Less than a month after a key measure to change San Jose’s election dates failed to make it to the fall ballot, South Bay Labor Council CEO Ben Field has stepped down from his post amidst an angry chorus of internal criticism.
The leadership change occurred in the run-up to hotly-contested November local races.
South Bay Labor’s member unions and political allies remain divided over a deal to retool the Fair Elections initiative, which would have moved mayoral races to presidential election years, when a larger turnout of infrequent voters gives a labor-friendly candidate an edge at capturing the city’s top political office.
Portions of the measure—which campaign filings reveal a labor-funded campaign committee spent $765,778 to promote in the past year—were incorporated into a “strong mayor” proposal that the city council voted July 1 to place on the November ballot.
According to sources familiar with the saga, Field cut a deal with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo via an intermediary.
City lobbyist disclosures show 18 communications between mayoral chief of staff Jim Reed and union political consultant Tom Saggau between June 10 and June 29. Saggau represents the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Sprinkler Fitters trade unions.
Both POA and MEPS supported the plan.
The accord was seen as beneficial to Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who hopes to run to succeed Liccardo in 2024, when her term also ends.
Downtown Councilman Raul Peralez, who has been eyeing a mayoral run in 2022, opposed the pact, which had been supported by the very Police Officers’ Association to which he once paid dues as a San Jose officer.
Field was reportedly caught off guard by the increasingly independent self-described “Latino coalition,” whose five votes he’d assumed would automatically fall into line behind a labor council-negotiated initiative.
“I let him know immediately that I was opposed,” Councilwoman Maya Esparza said of a conversation she had with Field. “He continued to call us. I did speak to him on the day this came to council. I think he called me five times that day.”
Esparza called it a “backroom deal,” as did her colleagues, Peralez and Magdalena Carrasco. “I’m no one’s puppet,” Carrasco said. “I make my own decisions.”
She said Field called her on June 18 and let her know that “we finally have a deal that will finally allow us to move forward on the elections. The SVO won’t sink a lot of money to oppose it. He mentioned the expanded [mayoral] powers but did not go into it. Then he also went into the two-year extension [of Liccardo’s term],” Carrasco recalls. City lobbying reports show Field also texted councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas, Peralez and Esparza the same day.
“He sent over the memo. This was the memo they wanted me to sign on to, and they wanted me to carry the memo … after I read it I decided I was not going to do that.”
The D5 rep said she also received a call from Chavez urging her to support the accord.
Peralez said his main objection to the measure involved the lack of public deliberation, community input and the “rushed timing” over something so consequential.
“For me,” Peralez said, “it was, like, why was nobody included?”
Field’s departure was reported by San Jose Spotlight, a labor-supported local news site on whose board sits a key officer of the San Jose Residents for Fair Elections committee, with comments praising Field’s leadership for such accomplishments as the homelessness eradication initiative, Measure A.
David Bini, who is the executive director of the Santa Clara and San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council and sits on the South Bay Labor Council’s board, said Field’s resignation came as a surprise.
“Ben has always been there for me when I’ve had questions on process or questions on how to bring people together,” he said. “He’s always had an open-door policy. It’s just been his normal way of doing business that I’ve seen.”
Bini cited the establishment of the Santa Clara County Office of Labor Standards Enforcement as one of Field’s biggest accomplishments for the local labor movement.
Working Partnerships USA Executive Derecka Mehrens told San Jose Inside that Field’s “leadership, tenacity and vision” has been a crucial part of her organization’s accomplishments.
“Under Ben’s leadership we accomplished the biggest organizing breakthrough in Silicon Valley in two decades, with more than 8,000 low-wage, immigrant workers of color in subcontracted jobs in tech winning a union, living wages, healthcare, and pensions,” she said. “And that doesn’t include the policy work to raise the minimum wage for more than 250,000 workers in this region, win fair scheduling rules for part-time workers, the highest and most comprehensive living wage ordinance in the country.”
Field spent eight years as the union consortium’s executive officer. Before that, he worked for 15 years as a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County.
He followed former San Jose Councilwoman Chavez, who stepped down as the labor council’s exec to run for District 2 county supervisor when George Shirakawa pleaded guilty to felony charges of official misconduct.
Field’s license to practice law was suspended for four years in 2010 after the State Bar determined a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence. His law license was reactivated six months ago, on Dec. 31.
The South Bay Labor Council had revenues of $1,046,532 in 2018, according to the organization’s Form 990 posted to Guidestar. In addition to SBLC, the council exec manages political campaign spending for aligned campaign committees, such as the Committee on Political Education.
Field drew a salary of $148,181 in 2019, and $25,776 in additional compensation.
Jennifer Wadsworth and Grace Hase also contributed to this report.