From union organizer to U.S. Senator: Butler succeeds Feinstein
Laphonza Butler, the next U.S. Senator from California. | AP

SACRAMENTO—For the first time in memory, a (former) union organizer is a U.S. Senator, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom named Laphonza Butler to succeed the late Dianne Feinstein. Many in labor and progressive circles are hailing Newsom’s choice, but questions are also emerging about the nature of Butler’s past work in the world of corporate consulting on behalf of big business.

Butler is now president of EMILY’s List, a Democratic campaign committee devoted to electing more women, especially pro-choice women, to Congress. Newsom promised that if he had to select a senator, he would select a Black woman, but not one who is campaigning for the next general election in 2024 when the seat will be up.

That ruled out Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, the favorite of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the only lawmaker to vote against the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Newsom also passed over former CBC Chair Karen Bass, the Los Angeles mayor.

Butler started with SEIU organizing nurses in Baltimore and Milwaukee, janitors in Philadelphia, and hospital workers in New Haven, Conn., before moving to California and starting her rise within the union.

She later served as an advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris, including on Harris’s short campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Newsom noted Butler served for a decade as president of SEIU Local 2015, which represents more than 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout the state, rising later to become president of SEIU California.

Before that, Butler was president of SEIU United Long Term Care Workers and its Property Services Division Director, directing the organizing of more than 250,000 janitors, security officers, window cleaners, and food service workers nationally.

Local 2015’s current president, Arnulfo de la Cruz, was pleased to see his predecessor become a senator.

“Today is a proud day for SEIU 2015 and hundreds of thousands of caregivers across California as our dynamic and inspiring former president of over a decade, Laphonza Butler, was appointed by Governor Newsom to fill the seat of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” de la Cruz said in a statement.

Butler “will bring a fresh perspective to the Senate from her decades of experience in the labor movement fighting for racial and economic justice, as well as her experience being a mother and serving as an inspiration for young women of color everywhere.”

Butler is also lesbian and an activist on pro-LGBTQ causes. Butler and her spouse Neneki have a daughter.

De la Cruz credited Butler with leading the union to “inspirational and impactful historic victories” statewide, including passage of the nation’s first $15 statewide minimum wage.

While Butler is being widely lauded by progressives and organized labor, some are raising questions about her work in the world of corporate consulting after her departure from the union scene. Upon leaving SEIU, Butler became a partner at SCRB Strategies, a political and business consulting group now called Bearstar Strategies.

Though Harris, Newsom, and other Democrats were among the company’s clients during her time there, so were corporate giants like Uber.

According to a report from Bloomberg in 2019, Butler “advised and represented Uber in its dealings with organized labor on employment issues.” Uber was part of a coalition of businesses and conservative groups that spent more than $200 million on a successful California ballot initiative to let gig economy companies call their workers “independent contractors” rather than employees.

That designation allows companies to dodge responsibility for paying minimum wage and providing many health and other benefits. It also prevents workers from joining a union. While Butler worked for SCRB, Uber paid the firm over $185,000 to navigate the fight on the ballot initiative.

PG&E was another client of the firm, seeking guidance as it battled state regulators over upgrades to its power infrastructure aimed at preventing wildfires and a gas explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif. PG&E paid $1.1 million to SCRB.

In 2020, she left SCRB to become North American Policy Director at Airbnb, a job that put her in charge of the short-term rental company’s Washington lobbying team. While Butler was advocating for Airbnb’s corporate interests in Congress, the company was embroiled in public disputes over how it was affecting housing affordability, the difficulty local governments have collecting taxes from it, and antitrust concerns related to its near-monopoly position in the short-term rental market.

It’s Bulter’s time at Uber during its major clash with labor, though, which is raising the most concerns.

Jeff Hauser heads the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group that, according to its mission statement, “scrutinizes executive branch appointees to ensure they use their office to serve the broad public interest, rather than to entrench corporate power or seek personal advancement.” He expressed reservations about the Butler appointment in an interview with Politico on Monday.

“This is a connection that is not just aesthetically unpleasing, it is substantively relevant to how Butler will carry on her role as senator, and Big Tech is one of the few potential bipartisan areas of agreement,” he said, referring to antitrust legislation that was torpedoed in the last Congress, in part by Democrats with ties to Silicon Valley.

“Unfortunately, I think Butler has some of the same flaws that characterize not only Newsom but…many other California Democrats, which is that they think the interests of Big Tech are the interests of Californians or Americans more generally,” he said. “And I think that her work against the Uber drivers is evidence of that.”

The exact nature of Butler’s involvement as an Uber advisor and representative during its struggle against its workers has not yet been reported in detail.

This article includes reporting from Press Associates and other sources.