In the summertime of 2019, Uber, Lyft and different firms that use contract drivers confronted a disaster in California. The State Legislature was poised to go a regulation that will successfully require them to deal with their drivers as workers, that means the gig firms must pay drivers a minimal wage, cowl their bills and contribute to state unemployment — all important new prices.
Determined for a method out, the businesses pushed legislators to exempt their drivers from the brand new regulation, saying they confronted large financial losses. However they wished the backing of the state’s unions for the exemption, and promised to increase some new advantages for drivers if the unions acquired on board.
So Uber introduced in a group of high-powered consultants, together with one whose connections with organized labor have been unimpeachable: Laphonza Butler, the previous president of California’s largest union, a department of the Service Workers Worldwide Union.
Ms. Butler, working by means of a distinguished California consulting agency, suggested Uber on the right way to cope with unions just like the Teamsters and S.E.I.U., and sat in on a number of face-to-face conferences between the gig firms and union representatives, in line with these aware of the negotiations.
The overture to labor divided union activists, a few of whom bristled at negotiating with the businesses, and finally, it failed. However Ms. Butler’s chapter with Uber proved to be a pivotal second in her profession, transferring from labor activism to the world of high-powered political consulting, which additionally concerned a task in advising Vice President Kamala Harris in her 2020 presidential marketing campaign.
On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California introduced that he was naming Ms. Butler because the state’s subsequent senator, changing Dianne Feinstein, who died final week. Many Democrats cheered the appointment of Ms. Butler, the third Black lady to serve within the Senate and a distinguished determine in Democratic politics for greater than a decade who most lately served as president of Emily’s Record, the political motion committee that works to elect ladies and candidates who assist abortion rights.
However the appointment has additionally drawn ire from labor advocates, who haven’t forgotten Ms. Butler’s work consulting with Uber, which some noticed as an uncomfortable reversal from her historical past within the labor motion and the values she promoted there.
“The sense was she was betraying her dedication to working individuals,” stated Veena Dubal, a professor on the College of California, Irvine, Faculty of Legislation, who has argued that Uber’s drivers ought to be categorised as workers. “She offered out in a extremely large method.”
The negotiations Ms. Butler was concerned in finally fell aside, and the gig firms turned to a poll initiative with related provisions, Proposition 22, that voters handed the next yr.
Supporters of Ms. Butler stated her time consulting for Uber was scarcely a blip in contrast together with her lengthy historical past of labor advocacy, which incorporates organizing a whole bunch of 1000’s of employees in nursing houses and home-based care and efficiently pushing for a statewide $15-per-hour minimal wage.
“Labor hasn’t had a union chief within the Senate in 60 years — not to mention a union president who spent practically 20 years main profitable campaigns to boost the minimal wage and assist employees arrange,” stated Jeffrey Lerner, the appearing chief of workers for Ms. Butler. “That’s Senator Butler’s résumé and people are her values.”
Ms. Butler declined to be interviewed for this text however instructed The San Francisco Chronicle this week that she believed gig drivers “ought to have the protections of employment,” and stated her function with Uber “was one which was in line with my résumé.” Uber additionally declined to remark.
In 2019, Mr. Newsom’s administration inspired the gig firms and labor unions to work out their variations over the problem, a number of individuals concerned within the discussions stated. Uber and Lyft wished to influence the unions to again a invoice they may convey to the Legislature that will exempt their drivers from Meeting Invoice 5, which might deal with many classes of gig employees, like freelance writers and janitors, as workers for the needs of employment regulation.
In change for the exemption, the gig firms would agree that the drivers may obtain some restricted advantages and be a part of “community driver advocacy organizations” wherein the state’s unions would symbolize them and negotiate for some labor rights.
Ms. Butler was introduced in as nicely, with Uber paying the group on the consulting agency the place she labored, SCRB Methods, now referred to as Bearstar Methods, $185,000 in 2019 and 2020. She was seen basically as a translator, serving to firm managers perceive the subtleties of labor leaders’ positions and body arguments in ways in which would enchantment to the unions, in line with a number of individuals aware of the discussions, who declined to be recognized as a result of they weren’t approved to debate inner Uber points or didn’t wish to air inner conflicts within the labor motion.
One individual stated Ms. Butler was anticipated to tackle different duties as nicely, together with speaking together with her former union colleagues a few potential compromise. It was additionally anticipated that she would possibly assist with a public relations technique to influence lawmakers and most of the people that AB-5 may have damaging results on gig employees, although it was not clear whether or not she agreed to take action.
