Amy Dean

Amy Dean

Any­one with even a pass­ing inter­est in pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics knows the labor move­ment is in trou­ble. Mil­lions of lay-offs dur­ing the Great Reces­sion have pushed down already low U.S. union­iza­tion rates, and even more trou­bling, a nation­al poll con­duct­ed in Feb­ru­ary found that only 41 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now view unions favor­ably — that’s a 17-per­cent­age point decline in just two years.

What should be done to revive the for­tunes of the labor move­ment — and Amer­i­can work­ers? Amy Dean’s new book A New New Deal: How Region­al Activism Will Reshape the Amer­i­can Labor Move­ment, which she co-authored with David Reynolds of Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty, offers a clear pre­scrip­tion for build­ing pro­gres­sive change from the grass­roots: Labor orga­ni­za­tions must tran­scend work­places to make com­mon cause with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions at the local and region­al levels. 

Draw­ing on her decade of expe­ri­ence lead­ing the AFL-CIO in California’s Sil­i­con Val­ley — where she helped pass the Children’s Health Ini­tia­tive, which made San­ta Clara the first coun­ty in Amer­i­ca to offer health insur­ance to all chil­dren — Dean argues that unions and oth­er groups can make change togeth­er if they build the three legs of region­al pow­er build­ing”: a pol­i­cy agen­da, deep coali­tions,” and aggres­sive polit­i­cal action. The abil­i­ty to col­lab­o­rate and cre­ate rela­tion­ships and alliances is greater at the local lev­el than it is fed­er­al­ly,” says Dean, who now lives in Chica­go, where she began her career in labor work­ing for the Ladies Gar­ment Work­ers Union dur­ing the 1980s. 

In These Times sat down with Dean in the magazine’s Chica­go office to talk about her new book, activists who deserve fame, and why the pro­posed Employ­ee Free Choice Act, which would make work­place orga­niz­ing eas­i­er, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Videos of Dean at bottom.)

—Jere­my Gantz

Giv­en unions’ strug­gles to retain mem­bers and dues, how can we expect them to get along in coali­tions as you hope they do?

I have two answers to that. First and fore­most, we’re going to see a lot more of AFL-CIO and Change to Win on the same plat­form. It’s a reflec­tion of the fact that [Pres­i­dent] Rich Trum­ka has a vision for the AFL-CIO that’s pro­gres­sive. It was the AFL-CIO under Trumka’s lead­er­ship that put the issue of pub­lic option back on the table with­in the labor move­ment. So one, I want to acknowl­edge that. And two, I want to acknowl­edge that he was very vocal about this whole ques­tion of bank­ing reg­u­la­tion and retir­ing debt. 

So hav­ing said that, what’s the impli­ca­tion of the split? On the work that we talk about in A New New Deal, not much. Evi­dence? Well, in 2005 the AFL-CIO split and nobody at the local and state lev­el seemed to notice. And if you look all across the coun­try, region by region, state by state, local and state labor move­ments remain togeth­er. They didn’t split. Obvi­ous­ly that says there’s mutu­al ben­e­fit and mutu­al need being addressed at the local and state lev­el, because nobody fled. [For­mer AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent] John Sweeney cre­at­ed a tech­ni­cal vehi­cle for that to hap­pen. He cre­at­ed some­thing called sol­i­dar­i­ty char­ters, and that sim­ply allowed unions that became unaf­fil­i­at­ed as a func­tion of inter­na­tion­al sep­a­rat­ing from the fed­er­a­tion of labor nation­al­ly, to con­tin­ue to belong at the state and local lev­el, in spite of the inter­na­tion­al deci­sion and movement. 

How can we expect unions to in a sense delay their own self-inter­est by not focus­ing intense­ly on increas­ing mem­ber­ship right now? How can labor not only wor­ry about den­si­ty” these days?

