After nine years leading Silicon Valley’s powerful labor council, Ben Field is resigning from the South Bay Labor Council.
“It was a tough decision to make but in the end it became clear to me that this was the right time for me to move on both for my family and the institution,” Field told San José Spotlight Monday evening, hours after he made the announcement to his executive board during a meeting. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to leave the labor movement.”
Field, 55, led the labor council as its executive officer through some of its biggest political fights — and triumphs.
Over the course of his career, Field spearheaded a $950 million bond measure for homeless housing, a minimum wage increase that affected 250,000 San Jose employees, tenant protections and the Opportunity to Work initiative that boosted hours for part-time workers.
“Thousands and thousands of working families are better off today because of Ben’s vision, leadership and hard work,” said Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez, who preceded Field as head of the labor council. “Without Ben we would not have had the minimum wage increase, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, the Opportunity to Work initiative or any number of other systemic changes that benefit working families.”
But the labor movement recently took a major blow when an initiative leaders spent nearly a year organizing fell short of qualifying for the November ballot. That measure, called the Fair Elections Initiative, would’ve shifted the city’s mayoral election to presidential years and prohibited campaign contributions from certain special interests, such as landlords and developers.
Then, without any public discussion, some provisions of the failed ballot measure appeared on Mayor Sam Liccardo’s proposed “strong mayor” initiative to give him more powers and extend his term by two years. Sources close to the negotiations say union bosses from certain building trade unions cut a deal with the mayor and his allies in return for their support.
That deal left five San Jose councilmembers who voted against the measure — the so-called Latino Caucus — in the dark.
Now, labor leaders are split on the strong mayor measure backed by Liccardo. Key insiders say the primary city unions — who are most affected by changes the strong mayor initiative would bring — were not consulted about the measure. They felt blindsided, sources said.
But Field says the division within the labor movement over the strong mayor measure had nothing to do with his departure.
“It’s unclear right now where the labor council will be on the measure,” Field said Monday. “The position on the measure will affect what the labor movement does in the fall — whether the labor movement will be campaigning on the measure.”
Field’s departure comes as the labor lobby throws its weight behind some significant political campaigns, including the fight to flip the San Jose City Council District 4 seat.
Field isn’t sure what he’ll do next and has no definitive plans, though he’ll stay in the Bay Area.
“I don’t have anything else lined up. I’m going to take some time to really think about what I want to do next,” said Field, who joined the labor council in 2009 as Chavez’s chief of staff.
Field said, however, that he hopes labor leaders replace him with a woman of color. The last three executive officers for the labor council were women — and two were women of color.
“I think it’s a great time to bring some new leadership into the position that represents groups that are underrepresented,” he added. “The labor movement needs to be better about that. I hope the executive board will move in that direction and involve me in the process.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.