Force behind Calif.'s $15 wage is named the state's new U.S. senator

Laphonza Butler comes to the job after spending much of her career leading the SEIU's California chapter.
Butler led the California chapter of SEIU's union for healthcare and nursing home workers for a decade. | Illustration by Marty McCake

A former union chief who was instrumental in raising California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour has been named by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve out the remainder of Dianne Feinstein’s term as U.S. senator.

Laphonza Butler is assuming the post after stepping down as president of Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to getting more women elected to public office.

Earlier, she had served for more than a decade as president of what the governor’s office said is California’s largest labor union, Service Employees International Union Local 2015. The group represents 325,000 nursing home and healthcare workers within the state.

In that role, Butler was a forceful advocate of the SEIU’s effort to raise California’s pay floor to what advocates termed a living wage of $15 an hour, the first statewide wage to hit that level. Restaurants and other employers of at least 26 workers were required to pay that scale as of Jan. 1, 2022.  Smaller businesses were obliged to pay that level as of Jan. 1 of this year.

Butler also held senior positions in the presidential campaigns of Kamala Harris, the current U.S. vice president, and Hillary Clinton,000

Her appointment comes as the SEIU celebrates what it calls a major victory for labor in California. Last week Newsom signed a bill that will raise the minimum wage for most 557,000 fast-food workers within the state to $20 an hour starting April 1. The new law also establishes a panel with significant labor representation to adjust the minimum every year. The union is regarded as the major force behind the bill

In announcing her appointment, the governor noted that Butler will notch several firsts in her new role. She is the first Black openly gay woman to serve in Congress and the first LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate, according to Newsom.

“Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.,” Newsom said in a statement.

Feinstein died last week at age 90, the longest-serving female senator in U.S. history. Her term runs through 2024.

Before Feinstein’s death, Newsom had said that he would not name any of the announced candidates for her office if the senator had to vacate the office for health reasons before her term expired. Feinstein had indicated that she would not seek re-election.

His comments were taken as a sign that whomever he named to the job would not be interested in running for the post next year.

The governor also indicated that he would appoint a Black woman to the post.

The announced candidates for the senate post include Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, all of whom are Democrats currently representing California districts in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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