[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Labor's New Face

[whitespace] Amy Dean
Christopher Gardner

South Bay labor leader Amy Dean is breathing new life into a working-class coalition that many thought was obsolete in Silicon Valley

By Traci Hukill

THE YOUNGEST woman to head a U.S. labor organization the size of the 100,000-member South Bay Labor Council pulls a fortune from a cookie at Hunan's Garden Restaurant in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood. She saves the paper strips on her desk, tucked into the edges of the monthly planner, taped to a shelf.

"That's why I come here," 34-year-old Amy Dean says lightly, munching on the sugary wafer and holding out a strip of paper bent mid-flutter. "Great fortunes. Never get a bad one."

It reads: "The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next."

This is a relevant maxim. As it turns out, Dean is among the first in the labor movement not only to philosophize but to build on an idea she hopes will take root in the national psyche: that unless aging unions grown stiff and fat reinvent themselves as nimble organizations capable of mirroring today's deft, decentralized new industries, the wage gap already yawning between highly educated, highly skilled workers and those slogging away in the service sector will widen. And the battle for economic justice for working families--what she calls "the civil rights issue of the next century"--will be lost amid fanfare celebrating unprecedented prosperity for a few.

Her superstitious streak appears to end with the fortune cookies, though. From there, political savvy, vision and organizing skills take over. Dean isn't alone in her travails. Under her leadership (her five-year anniversary comes in January) the staff of the South Bay Labor Council has expanded from a handful to more than a dozen. Most of the new arrivals are under 30. Many are Latina. All share responsibility for the Labor Council's increasingly salient profile in a valley dominated by a non-unionized industry.

"I have the brightest staff in the county," Dean brags. "We have a joke that the first week you come to work at the Labor Council, you have a nervous breakdown, because you're used to being the youngest and smartest, and here are all these other people who are also used to being the youngest and smartest. You have to figure out who you are and what you're about."

As eager as Dean is to credit her talented staff's accomplishments, the business and political communities look to her, not her staff, for labor's input. She is the one they praise or criticize, the one they credit with revitalizing a South Bay labor movement that was on its way to becoming an anachronism in go-go Silicon Valley. She's the one they talk about.

And there's plenty to discuss these days. Last month the South Bay Labor Council, in affiliation with its nonprofit research arm, Working Partnerships USA, and a coalition of church and community groups, recommended a living wage ordinance to the city of San Jose. At the widely publicized Sept. 15 council hearing, some 600 supporters rallied to pay employees of city contractors $12.50 an hour with health benefits or $15 without ($12.42 is the hourly wage deemed necessary by Santa Clara County to support a single adult and one child). The council narrowly approved the measure "in concept" and will revisit the matter in mid-November, after City Manager Regina Williams assesses the financial impacts and makes a recommendation.

No one wants to speculate on what Williams' recommendation will be, but given that Oakland's living wage ($8 with health benefits, $9.25 without) is the highest among the 16 cities that have passed such an ordinance, it seems likely she'll reduce the amount. Still, the Labor Council considers it a victory. "If the debate in this county is about how much a living wage should be, we won!" Dean says.

Living wage, as starlet of the hour, has seized the spotlight for the moment. But it's really just the most headline-worthy in a cast of projects the Labor Council is directing. Humming along in the background are plans for a temporary workers' organization, campaign support for labor-endorsed candidates, a program to educate community leaders on labor issues and ongoing research aimed at developing progressive policies.

What makes these efforts notable is how far they extend beyond labor's traditionally member-focused concerns. The new South Bay Labor Council isn't just working for better pay so the members of its 110 locals can enjoy middle-class comforts. It has taken on a broader social agenda and, as part of that mission, hopes to raise the standard of living for the working poor of this valley, union or not.

