Will it be the Laphonza Butler who served nine years in the California Service Employees International Union (SEIU), first as the cotrustee of its long-term care workers’ branch, then for six years as its president? That Laphonza Butler fought fiercely against austerity measures by both Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic governor Jerry Brown, succeeding in warding off anywhere from hundreds of millions (under Brown) to billions (under Schwarzenegger) of dollars in health care cuts that would have devastated California’s poor, as well as the care workers she represented.
Or will it be the Laphonza Butler who, toward the end of her SEIU tenure, moved into the insular Bay Area political clan responsible for the upward career trajectories of California neoliberals like Gavin Newsom (who appointed her to her Senate seat) and Kamala Harris (“Laphonza stuck with me from the beginning through the end,” Harris said of Butler’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get the union behind her in 2010)?
That Butler ended up joining the consulting firm SCRB (now Bearstar Strategies), whose website proudly touts the company as “California’s top spin doctors,” and whose introductory video prominently features the visage of not just onetime foe Jerry Brown, but, most of all, Harris — even as the vice president’s “tough-on-crime” career has exacerbated the very issues Butler has said animate her activism. (“A fair criminal justice system cannot just criminalize our communities,” Butler once said, as she talked about the “great responsibility that we all have to drive the conversation beyond incarceration toward prevention and rehabilitation.”)
It’s an important question, as we wait to see whether the powerful California Senate seat will be filled by a progressive champion or by someone who long ago subordinated her prolabor sympathies to narrow party loyalties and corporate access. And looking at Butler’s involvement with Airbnb, one gets the sinking feeling it’s going to be the latter.
Airbnb’s Corporate Agenda
Much has already been made of Butler’s work over 2019 as a consultant for Uber, where, according to Bloomberg, she “advised and represented Uber in its dealings with organized labor on employment issues,” at a time when it and other rideshare companies were trying to sink a California bill that extended full-time employee protections to gig workers, eventually spending $200 million to overturn the legislation through a deeply misleading ballot measure campaign.
The undoubtedly well-compensated job (Uber paid SCRB $185,000 for its consulting work from 2019 through 2020) was in direct contradiction to the interests of workers and the efforts of organized labor, which put its weight behind the bill — as well as making a mockery of Butler’s own previous statements. When asked by the Los Angeles Times in 2015 why union membership had declined around the country, Butler responded, in part, by pointing to “the ‘gig’ economy, where you go from job to job — what is the social compact in that work environment?”
Less examined is Butler’s tenure at Airbnb, where, according to her LinkedIn page, Butler served as director of public policy and campaigns in North America from September 2020 to September 2021. Corporate public policy directors tend to have a broad range of responsibilities, like keeping track of policy and legislative changes that affect the company they work for, cultivating good relationships with policymakers and other officials to make sure its interests are represented in government, and designing strategies to make sure public policy benefits its bottom line.
In a few words, they’re the head of the firm’s lobbying arm.
Butler’s hiring wasn’t unusual. By the time she joined Airbnb, the company had been courting the Democratic Party for years and seen a parade of former Obama and Clinton officials take high-profile positions in its ranks, including ex–White House adviser Chris Lehane, who became the company’s policy chief, and former attorney general Eric Holder, hired in 2016 to draw up a strategy against racism and other discrimination against customers. (Whatever he did apparently didn’t work, since years later and even now, complaints about discrimination and their low prioritization at the company continued to plague it). Butler wasn’t even the first hire from SEIU, with Christopher Nulty, a communications official from the union, having joined the firm in 2015.
But it was a peculiar career move for someone who, upon leaving SEIU, had said she wanted to “continue the work that I’ve been doing as an advocate for workers and a voice for workers,” who name-checked fighting poverty as a top priority, and who had campaigned for higher taxes on the rich and insisted she wanted to keep pushing for tax reform in California. It was especially peculiar because Butler had told the press that what she relished about the new role at Airbnb was her ability to work on “economic empowerment.”
