South Bay labor unions vote for their next leader — for now
Jean Cohen is pictured in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Jean Cohen.

Silicon Valley’s labor leaders selected Jean Cohen as their new interim executive officer, a little more than a month after Ben Field stunned political insiders by abruptly resigning.

The executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, a powerful coalition of more than 100 unions, resigned July 13, less than two weeks after a heated, 9-hour debate by the San Jose City Council over a failed measure to give Mayor Sam Liccardo two more years in office and boost his authority.

Cohen, a longtime political leader and activist, is the communications director for UA Local 393, which represents plumbers, steamfitters and HVAC professionals. She was viewed by many in the labor camp as a frontrunner to succeed Field.

“It’s very humbling to be elected by the delegates of the South Bay Labor Council,” Cohen said. “I was raised in a union household with parents and a community that educated and exposed me to the transformative power of collective action and organizing.

“Those experiences shaped my passion and commitment to the labor movement and its values,” she added. “I am motivated by opportunities and responsibilities to dismantle anti-worker opponents who utilize racism, classism and sexism to move a self-serving capitalist agenda.”

Cohen also is the 1st vice president on the South Bay Labor Council and serves as the vice chair of the Santa Clara Democratic Party. She has deep political ties, having previously worked for San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez and state Sen. Jim Beall.

Cohen’s appointment, recommended by the South Bay Labor Council’s executive board, was approved Aug. 17 by delegates.

Field told San José Spotlight Cohen is best equipped to lead the labor council through the upcoming election season. Labor leaders are heavily involved in several high-stakes political campaigns, including San Jose’s District 4 City Council race where they hope to replace conservative Councilmember Lan Diep with a progressive, David Cohen.

“Jean has experience running campaigns and she’s got the relationships with the affiliates and allies and skills needed to succeed in the campaign work, just as we have succeeded in the past,” Field said. “She inherits an organization that’s strong and unified in support of the progressives in our key races.”

Cohen said her goals for the organization include winning “as many elections as possible in November” using the experience of the labor council’s staff, volunteers and political field program.

She also wants to build power for working people, she said, and support the unions and their members during the unprecedented COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

The South Bay Labor Council’s 5-person transition team — led by building trades head David Bini — will look for a permanent replacement for Field by the end of November. That means Cohen will lead the labor movement through the fall election season.

Field’s last day is Aug. 31. He said he’s leaving the organization in good financial shape with a strong leadership team.

“Last night was my last delegate meeting — it’s bittersweet,” he said. “It’s been 11 years and I know people have a hard time believing it but for me it’s been a fun ride. There have definitely been bumps along the way but it’s been a pleasure.”

As for his permanent replacement, Field said the transition committee will conduct a broad search but Cohen will get “very serious consideration” if she applies.

Cohen would not say if she’ll apply for the permanent job.

“I love my current job working for the plumbers and pipefitters union,” she said. “I am committed to leading the council through the election season and my focus is on supporting the staff and affiliates to ensure victory in November for working families.”

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