The valley's largest city, San Jose, appears to be receptive, judging from the success not just of living wage but of labor's incipient arrival in city politics. The pro-union Cindy Chavez, former director of education and outreach at the labor council, is in a runoff against Tony West for the District 3 council seat representing downtown San Jose, a springboard to the mayorship in the case of the city's last two mayors. Says Chavez, "What this means is that we as a community are open to a new and different kind of politics. People understand that there is no advocate for working families, really. We need to elect them."

ONE OF THE FORTUNES taped to Dean's desk reads, "You have many personal talents that are attractive to others." Not the least of these are her fiery oratory and her contagious passion. Recently Dean spoke at a Democratic Century Club luncheon where, as her mostly gray-haired audience nibbled on rice pilaf and salad, she delivered a rapid-fire denunciation of the Democratic Party's centrist line and a call to action.

"The center of American politics has shifted so far to the right that, yes, Nixon looks like a damn good Democrat, and, yes, the debacle that we passed in Congress with welfare reform was more heinous than anything that happened in the '80s," she said, answering her own rhetorical questions. "If we are going to fashion a politics of social solidarity and economic justice that can challenge the mean-spiritedness of the policy agenda today, it relies on a revitalized labor movement and a remarriage with the academy."

Dean is a little fireball, a 5-foot, 3-inch powerhouse in conservative pumps and skirt, her auburn hair short and fuss-free, makeup sensible. In spite of a round, almost childlike face, she emanates gravity and focus. Like all Dean's speeches, even those conducted across her desk, this one rang with conviction and arguments advanced in such rapid succession it was hard to keep up, much less formulate a counterargument.

After touching on the local living wage issue and its relevance--"it takes the whole issue of economic justice and thrusts it front and center in the public debate"--Dean concluded with a statement that made it clear she's thinking Big Picture: "It's the cumulative effect of regional movements around the country that is going to drive national political reform," she finished.

In the applause following her conclusion a woman turned to her neighbor, smiling, and with raised eyebrows remarked, "Boom, boom!"

Dean's emergence at political centerstage should come as no surprise to those who have followed her ascent. The entry of a closely aligned candidate in the downtown council race, labor's call for a Kmart boycott, San Jose's living wage ordinance and her public opposition to the industry-advocated increase in H-1B visas for foreign high-tech workers all fit within a strategy outlined in her 1996 article in Crossroads magazine. In it, she declared that "the action is happening at the local level" and decried "the shopworn political strategy pursued by organized labor" as well as suggestions to form a national labor party, which Dean believed would further marginalize labor from the halls of power.

Instead, Dean advocated a strategy of being "part of the political mainstream ... influencing candidates and elected officials at every level of government," then holding them accountable for their actions in office. Viewed within this paradigm, even a highly diluted living wage ordinance with few material impacts could be viewed as a victory if it confirmed labor's role as a public policy agenda-setter at the local level.

Dean's ability to articulate labor's role in securing economic stability for poor people has, like her passion, earned praise from community leaders such as the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church and a member of the newly formed Interfaith Council for Race, Religion, Economic and Social Justice. A creation of Working Partnerships, the Interfaith Council galvanizes religious leaders of all faiths to involve their congregations in issues of social justice, which many, in the tradition of liberation theology, view as a moral issue. As Father Eugene Boyle, a retired priest of the San Jose diocese, said when he accompanied living wage supporters to present Mayor Susan Hammer with their recommendation, "Poverty is violence against poor people."

"For me," Ramsden says of Dean, "it's that she's very smart, and she has a larger vision and ability to articulate that in a way that goes beyond just labor and reaches out to the community. She is able to understand and conceptualize larger economic trends and forces and can look at the local implications of those forces."

Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, handles words gingerly, as if they were shards of glass. And even he ventures, "She's very motivated from a personal-belief standpoint, and it reflects in everything from her speaking style to the passion she brings to each issue. That passion is a trait people find positive and engaging."


Controversial 'living wage' standard may not be as
fearsome as expected.

South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council: The local organization of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Growing Together or Drifting Apart?: A status report on social and economic well-being in Silicon Valley.