Renew­ing labor’s for­tunes will not come about because of any one strat­e­gy. I’m always ner­vous when any­body comes along and says we have the” strat­e­gy for build­ing the house of labor. So what I’ve long argued and long prac­ticed is that it’s a range of strate­gies that are nec­es­sary to rebuild labor’s for­tunes. Cer­tain­ly, at no place or time in A New New Deal do we argue that labor should ever dis­tract itself from rebuild­ing its pres­ence in the workplace. 

But we do say that in addi­tion to being work­place-based, labor orga­ni­za­tions must pay atten­tion to their role in the com­mu­ni­ty. And that labor should be as much a com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tion as it is a work­place-based one. The busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty cer­tain­ly talks about a range of strate­gies it needs to engage to dom­i­nate mar­ket share. All we argue for in ANND is that labor should be woven into the civic fab­ric of local com­mu­ni­ties – as much as the local Cham­ber of Com­merces are, as much as the nation­al man­u­fac­tur­ing asso­ci­a­tion affil­i­ates are, and as much as oth­er enti­ties of orga­nized busi­ness are. 

What does that mean exact­ly? It means that on any giv­en day of the week, hun­dreds of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment deci­sions are made by region­al gov­ern­ments, trans­porta­tion agen­cies, munic­i­pal and coun­ty gov­ern­ments, and they make deci­sions on every giv­en day of the week that have dra­mat­ic impact on work­ing peo­ple. They impact our qual­i­ty of life, they impact what kinds of jobs will be attract­ed or retained in our com­mu­ni­ty. Those deci­sions impact the extent to which real afford­able hous­ing will be devel­oped, whether trans­porta­tion ini­tia­tives will real­ly move peo­ple who need it to and from their jobs. 

And so all we argue is: Shame on the labor move­ment for not being a major play­er on behalf of work­ing fam­i­lies around those questions.

So labor should make its pres­ence felt in both ways, both in the work­place and in the community.

Yes. Can labor orga­nize work­ers and work­places and be an asset to the com­mu­ni­ty? Absolute­ly. You have inter­na­tion­al unions and local affil­i­ates whose job is to do one thing, and then you have these fed­er­at­ed bod­ies of labor whose job is to do anoth­er. And the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty doesn’t seem to have a prob­lem with this notion, right? So why wouldn’t we use this mas­sive infra­struc­ture that exists in every com­mu­ni­ty and in every state to rep­re­sent col­lec­tive­ly the inter­ests of work­ing people?


What’s a good exam­ple of a region­al-mind­ed labor cam­paign in Amer­i­ca right now?

Com­mu­ni­ty Labor Unit­ed, in Boston, is a good exam­ple. It’s an exam­ple of labor that for the most part is a tra­di­tion­al labor move­ment in the city of Boston, not unlike what we have here in Chica­go. They have been work­ing to cre­ate a work­ing-part­ner­ship style think-act tank much in the way that we talk about our work in Cal­i­for­nia. The group grew out of the Boston Fed­er­a­tion of Labor. And they’ve been doing deep coali­tion-build­ing work and they’ve had some very excit­ing victories. 

[Last fall], they won a vic­to­ry for resources from the state gov­ern­ment to be able to go door-to-door to iden­ti­fy based on statewide data the homes that have the great­est needs for weath­er­iza­tion and for ener­gy con­ser­va­tion. They have the capac­i­ty now to group togeth­er these homes in bulk num­bers. They won a vic­to­ry to actu­al­ly fund the weath­er­iza­tion and ener­gy con­ser­va­tion in these most need­ed homes. And they were able to ensure that union con­trac­tors get the jobs employ­ing local people. 

What’s inter­est­ing about the vic­to­ry is, not only does it address a real need – we’re all cer­tain­ly hope­ful that this new green econ­o­my is some­thing that will cre­ate jobs that have ben­e­fits and stan­dards for peo­ple – but look of the range of inter­ests whose needs get sat­is­fied. Immi­grant orga­ni­za­tions and com­mu­ni­ty groups, which by the way have a sig­nif­i­cant base in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, and unions.

