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Kamala Harris is backing a landmark California labor bill that could upend the gig economy and hand workers significantly more rights, a stand that's at odds with her own brother-in-law as well as a top campaign adviser who also works for Uber.
Harris's campaign tells VICE News that she supports a bill working its way through her state’s legislature that would codify a California Supreme Court ruling that could force gig economy companies like Uber, Lyft, Doordash and Postmates to give their workers more rights and higher pay.
That 2018 court ruling, known as Dynamex, put the onus on companies to prove their workers aren't employees rather than independent contractors who have far fewer legal rights. The pending legislation, AB5, defines which industries are exempt from that ruling. Gig companies like Uber aren’t included, meaning they may have to dramatically change how they compensate their workers, and what legal rights and protections those workers have.
Among them: minimum wage, overtime pay, and a right to unionize.
"She supports AB5 and what the California Supreme Court held in Dynamex, and she believes we need to go even further to bolster worker protections and benefits and elevate the voice of workers,” Harris campaign spokesman Ian Sams told VICE News. “In our evolving economy, she believes it's critical we ensure a robust social safety net for all workers and support their right to join a union.”
That newly announced position seems to put Harris at odds with her own brother-in-law as well as a top campaign adviser. Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West is married to Maya Harris, Kamala’s sister and campaign chairwoman. West and Harris are close — he was actively involved in her runs for San Francisco district attorney, their families routinely vacation together, and he’s long been a power player in California Democratic fundraising circles — though he has no direct role in the campaign.
Laphonza Butler has also been doing consulting work for Uber at the same time she’s been working on Harris’s presidential campaign.
“Drivers don’t want to be employees,” West recently claimed in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, arguing instead for a new “framework to support individuals who choose independent work” rather than classifying drivers as employees.
When asked in that interview if his Uber position causes “any dissent” at home, West said “no.”
California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D), AB5’s chief sponsor, said she was glad Harris was on board with the legislation.
Gonzalez met with West early in the bill’s process, and said from what she heard in that meeting and in his recent public remarks, he and Harris “don’t appear to be in the same place” on the legislation.
Harris has been vocal about supporting legal changes to protect against the misclassification of gig workers — she cosponsored Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2018 bill backing a national “ABC test” that creates a much higher burden of proof for companies to say their workers are contractors and not employees that’s similar to the California Supreme Court ruling. She also tweeted support of a one-day national strike of Lyft and Uber drivers earlier this year:
She hadn’t taken a stand on AB5 until now, however, even as some of her primary opponents have rallied to support for the bill. Sanders is for it, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently penned an op-ed calling for California lawmakers to pass the bill to stop the “shameful exploitation of ‘gig economy’ workers.” This move puts her on the side of labor, and could blunt accusations about her coziness with big tech.
The fight is unlikely to end with AB5. The issue will almost certainly go to court, and there are already rumblings about a potential ballot referendum sponsored by big business to overturn or limit the Dynamex ruling. One company has already polled on the issue, though Uber and Lyft say it wasn’t them.
Close Uber ties
Uber and Harris have long shared a team of advisers. Her longtime campaign strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg, and presidential campaign manager Juan Rodriguez all work at SCRB Strategies, formerly known as SCN. Butler, the B in the new company name, moved over there late last year after leaving a prominent position with the Service Employees International Union. Harris’s campaign paid SCRB $300,000 for consulting services in the first half of this year; Uber paid them more than $100,000, according to public filings.
Harris’s campaign says she and Butler never discussed AB5, while Uber says that West never lobbied Harris on anything related to the company. Harris’s niece Meena, Maya’s daughter, also works at Uber, though there’s no evidence she is involved at all in the AB5 negotiations.
Harris and Butler, her campaign adviser who is also consulting for Uber, are longtime allies. Butler played a key role in keeping the SEIU from endorsing another Democrat over her during Harris’s first run for attorney general in 2010.
“My relationship with Sen. Harris started about 10 years ago when she was running for attorney general, and there are not a lot of labor unions in L.A. who were willing to endorse her,” Butler said recently during a radio interview on KQED. “We sort of came into each other’s lives as peers, and having to adjust has been an interesting adjustment. But I can’t think of anyone else that I would make that kind of a change for.”
Butler, Harris' campaign adviser, has been a polarizing figure in California’s rivalry-driven labor world. Some of that was driven by personality and internal union power politics, but the fight has also been ideological. She’s been a strong proponent of working with growing gig economy companies to try to find common ground on portable benefits and secure some rights for workers.
Back in early 2016, she co-signed a letter also signed by Lyft’s cofounders arguing for portable benefits, a deeply controversial idea within the labor movement that detractors say undercuts workers’ legal rights in exchange for minor concessions.
“Everyone, regardless of employment classification, should have access to the option of an affordable safety net that supports them when they're injured, sick, in need of professional growth, or when it's time to retire,” the letter read.
Butler told the Sacramento Bee at the time that it’d be smart for labor to work with gig economy companies to try to find common ground to help workers: “We can choose to use our organizations to build quality, stable lives for this group of workers who also seem to want to be doing this work.”
Even some of those who were Butler allies during her union days aren’t happy she’s working for Uber now.
“You wonder why somebody would go to what feels like the other side,” said one labor official who wasn’t authorized to talk on-record.
Butler didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, while West, through an Uber spokesman, declined an interview request. An Uber spokesman said they value Butler’s “counsel given her unique experience and perspective” in labor relations.
SCRB Managing Director David Beltran (who happens to be Harris’s former communications director) defended the firm’s work for Uber.
“For more than two decades, SCRB Strategies has worked with labor in California and across the country to fight for better working conditions and higher wages, and to protect the fundamental right to organize. At its core, our work is about helping our clients find solutions to big issues,” he said in a statement. “We stand by the work we do.”
Harris’s campaign says Butler isn’t involved in labor policy on the campaign and is mostly focused on coalition-building with African American voters in early-voting southern states (she’s a native Mississippean).
Uber says it isn’t actively fighting AB5, which looks like it will pass, after attempted negotiations with labor fell apart.
But the company fought hard earlier on to change AB5 behind the scenes. Uber and Lyft both pushed drivers to sign petitions calling on lawmakers to “modernize” the legislation to keep them from being classified as full-time employees.
“Recent changes to California law could threaten your access to flexible work with Uber,” read one message.
Uber also helped bankroll “I’m Independent Coalition,” an astroturf effort to get drivers to demand changes to the law. In one instance, Uber and Lyft paid drivers to attend a rally calling for changes to the bill ahead of a California Senate committee vote.
Lyft and Uber recently published a joint op-ed arguing against reclassifying their workers, claiming it would force them to end the “ freedom and flexibility” enjoyed by current drivers and warning it would “pose a risk to our business.”
Cover: 2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa on August 12, 2019. (Photo: ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images)