By the time Butler started work as Airbnb’s public policy director in September 2020, the company already had a well-established reputation for economic disempowerment. There had been years’ worth of complaints, accusations, and data that the growth in short-term rentals stemming from Airbnb and companies like it had contributed to a growing housing unaffordability crisis around the world, including in US cities like Los Angeles. It was why in 2016, three Democratic senators — including Elizabeth Warren and Butler’s now-predecessor Dianne Feinstein — called for a federal investigation into the short-term rental sector, over concerns it “may be exacerbating housing shortages and driving up the cost of housing.”
A Harvard Business Review study concluded that a 1 percent increase in a city’s Airbnb listings lifted rents and house prices by 0.018 percent and 0.06 percent, respectively, at a time when those listings were growing an average of 44 percent every year. It echoed the results of other studies, including one focused on Los Angeles finding that rents went up one-third quicker than the city average in the seven neighborhoods where half of all Airbnb listings were concentrated, concluding that these rentals “cause rent increases, reduce the housing supply, and exacerbate segregation.” A 2019 report from Economic Policy Institute (EPI) — a union-funded think tank on whose board the SEIU president sits — concluded that “the presence of Airbnb raises local housing costs” and disproportionately benefits “high-wealth households.”
That EPI report also found that “the shift from traditional hotels to Airbnb lodging leads to less-reliable tax payments to cities,” with several large US cities reliant on lodging taxes having been blocked by the company from collecting them on its rentals. In fact, by late 2020, Airbnb had spent years waging what one organization called a “city-by-city, block-by-block guerrilla war” against disparate efforts by local governments to collect such taxes on its rentals, as well as other regulations, a battle that involved inking hundreds of voluntary tax collection agreements with those municipalities. One 2017 report authored by a former tax official concluded that these agreements undermine “tax fairness, transparency, and the rule of law,” that they create “a de facto tax and regulatory haven” for companies like Airbnb, and that government agencies should instead update lodging tax laws to make sure they’re collecting the necessary taxes.
In short, it was very clear by the time Butler accepted the position that Airbnb made housing less affordable, squeezed workers out of neighborhoods, benefited the well-off, and starved governments of the tax revenue they needed to provide local services. But maybe in the name of “economic empowerment,” Butler’s tenure at Airbnb changed all of this?
Butler’s Time at Airbnb
In a word, no. Publicly, the company engaged in feel-good publicity stunts intended to signal that it cared about nice values like equity, alleviating poverty, and combating discrimination. Over the course of Butler’s tenure, it pledged new diversity goals for its workforce, offered temporary housing to Afghan refugees, and banned Capitol rioters from its platform, while its cofounder donated $25 million to Bay Area groups combating homelessness, and its CEO lamented that he and other corporations “could have done so much more” on racial inequality.
But behind the scenes, with Butler leading the company’s lobbying efforts, Airbnb continued to bitterly resist attempts by cities to claw back tax revenue from its listings, as well as various regulations on short-term rentals aimed at stemming the growing housing affordability crisis that was squeezing a growing number of Americans, a disproportionate number of them black and Latino, out of their homes and even onto on the street.
Take California, the state Butler will be representing in the Senate, and for years the epicenter of the growing US housing affordability crisis. Lobbying records show that throughout 2021, Airbnb lobbied the state government on the collection of transient occupancy taxes (TOTs) —the same kind of lodging taxes that hotels pay — on short-term rentals. Ensuring Airbnb hosts and those of similar companies pay such taxes to local governments was, at the time and since, a key battle being waged by California cities.
Those battles have often involved the California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over the state’s beach communities and must first give the thumbs-up to any legislation affecting them before it becomes law. Records show that Airbnb lobbied on the commission’s “proceedings” in the first quarter of 2021 (as well as the following year, when Butler was no longer at the company). As one example, when an ordinance began moving through the San Diego City Council at the start of that year capping short-term rentals at 1 percent of the city’s housing supply — and creating a lottery for who would get to operate such rentals, prioritizing those who, among other things, paid the necessary taxes over the years — it was only able to become law once the commission approved it the following year.
