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[whitespace] Amy Dean
Photograph by Christopher Gardner

Firebrand: Amy Dean has emerged as the poster girl for the New Labor Movement. She brings her fiery message to SSU on June 22.

Labor's New Face

Labor leader Amy Dean is breathing new life into a working-class coalition many thought obsolete

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--who is the keynote speaker at the upcoming fourth annual Sonoma County Summer Labor and Action School confab, sponsored by the North Bay Labor Council--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 21st 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 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 nonunionized industry.

It is the similarity of the newly emerging tech industry in the North Bay that has led North Bay labor organizers to look to Dean for inspiration.

"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. The South Bay Labor Council, in affiliation with its nonprofit research arm, Working Partnerships USA, and a coalition of church and community groups, made a successful bid in 1998 to implement a living-wage ordinance in the city of San Jose and in Santa Clara County. Under those ordinances, public contractors in the city must pay workers at least $9.50 an hour with benefits or $10.75 without. The county's quasi-living wage ordinance places limited requirements on some businesses receiving public funds.

Living wage, as starlet of the hour, has seized the spotlight for the moment. In Sonoma County, a growing living-wage movement has presented its $11.75-an-hour proposal to the county Board of Supervisors and will approach city and town councils in the county during the next few months. But "living wage" is really just the most headline-worthy in a cast of projects the South Bay 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 working just 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.

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 Dean's conclusion a woman turned to her neighbor, smiling, and with raised eyebrows remarked, "Boom, boom!"

DEAN'S emergence at political center stage 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 advocates 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 Bay Area community leaders.

"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 for 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.

"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 affected labor's political clout in neighboring Bay Area counties. Certainly at the heart of Dean's agenda is the conviction that in order for Silicon Valley and other emerging hi-tech islets to thrive as communities, they must reorder their priorities, stop pandering to business, and start watching out for their families. '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 for 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 have modeled one of their own.

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 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. "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."

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.

The fourth annual Sonoma County Summer Labor and Action School runs June 22-23, at SSU, 1805 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. On Friday at 7:30 p.m., Amy Dean speaks on "Learning from Silicon Valley: The Revival of American Unionism." Admission is a $5-$10 donation. On Saturday, workshops will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Registration is $55 for both days. 707/545-7349, ext. 22.

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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