How was Com­mu­ni­ty Labor United’s suc­cess possible?

First of all, the groups whose needs got sat­is­fied are groups that have been work­ing togeth­er from the incep­tion of this orga­ni­za­tion. In oth­er words, when they built Com­mu­ni­ty Labor Unit­ed they said, what are the kinds of inter­ests that we want to uni­fy? And rather than wait when we each need one anoth­er, let’s invest in the long-term process to get to know one anoth­er and let’s build an orga­ni­za­tion togeth­er where we share governance. 

The sec­ond thing is that they invest­ed in build­ing a strong research and pol­i­cy capac­i­ty in their orga­ni­za­tion. And so they were able to look at the way in which state gov­ern­ment was spend­ing its weath­er­iza­tion and cli­mate con­trol or ener­gy effi­cien­cy mon­ey, and they were able to doc­u­ment that it wasn’t real­ly yield­ing a net con­ser­va­tion of fos­sil fuels. And they could mar­ry that to their capac­i­ty to devel­op pol­i­cy, to have a plan for being able to meet this state mandate. 

So it mir­rors what you talk about in A New New Deal.

It’s exact­ly what we talk about in the book, that the next gen­er­a­tion of social-change orga­ni­za­tions, as we doc­u­ment in our book, are being suc­cess­ful because they have a series of com­mon ele­ments that they’re stitch­ing togeth­er under one roof. Deep col­lab­o­ra­tion and coali­tion between labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, mixed with pol­i­cy and research capac­i­ties, so that as social change groups we’re not just sim­ply respond­ing, but we have real pro­pos­als to put forth. 

In addi­tion to that, we’re tak­ing those ideas and we’re link­ing them to pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal action. And we’re say­ing, before we elect peo­ple to pub­lic office, here’s our agen­da and here are the things that we expect once you get there. Since the 1990s, there’s a range of work that’s start­ing to hap­pen in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try where the seeds of social and polit­i­cal inno­va­tion are being plant­ed. We’ve iden­ti­fied a range of com­mon ele­ments that exist in these orga­ni­za­tions. That’s what we call the three legs to the stool of region­al pow­er build­ing: deep coali­tion build­ing, pol­i­cy and research, aggres­sive polit­i­cal action.

Was last October’s Show­down in Chica­go“ a good exam­ple of the sort of coali­tion-mind­ed activism you talk about in the book?

It’s a very impor­tant expres­sion of the val­ues we describe in the book. It exem­pli­fies the kinds of alliances that are nec­es­sary to mean real pow­er. In oth­er words, if we real­ly want to con­test real pow­er in Amer­i­ca. Elect­ing a pro­gres­sive pres­i­dent, elect­ing a lib­er­al Con­gress, does not equal fun­da­men­tal reform. All sorts of oth­er things have to take place. 

We can’t just be excit­ed by peo­ple in office and per­son­al­i­ties in office, but it does cre­ate an open­ing and a win­dow for reform. I think those who are most dis­ap­point­ed with the pres­i­dent in the first year of his lead­er­ship are dis­ap­point­ed because they don’t see their issues being addressed. Well, there’s been 30 years of neglect in Amer­i­ca and in order for those issues to be addressed, it’s going to be the loud­est voic­es that come to the top, that are going to force the hand of leg­is­la­tors to address them.


How do you think unions can do a bet­ter job of appeal­ing to younger work­ers and work­ers who have nev­er been in a union before? How can they bring peo­ple into the fold and acti­vate their future?

The way to answer that ques­tion is by ask­ing anoth­er ques­tion: What part of con­ven­tion­al trade union­ism remains rel­e­vant today and what part doesn’t? There’s a lot of polling that says over­whelm­ing­ly Amer­i­cans under­stand that their con­di­tions at work can be improved if they come togeth­er, as opposed to going it alone. On the one hand, we have all this pub­lic opin­ion that the major­i­ty of peo­ple inher­ent­ly in Amer­i­ca under­stand and embrace the log­ic of col­lec­tive action. And that’s not sur­pris­ing, because if you work in a fac­to­ry and punch a time clock and are part of the last few liv­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in Amer­i­ca, whether you go to work as an inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor report­ing on pro­gres­sive Amer­i­ca, whether you go to work dif­fer­ent­ly than you did before – you work dif­fer­ent­ly today than peo­ple worked before. 