Likewise, when in October 2020 the city of Oxnard finished a four-year-long effort to regulate short-term rentals, it came after the Coastal Commission made small but key changes to the city ordinance: raising the cap on short-term rentals in the city’s beachfront from 5 to 10 percent, and letting those hosts who had diligently paid the TOT over the years to operate outside of the cap.
Airbnb’s lobbying didn’t just occur at the state level. Lobbying records show the company hired a virtual platoon of lobbyists throughout late 2020 and 2021 to influence the San Diego city government on the specific matter of its short-term rental ordinance. Those lobbyists lobbied all nine members of the city council, as well as the mayor, treasurer, and city attorney, either seeking an amendment to the ordinance, or outright “opposing” it, spending more than $20,000 in the process. The ordinance that passed was ultimately a compromise measure tilted toward the company, with Airbnb’s fiercest critics having demanded a total ban on short-term rentals in the city.
These efforts went well beyond California — like in Atlanta, for instance. When Airbnb announced it would be opening a new tech hub in the Georgia capital, Butler expressed her excitement that the company would be “in a city with leaders who are committed to economic empowerment.” Airbnb certainly took an interest in that push for economic empowerment: During Butler’s tenure, the company at various points and in different time frames had at least seven different lobbyists in Georgia on its payroll working on the matter of short-term rentals, including four whose job was explicitly to “monitor short term rental ordinances.”
In the end, in March 2021, the Atlanta City Council overwhelmingly passed an ordinance regulating short-term rentals and ensuring they would be subject to the state’s 8 percent hotel-motel tax, over the objections of groups like the Atlanta Metro Short Term Rental Alliance, a coalition of real estate industry figures and short-term rental hosts, and on whose board sit several prominent Airbnb hosts and one of its “ambassadors.” It’s therefore unlikely that Airbnb lobbyists were “monitoring” short-term rental ordinances in the state simply because they were interested in how local leaders’ efforts at “economic empowerment” were progressing.
Of course Airbnb’s campaign against local regulations and taxes can’t be blamed on Butler alone: they long preceded her time at the company and have continued in the same vein since she departed in September 2021. But no one forced Butler to take the job, where she advanced the company’s strategy of stifling lawmakers’ attempts to rein it in, all while masking that goal with publicity-courting and progressive-seeming gestures.
There have been other signs in Butler’s career that, upon hitching herself fully to the wagon of the Democratic Party, tribal political loyalties may now take higher priority than principle.
Beyond Butler’s dubious claim that advising Harris’s 2020 campaign would serve as a “continuation” of the work she had done at the SEIU — where she had spoken in favor of universal health care, criminal justice reform, and narrowing the wealth gap, all incompatible with the vice president’s career and presidential campaign — Butler took a curiously soft position on California’s Democratic then Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon’s decision in 2017, one year before she left the union to become a consultant, to shelve a single-payer health care bill. While the California Nurses Association denounced the move as “cowardly,” “disingenuous,” and an act of carrying water for the insurance industry, Butler responded that the bill had “opened up a crucial conversation about how California should proceed,” that “there is a lot of work to do on” the bill, and that the SEIU “remain[ed] eager to engage in that conversation.”
More recently, the Intercept has reported that, as head of the pro-choice electoral group EMILY’s List the past two years, Butler laid off a spate of staff members while shifting to hiring consultants and spending big on promoting Butler’s old ally, Vice President Harris, who has been floundering in the position. At the same time, after being appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, Butler sided with the university’s student association and campus organization and voted in the minority against a sharp tuition hike in 2021, perhaps suggesting that she hasn’t entirely abandoned her sympathies for the working class.
Still, Butler’s work with Uber and, especially, Airbnb may be the biggest red flags of all: well-paid corporate positions that were entirely her choice to take, and that made her directly complicit in betraying the workers she once fought for and the values she claimed to hold. Maybe upon taking office, having climbed the political ladder, she’ll surprise us all. But don’t hold your breath.