The San Francisco Chronicle's interview with Amy Dean.


'YOUR TALENTS WILL BE recognized and will be suitably rewarded," forecasts another slip of paper on the planner. Seated in her office at the Labor Temple surrounded by honorary plaques, snapshots of her infant son and two photos of President Clinton and herself, Dean explains labor's role in securing social justice and how she was drawn to the movement as an undergraduate studying economics and sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne. Family legacy--her grandmother had organized in the nascent garment industry, and her working Jewish family held labor in high esteem--had already instilled in her a sense of moral duty that prompted her to volunteer in a women's prison as a high school student.

"What made me think the labor movement was where I wanted to be--even when it was on its back in the mid-'80s--was that labor was the one institutional player in this country that worked for change," she says in her customarily direct way, her gaze unwavering. "I'd learned there was a relationship between the strength of the labor movement and the level of social support in a country. The AFL-CIO was the only institution saying, 'Let's just give people a little more.' "

Still, Dean toyed with thoughts of a more cerebral form of activism. "I thought, 'I like the academy. I'm comfortable here. I'll have my Ph.D. by the time I'm 26. I'll be set for life.' " But at 23, having been accepted to a master's program in public policy at the University of Chicago, Dean deferred her studies indefinitely when an attempt to secure an internship turned, incredibly, into an offer of employment organizing for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union. Her family was thrilled. "You would have thought the highest honor had been bestowed on me," she recalls. "And I thought, 'What good is a master's degree when I can already get paid to organize unions?' "

She bounded up the ILGWU ladder to political director and eventually transferred to the South Bay Labor Council as political director here under Rick Sawyer. When he left in 1994 to take a position with the U.S. Department of Labor she took over as CEO of the 15th largest council in the country. She was the youngest person in the history of labor to do so.

One of the first things she did was found Working Partnerships USA, a research institute that has become a vehicle for numerous pet labor projects, including a 1996 report on the exploitative nature of the mushrooming temp-work industry in Silicon Valley. For much of its life, Working Partnerships consisted of Berkeley doctoral candidate Chris Benner plus a few interns, but it's since grown to a staff of 10, and next year its $1 million budget will double. Terry Christensen, political science professor at San Jose State University and longtime member of the Labor Council, counts the creation of Working Partnerships as the smartest Dean move yet: "It's greatly changed the way labor can make its case--with facts and research, not just 'We're union, we want this.' "

"I want this to become one of the premier research institutes on the West Coast," Dean declares. It sounds ambitious, but earlier this year Working Partnerships released "Growing Together or Drifting Apart," a report detailing the growing disparity between top Silicon Valley execs, whose income nearly quadrupled between 1991 and 1996, and average workers, who actually saw their real wages fall--some by as much as 19 percent--during the same period. The report received a great deal of local and even some national attention; The Wall Street Journal ran a short on it.

"What that report showed is that even in the midst of economic prosperity, the fruits of that prosperity are not being shared equitably," Dean says. "Now, the new economy may be about new organization, but guess what's no different? It's that in the absence of wage-setting institutions, wages stay low."

The report challenged the old assumption that what's good for business is good for everyone. And it got people thinking about the state of Silicon Valley, which in turn has impacted labor's political clout. Notes Gary Fazzino, founder and former president of TechNet, "I think there is a nervousness about the changing demographics of this area. There seems to be increased concern about the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and I think it may be easier for public officials to support labor in this area."

Not everyone agrees with Dean's idea that government ought to meddle in wage-setting, starting with Steve Tedesco, president of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. Early on, Tedesco established his personal policy regarding unions. A butcher's son, Tedesco worked in his father Hank's shop and opted not to join the union. "My dad paid me what he paid me, and that was it," he says. "I didn't want to pay the dues. There was no benefit to it."

On the subject of living wage, Tedesco cannot be too clear: He opposes it absolutely. "They're tinkering with the best part of free enterprise that works, which is competitive bidding," he says.

