By Michael Finnegan/Melanie Mason
The passage of a landmark bill aimed at increasing wages and benefits for ride-share drivers and many others has put Sen. Kamala Harris of California in an awkward spot.
The Democratic presidential candidate has close connections, both familial and political, with the troubled ride-sharing giant Uber, but has sided with organized labor in backing the measure that the state Legislature passed on Wednesday. The bill limits businesses’ ability to use independent contractors, who have fewer protections under labor law than employees.
Harris’ brother-in-law, Tony West, one of her top political advisors since she first ran for San Francisco district attorney in 2003, has become the public face of Uber’s resistance to the bill. West, who is married to Maya Harris, the senator’s sister and campaign chairwoman, is Uber’s chief legal officer.
Maya Harris’ daughter, Meena Harris, also works at Uber on the diversity and inclusion team.
West told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that Uber and its ride-sharing rival Lyft were ready to spend more than $60 million on a 2020 ballot measure that would replace the new requirements with rules that enable the companies to continue treating its drivers as independent contractors instead of employees.
The bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign into law, could grant hundreds of thousands of workers new job benefits and pay guarantees.
Uber spokesman Matt Kallman said West’s role had nothing to do with Harris.
“Mr. West has never lobbied Sen. Harris, her Senate office or anyone on her campaign on this or any other issue,” he said.
In addition to West, Laphonza Butler, another senior Harris campaign strategist, was hired to advise Uber in its dealings with organized labor regarding the conflict.
Butler, who used to lead SEIU California, is a partner at SCRB Strategies, a San Francisco consulting firm that Uber paid $105,000 during the first half of the year, according to records filed with the California secretary of state. The firm’s other partners are Juan Rodriguez, who is Harris’ campaign manager, and Sean Clegg and Ace Smith, both senior strategists on her campaign.
The Harris campaign had no immediate comment, and Butler could not be reached. David Beltran, a spokesman for SCRB Strategies, said the firm does not plan on working on the potential ballot initiative threatened by Uber to overturn the measure.
For Harris, the clash between labor and the ride-sharing companies is significant because the decline of workers’ economic security is a major issue in the presidential campaign.
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said Harris, a longtime ally of organized labor, had no choice but to back the legislation.
“Not just because labor is in favor of it, but because she’s going to look otherwise like she’s making a decision to benefit her family,” Levinson said.
When Uber drivers around the world went on strike in May, Harris voiced support for them on Twitter.
She did not officially take a position on the measure until late August, when her campaign spokesman told Vice News she backs the bill and believes “it’s critical we ensure a robust social safety net for all workers and support their right to join a union.”
Other presidential candidates also weighed in support of the measure, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation, said the measure, Assembly Bill 5, “is historic legislation that’s rightfully garnering national attention.
“We’re encouraged to see presidential candidates talking about critical issues like worker misclassification and corporate accountability. We appreciate the support the legislation received from numerous candidates, including Sen. Harris,” Smith said. “She’s long been an ally to working people, so it’s no surprise that she would come out strongly, as other candidates did, in favor of making AB 5 the law in California.