A rift in the labor camp: San Jose unions break on ‘strong mayor’ measure

Several San Jose city union representatives fear that city leaders will be beholden to political agendas if a ballot measure in November expands the authority of Mayor Sam Liccardo.

That measure, which last month was narrowly advanced in a 6-5 vote, would give the mayor the ability to hire and fire the city manager and would allow the mayor to direct and appoint department heads. It would also extend Liccardo’s term by two years and align mayoral elections to the presidential cycle. City elected leaders are expected to approve the ballot language July 28.

“We feel like it turns into the potential of having a system of cronyism where the city manager is going to be unwilling to stand up to what the mayor wants because the city manager’s job really depends on who the mayor is,” said Brian Dane, a Municipal Employee Federation Council 57 (MEF) representative.

Liccardo was unavailable for comment, according to a spokesperson.

Although the measure contains initiatives for campaign finance reform, union representatives remain skeptical over the true intent of the initiative after it was approved with limited public input.

They say more power for the mayor would compromise protections and job security for their workers.

The unions standing against the measure include AFSCME-MEF Council 57, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, Operating Engineers Local 3 and International Association of Firefighters Local 230.

Leaving the appointment of key city management positions in the hands of the mayor could also lead to a domino effect in turnover of city staff, said MEF Council 57 President Steven Solorio.

When Solorio worked for Redwood City, he said a similar proposal to expand the mayor’s power was adopted, city officials were shuffled around to meet a goal of increased development.

“The mayor cut the city manager that had worked there for 20 years, and put in the HR director,” Solorio said. “The HR director then fired all the department managers or they retired. They brought in individuals who were business-minded — not necessarily building-minded — and they wanted to produce things.”

However, not all unions oppose the ‘strong mayor’ measure.

Some construction unions reportedly cut a deal behind the scenes to support the measure, a move that sources say caused a deep rift between construction unions and city unions just before South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field resigned. The fallout also revealed a break between those construction unions and the five progressive San Jose Latino councilmembers who opposed the measure.

The supportive union leaders said the measure doesn’t give the mayor as much power as some people think.

“It’s not a strong mayor initiative, in comparing to true strong mayor cities, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland,” said union spokesman Tom Saggau. “Those mayors have veto authority. They get to appoint, in some cases, hundreds and hundreds of positions. They don’t sit on the city council. They act in more of an executive position.”

Saggau represents the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Sprinkler Fitters trade unions, which support the initiative.

“What this initiative does is it expands democracy, democratic opportunities for folks in a presidential year, it enacts some campaign finance reform, and it gives the current mayor an extension over the last 18 months, the ability to hire and fire one individual,” Saggau said. “It’s been dubbed by folks that I think aren’t being genuine with the residents of San Jose. I don’t even know how to characterize it, but certainly not as a strong mayor.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged San Jose, city union bosses say that bowing to the mayor’s political whims could compromise the safety of their workers.

Rosalynn Hughey, the director of Planning, Building & Code Enforcement, refused to fast track certain inspections due to COVID-19 when the mayor demanded for her department to get back on schedule in May. He later apologized after raising the ire of the local NAACP branch.

Dane said her job would’ve been on the line if the mayor had more power over her.

“She was standing up for the safety of our members in that department and really doing things safely,” Dane said. “The mayor was upset about that, really wanting to get development going … If the mayor is able to have control over those department heads, they’re going to be less likely to stand up to him.”

Other union leaders worried that more power for the mayor could stall negotiations on how to protect employees during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

IFPTE Local 21 Representative Matt Mason said that City Manager Dave Sykes managed to negotiate with unions more efficiently to maintain paid administrative leave without any political interference from the mayor.

“Inherently he’s aware that is what he’s been empowered to do without having to worry about his job,” Mason said.

Although a provision in the ballot measure allows the City Council to override a decision by the mayor, Mason said there’s not enough consensus between councilmembers to make a difference.

“There’s a lot of 6-5 (votes),” Mason said. “To override the mayor’s decision on hiring or firing of something like a City Manager or department head and asking for eight people out of ten is a threshold that is likely to never be reached.”

Dane said Liccardo has turned his back on the city’s most essential employees by pushing for this measure.

“It’s really been a slap in the face to these employees who have given everything they have for his constituents, for the people of San Jose.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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