"We're happy they referred it to staff; you need to know what it will cost before you do it. But what it doesn't tell them is that if they lose some companies in the bidding process, it may cost them more. A company does a job because there's a profit built into it."

Terry Feinberg, Chamber member and executive director of the Tri County Apartment Association, adds, "It interferes with the free-market relationship of employer and employees. It will increase the cost of doing business in San Jose, and increase the cost of San Jose conducting its own, and therefore taxpayers', business. Wage-setting standards have long been the purview of state and federal government, not municipal government, and I think it's inappropriate and misguided.

"If the problem is affordable housing," he continues, "then the solution should be to address through housing, not jobs welfare, the people who can't afford to live in the valley."

Even the exemptions proposed by Hammer's office, presumably to mollify the business community, draw acerbic criticism from Tedesco. "The six [councilmembers] supporting it did so because it was the right, ethical, moral thing to do," he says. "We're going to question how it can then exempt small businesses, nonprofits, existing union contracts. Certainly the strategy is good: Try to craft something low enough that affects few enough people that we back off--but we don't understand how it can be ethical for this company but not that nonprofit."

Regarding labor's broader agenda of social justice, he's skeptical. "I don't know how labor can define 'social justice' for the people of San Jose or anywhere else. Part of the problem in San Jose is we're the social conscience for the whole county. We've taken on more big-city issues because we're the big city, but not necessarily with the industrial base."

Certainly at the heart of Dean's agenda is the conviction that in order for Silicon Valley to thrive as a community, it must reorder its priorities, stop pandering to business and start watching out for its families. This works, she says; the momentum that resulted in the living wage ordinance began in 1995 with the resolution the county passed stipulating that in order to cash in on property tax rebates extracted from county coffers, businesses have to show they're paying their workers $10 an hour and providing health benefits. The measure effectively stopped companies from applying for the rebate.

"The county is where the money for the poorest people comes from!" Dean says, outraged. "We cut these companies off from feeding at the public trough. All these firms that said they so desperately needed the money--they haven't gone anywhere. The point is this: Giving away the candy store to attract business is a really poor role for government to play."

The Labor Council's role in the 1995 resolution and in the living wage campaign, and its example of coalition-building within the community, is something labor councils everywhere may be emulating before long. In 1996 AFL-CIO president John Sweeney hand-picked Dean to head a national committee on labor councils.

There was much to recommend her.

"She heads up a labor council that is very successful in terms of bringing together the labor unions in that geographical area," Sweeney says, "involving them in local programs that are not only trade union programs but that reach out into the community and involve strong relationships with other organizations--civil rights organizations, women's rights organizations and so on. And she has been very effective in dealing with public officials on working family agendas."

According to labor's top man, labor is realizing that it cannot go it alone. And with claim to only 11 percent of the workforce as opposed to 30 percent back in its heyday, coalition-building with other social justice organizations isn't just smart or magnanimous--it's necessary.

"We're working toward making the labor movement a principal player in those [community] coalitions," Sweeney says. "We're finding that some of the most successful programs, whether on initiatives or policy, even organizing workers, are done together with allies that share our concern about working families."

campaign buttons
Christopher Gardner

Button-Pushing: Amy Dean's campaign button collection offers testament to her political streak. 'I don't think people are ever receptive to movements that contest power,' she says.

'I DON'T HAVE SOME grand plan for high tech," Dean says when asked if she intends to unionize programmers and engineers. "These are the new industrialists of America. No one can take that on. But can we impact employment practices from our neck of the woods? Absolutely."

The new economy, she points out emphatically, is not about new products but new organization. Small, permanent core staffs. Outsourcing, contract work. These features make it almost impossible to pin down high tech and hold it responsible to wage and benefits standards. The place to apply pressure, then, is on the middleman: the temp agencies, one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation. But rather than try to alter existing temp agencies--a slippery business--the project directors at Working Partnerships are modeling one of their own.

