorney can find all sorts of interpretations of federal law.”
The committee will vote on her appointment next week, and if approved her nomination advances to the Senate floor.
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