California has a new senator. With the death of Dianne Feinstein last Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Monday the appointment of Laphonza Butler, head of pro-choice Democratic women candidates’ fundraising organization EMILYs List, to fill the seat.
Earlier in her career Butler spent ten years as president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015, the biggest labor union in California, representing home care workers. She played a role in the union’s successful campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and also served as the president of the SEIU California State Council.
In his announcement following the appointment, Newsom described Butler as “an advocate for women and girls” and “a second-generation fighter for working people.” Butler has been sworn in and has stated she will continue Feinstein’s legacy by “committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California.” She would be the first black lesbian senator in the state’s history.
Surely Butler, with her background in labor and reproductive rights organizing, is a win for the Left, right? Think again. While her history is indeed fairly progressive, in recent years her career has taken a sharp conservative turn.
Before becoming president of EMILYs List she was director of public policy and campaigns at Airbnb, a multibillion-dollar corporation that has come under increased scrutiny for its role in pushing up rents and fueling the housing shortage.
More egregiously, in 2019, Butler worked as a consultant for SCRB Strategies and helped Uber to pass Proposition 22 in California. The bill exempts app-based gig companies from classifying their workers as employees. This allows them to bypass essential worker rights like a minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, expenses reimbursement, and benefits like unemployment compensation.
Uber and other companies including Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, and Instacart dumped $205 million in their “Yes on Prop 22” campaign. It was the most expensive ballot measure in US history.
The propaganda campaign, which Butler helped to orchestrate, plastered the airwaves and social media with misleading talking points, like claiming that Proposition 22 would actually increase workers’ rights. This certainly played a role in the measure’s passage, as a survey of California voters found that 40 percent of yes voters thought they were voting for gig workers to have a living wage.
The app companies promised that workers would get generous benefit packages in exchange for not being labeled employees. This also proved to be a lie. A study found that in order to get a health care stipend, workers needed to buy a policy in advance and work enough hours to even qualify. Surveys show that only 15 percent of workers even bothered applying.
As usual, the companies claimed that this continued misclassification of their workforce was needed to keep prices low. But after Prop 22 passed, they raised prices anyway.
Workers misclassified as independent contractors are legally barred from forming or joining a labor union. Therefore, it is an existential issue for labor that will surely be a pivotal legal battleground in the years to come. When faced with a choice, Butler chose to actively help Uber squash basic workers’ rights and set a terrible precedent for the labor movement going forward.
Butler’s career, with her slow drift from labor leader to corporate advocate, is a perfect metaphor for the Democratic Party’s decades-long retreat from pro-labor policies. In a conscious decision dating back to the 1990s, Democrats have chosen to ditch labor in favor of a rising class of professionals now exemplified by the tech industry.
This new brand of Democrats is diligently progressive on cultural issues while fundamentally reactionary on issues of economic inequality. In this sense, Butler, whose credentials as a person of color and and LGBTQ person are apt to distract from her pro-corporate record, is the perfect embodiment of the modern Democratic Party.
It is no surprise that Newsom would make this move either. The California governor, who clearly has presidential ambitions of his own, recently vetoed a bill that would give unemployment pay to workers on strike.
He also vetoed a bill that would have banned self-driving trucks from operating in the state without a safety operator aboard. As a fundamental issue of jobs and safety, the Teamsters union rallied and lobbied to get it passed. They even led a convoy of truckers to the state capital in support of the bill. Newsom’s veto was just one more sign that when it really matters the leaders of the state’s Democratic Party are more beholden to big tech than labor.
The Butler appointment also demonstrates another feature of the modern Democratic Party: a misguided notion that high-level race-based appointments will satisfy and cohere racial voting blocs. Before Feinstein’s death, Newsom had already committed to appointing a black woman to the seat, a move that echoed President Joe Biden’s promise of appointing a black vice president.
It’s barely hidden that part of the goal of these appointments is to gin up desperately needed enthusiasm among black voters. However, it’s not clear there is always an inherent connection between the presence of black candidates and the support of black voters. Kamala Harris struggled with black voters during the 2020 primary, trailing behind Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and even Senator Elizabeth Warren in some cases.
Of course there is a black candidate who could’ve been appointed. Representative Barbara Lee had clearly stated her interest, and has a progressive record more in line with the average Californian voter. She was famously the sole vote in Congress against authorizing the use of force after the September 11 attacks. Even the Congressional Black Caucus, hardly a left-wing body, penned a letter to Newsom urging him to appoint Lee. Perhaps her pro-corporate bona fides were insufficient to land her the job.
We are presently seeing the two souls of the Democratic Party fighting it out. While scenes like the Biden walking the UAW picket line are hopeful, the career of Butler is a sobering reminder that the party’s impulses remain largely unchanged. While some of her past is laudable, Butler represents a trajectory the Democratic Party cannot afford to stay on.