In a conference room at the Labor Temple, Christine Macias, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins and Michelle Mattingly are discussing interview software used by temp agencies for assessing clerical skills. They also need to pick a phone system, buy office furniture and establish an advisory board for what they're rather shamefacedly calling the Temp Work Project.

"We're going to get a name for it," Ellis-Lamkins explains hastily. The project, scheduled to kick off in late October, is the first of its kind: a nonprofit temporary-work organization designed to establish economic security, if not job security, for its employees. Features include reasonably priced portable benefits sponsored by the organization that follow an employee from assignment to assignment; a clerical certification program through Mission and West Valley colleges that will endow graduates with skills and credibility; and a higher rate of pay to employees, who sometimes see only half the money temp agencies charge for their services. Many of the employees will come from CalWorks, formerly GAIN, the welfare-to-work program. In 18 months, project director Macias says, the business plan calls for the new project to be breaking even.

It's a classic example of labor molding itself to the organization of the new economy, in which employer/employee relationships are commonly short-lived. And it represents a crucial effort by Working Partnerships, which also trains community leaders even while it works on a forthcoming report, "All That Glitters ... Jobs, Wages and Opportunity in California's New Economy." The findings of "All That Glitters..." expand on those in "Growing Together or Drifting Apart": income disparity, uneven development, and an "hourglass" economy with the fastest job growth at the high-paying, high-education end and again at the low-paying service sector end.

Should anyone suspect the integrity of such consistent findings by Working Partnerships, the California Budget Project last month released "Unequal Gains: The State of Working California," a report documenting inequality across the state economy. "[T]he purchasing power of most families is lower today than it was two decades ago," the authors write, "causing families to work harder and longer just to get by."

Taken together, these documents form a minor chord indeed in the new economy's song of praise to itself.

AMY DEAN SNICKERS that her favorite desktop fortune is "Emphasis is on romance tonight." But maybe the truest one, if not in a particularly literal sense, is "The star of riches is shining upon you." A new mother, married for two years to her partner of 13 years, Randy Menna, immersed in purposeful work (one of her criteria for a life well lived), she really does seem blessed, even down to feeling "wonderful" throughout her pregnancy.

And life, while immeasurably richer since her son Teddy's birth, is shifting in subtle ways. Faced with the baby/career question, Dean responded as any good executive would: she read arguments for both sides. High-powered Washington Post journalist Iris Krasnow's Surrendering to Motherhood: Losing Your Mind, Finding Your Soul and Susan Chira's A Mother's Place: Taking the Debate About Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Shame were the texts. And?

"It's hard. I'm feeling conflicted," she admits. "You know what makes it hard? Every 30 years or so in this country, the window of opportunity opens to bring about change. And it's opening now. Choosing to step out is a hard decision given the moment."

As she talks about the coming questions for the labor movement, her focus intensifies, and the emphatic cadences of Amy the Firebrand resurface in her speech. It's clear she isn't planning on retiring anytime soon. In the meantime she continues an exquisite balancing act.

On the personal front, she relies on a "fabulous" marriage and boundless energy bolstered by morning and evening meditation sessions. "Meditation for the Western Activist," she cracks. "I can count on being renewed twice a day." On the professional front she leans on devoted staffers--"Everybody tries to rise to a heroic level because of her inspiration," says one--and an unerring sense of what's right.

"I always felt responsibility for the livelihoods of other people in my hands," she says. "It's always from a very moral perspective that I approach the work. I agonize over decisions always. No person in this country should work and be poor."

For all her conviction, she's no fool about the way the world works. "I don't think people are ever receptive to movements that contest power," she muses. "When you challenge power, the trick is not to marginalize yourself off the map. You have to play to insiders as well as outsiders."

Which brings us to another of the fortunes on the desktop: "Many receive advice. Only the wise profit by it." As long as Amy Dean can take her own advice, there's no telling how far she can take labor here and beyond.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.