Ms. Butler participated in occasional convention calls with the corporate’s public affairs group, in line with two individuals with information of the calls. She answered their questions and suggested Uber to make use of fewer imprecise tech trade buzzwords and be extra simple in speaking with the unions.
Ms. Butler instructed the Uber workers that she would assist them so long as it didn’t betray her values, one of many individuals recalled.
Nonetheless, Ms. Butler’s presence on the opposite facet of the negotiating desk rankled most of the state’s most distinguished labor unions, a number of union officers stated, though they didn’t wish to focus on the matter publicly as a result of they didn’t wish to cross Mr. Newsom and Ms. Butler.
The months of discussions stretched from consultants’ places of work in Sacramento to inns in Oakland and the headquarters of Uber and Salesforce in San Francisco. They included giant group negotiations, boards for drivers to share their views with labor organizers and smaller sit-downs between the unions’ high negotiators and gig firm executives, together with John Zimmer, the previous president of Lyft, and Tony West, Uber’s chief authorized officer and the brother-in-law of Vice President Harris.
Ms. Butler’s function in the course of the conferences she attended was minimal, in line with a number of individuals. She sat on the sidelines listening, exchanged transient niceties with the union leaders she knew and as soon as made introductions throughout a gathering wherein drivers gave their perspective to the 2 events.
Leaders of S.E.I.U., the union the place Ms. Butler had previously labored, have been probably the most amenable to slicing a deal, in line with two individuals concerned within the discussions. However many different unions have been strongly opposed, fearing they have been bargaining away essential employment rights for susceptible employees. The talks fizzled out.
Meeting Invoice 5 handed that fall and took impact the next yr, however Uber and Lyft finally acquired what they wished anyway, becoming a member of DoorDash to spend greater than $200 million on Prop. 22, handed by voters in 2020, which maintained gig drivers’ standing as impartial contractors and supplied them restricted advantages, like a wage ground and a few medical insurance stipends. The measure is at present dealing with a authorized problem.
Ms. Butler was not concerned within the Prop. 22 marketing campaign and left the consulting agency in 2020 to turn out to be a director of public coverage at Airbnb, the short-term residence rental firm launched in San Francisco.
Like Uber, Airbnb has confronted regulatory warmth in Democratic, union-friendly strongholds like New York, the place the corporate was being blamed for pushing up rents for working class residents and hurting lodge jobs. (Airbnb has stated many different components have triggered rents to rise in New York and that its enterprise mannequin has helped drive down lodging prices for shoppers.) One of many firm’s chief adversaries in New York had been the Lodge Trades Council, a strong union.
Mary Kay Henry, S.E.I.U.’s worldwide president, stated Ms. Butler was a “transformational” labor chief and advised that her pro-worker voice being a part of Uber’s negotiating group could have been a profit for employees.
“She’s who I’d need within the room serving to firms perceive what employees need and want,” Ms. Henry stated.
However the animosity Ms. Butler engendered amongst organized labor stays, and supporters of these working for the everlasting Senate seat — who embody Representatives Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter — have been fast to resurrect the problem. If Ms. Butler runs for a full time period, the unions should resolve whether or not to assist her. Some, together with a firefighters’ union, a movie set employees’ union and a public transit union have already endorsed Mr. Schiff.
The deadline to hunt the endorsement of the California Democratic Occasion was initially Oct. 13, however the celebration determined this week to push again that date to Oct. 27 to offer Ms. Butler time to use if she decides to run, stated Rusty Hicks, the state celebration’s chair.
For some Democrats, Ms. Butler’s appointment attracts consideration to a deeper messaging drawback throughout the Democratic Occasion. Mr. Newsom would possibly get credit score for appointing an L.G.B.T.Q. Black senator, however her consulting work, to some, highlights the celebration’s ties to large companies.
“This is the reason many working class voters have this distaste for the Democratic Occasion and loads of them went to Trump,” stated Larry Cohen, the previous president of the Communications Staff of America, which represents a whole bunch of 1000’s of employees at firms like Verizon and AT&T.
Mr. Cohen is now chairman of Our Revolution, a progressive advocacy group that lately endorsed Ms. Lee.
However Anthony York, a spokesman for Mr. Newsom, defended the governor’s appointment. “Anybody casting doubt on Senator Butler’s file of preventing for working households both doesn’t know what they’re speaking about or has some form of political ax to grind,” he stated.