In the summertime of 2019, Uber, Lyft and different corporations that use contract drivers confronted a disaster in California. The State Legislature was poised to move a regulation that will successfully require them to deal with their drivers as workers, which means the gig corporations must pay drivers a minimal wage, cowl their bills and contribute to state unemployment — all vital new prices.
Determined for a approach 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 workforce 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 a distinguished California consulting agency, suggested Uber on easy methods to take care of unions just like the Teamsters and S.E.I.U., and sat in on a number of face-to-face conferences between the gig corporations and union representatives, in line with these acquainted with 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 job 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 last week. Many Democrats cheered the appointment of Ms. Butler, the third Black girl 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 girls and candidates who help 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,” mentioned Veena Dubal, a professor on the College of California, Irvine, Faculty of Legislation, who has argued that Uber’s drivers must be labeled as workers. “She bought out in a very massive approach.”
The negotiations Ms. Butler was concerned in finally fell aside, and the gig corporations turned to a poll initiative with comparable provisions, Proposition 22, that voters passed the following year.
Supporters of Ms. Butler mentioned her time consulting for Uber was scarcely a blip in contrast together with her lengthy historical past of labor advocacy, which incorporates organizing tons of of 1000’s of staff in nursing properties and home-based care and successfully pushing for a statewide $15-per-hour minimum wage.
“Labor hasn’t had a union chief within the Senate in 60 years — not to mention a union president who spent almost 20 years main profitable campaigns to lift the minimal wage and assist staff arrange,” mentioned Jeffrey Lerner, the performing 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 told The San Francisco Chronicle this week that she believed gig drivers “ought to have the protections of employment,” and mentioned her position with Uber “was one which was according to my résumé.” Uber additionally declined to remark.
In 2019, Mr. Newsom’s administration inspired the gig corporations and labor unions to work out their variations over the difficulty, a number of individuals concerned within the discussions mentioned. Uber and Lyft wished to influence the unions to again a invoice they may carry to the Legislature that will exempt their drivers from Assembly Bill 5, which might deal with many classes of gig staff, like freelance writers and janitors, as workers for the needs of employment regulation.
In trade for the exemption, the gig corporations would agree that the drivers may obtain some restricted advantages and be a part of “community driver advocacy organizations” through which the state’s unions would symbolize them and negotiate for some labor rights.
Ms. Butler was introduced in as effectively, with Uber paying the team at the consulting firm where she worked, SCRB Strategies, now known as Bearstar Methods, $185,000 in 2019 and 2020. She was seen primarily as a translator, serving to firm managers perceive the subtleties of labor leaders’ positions and body arguments in ways in which would attraction to the unions, in line with a number of individuals acquainted with the discussions, who declined to be recognized as a result of they weren’t licensed to debate inner Uber points or didn’t wish to air inner conflicts within the labor motion.
One particular person mentioned Ms. Butler was anticipated to tackle different duties as effectively, together with speaking together with her former union colleagues a couple of potential compromise. It was additionally anticipated that she would possibly assist with a public relations technique to influence lawmakers and most people that AB-5 could have negative effects on gig workers, 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 workforce, in line with two individuals with information of the calls. She answered their questions and suggested Uber to make use of fewer obscure tech trade buzzwords and be extra easy 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 aspect of the negotiating desk rankled lots of the state’s most distinguished labor unions, a number of union officers mentioned, though they didn’t wish to talk about 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’ workplaces 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’ prime 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 position in the course of the conferences she attended was minimal, in line with a number of individuals. She sat on the sidelines listening, exchanged temporary niceties with the union leaders she knew and as soon as made introductions throughout a gathering through which 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 reducing 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 staff. The talks fizzled out.
Meeting Invoice 5 handed that fall and took impact the next 12 months, 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 unbiased contractors and offered them restricted advantages, like a wage flooring and a few medical health insurance stipends. The measure is currently facing a legal challenge.
Ms. Butler was not concerned within the Prop. 22 marketing campaign and left the consulting agency in 2020 to turn into a director of public policy at Airbnb, the short-term house 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 resort jobs. (Airbnb has mentioned many different components have brought about rents to rise in New York and that its enterprise mannequin has helped drive down lodging prices for customers.) One of the company’s chief adversaries in New York had been the Lodge Trades Council, a robust union.
Mary Kay Henry, S.E.I.U.’s worldwide president, mentioned Ms. Butler was a “transformational” labor chief and urged that her pro-worker voice being a part of Uber’s negotiating workforce might have been a profit for staff.
“She’s who I’d need within the room serving to companies perceive what staff need and want,” Ms. Henry mentioned.
However the animosity Ms. Butler engendered amongst organized labor stays, and supporters of these working for the everlasting Senate seat — who embrace Representatives Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter — have been fast to resurrect the difficulty. If Ms. Butler runs for a full time period, the unions must determine whether or not to help her. Some, together with a firefighters’ union, a film set workers’ 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 occasion determined this week to push again that date to Oct. 27 to present Ms. Butler time to use if she decides to run, mentioned Rusty Hicks, the state occasion’s chair.
For some Democrats, Ms. Butler’s appointment attracts consideration to a deeper messaging downside inside 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 occasion’s ties to massive companies.
“For this reason many working class voters have this distaste for the Democratic Occasion and loads of them went to Trump,” mentioned Larry Cohen, the previous president of the Communications Employees of America, which represents tons of of 1000’s of staff at corporations 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 document of combating for working households both doesn’t know what they’re speaking about or has some type of political ax to grind,” he mentioned.