We all still have a col­lec­tive inter­est in improv­ing our wages, our ben­e­fits, and our say over our work con­di­tions. So that part of trade union­ism will always remain rel­e­vant. What’s prob­a­bly not rel­e­vant today is that most unions have ben­e­fit struc­tures that assume an employ­ee will remain in a rela­tion­ship with their employ­er for their life­time. And so many of the ben­e­fit struc­tures real­ly aren’t rel­e­vant for the ways in which peo­ple go to work today. 

Anoth­er thing that’s prob­a­bly not rel­e­vant any­more and won’t get addressed with the Employ­ee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is that the types of com­mu­ni­ties of inter­est that are allowed to form for pur­pos­es of bar­gain­ing with their employ­er to improve wages and con­di­tions real­ly need to be updat­ed. The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act – which was writ­ten in the 1930s and is the major body of law that reg­u­lates behav­ior between employ­ees and employ­ers – assumes that indi­vid­u­als and employ­ees are housed togeth­er under one roof. The fact is peo­ple don’t work like that anymore. 

We have to update America’s labor laws so that they con­form with the ways in which peo­ple work today. The chal­lenge with the labor movement’s mas­sive invest­ment in EFCA is that while it will help to make it eas­i­er for folks to bring unions into the work­place, it won’t rede­fine who’s eli­gi­ble to be orga­nized into unions. Con­ven­tion­al trade union­ism is incred­i­bly rel­e­vant giv­en that we all are ratio­nal beings and we want to do bet­ter with our job and our ben­e­fits, we want to earn more, we want to have more qual­i­ty of life. The prob­lem is that we’re not eli­gi­ble in many work­places. So EFCA will on the one hand help, but it won’t get at some of these core foun­da­tion­al reforms that are so necessary. 

So even it became law, EFCA would still oper­ate with­in that out­dat­ed set of rules.

Right. The cru­cial thing is, what do we do to be more rel­e­vant to young peo­ple, what do we do to be more rel­e­vant to work­ers in the new econ­o­my? Well, cer­tain­ly beyond just wait­ing for legal reform, we could be doing the things that we talk about in ANND, which is demon­strat­ing that we are pow­er­ful com­mu­ni­ty advo­cates for pub­lic pol­i­cy that make a dif­fer­ence in people’s lives. I think we will ulti­mate­ly have social upsurge in Amer­i­ca, a social reawak­en­ing in Amer­i­ca, but in the absence of new forms of unions, it will be very dif­fi­cult to cap­ture people. 

In the book, you say that the labor move­ment shouldn’t rely on free mar­ket union­ism.” Could you talk a lit­tle bit about what you mean by that?

Free mar­ket union­ism” is a term, I think Jef­frey Gra­bel­sky of Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty coined. What he refers to is that we let unions orga­nize who they want, and hope that some­how the labor move­ment will grow and pros­per. That we sort of have to let each union go it alone and wait for the var­i­ous unions that claim juris­dic­tion over cer­tain sec­tors of the econ­o­my based on work­ers they represent. 

If we don’t have an over­ar­ch­ing coor­di­nat­ing strat­e­gy and we just yield to the indi­vid­ual unions and we leave these col­lec­tive bod­ies off to the front­lines of rebuild­ing the Amer­i­can labor move­ment, it’s not like­ly we’ll have a coor­di­nat­ed strat­e­gy that builds power. 


You write that the cur­rent health­care cri­sis is a clear exam­ple of how col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing isn’t enough to empow­er work­ing peo­ple. Where does col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing fit into an over­all strat­e­gy around democ­ra­tiz­ing the econ­o­my and improv­ing work­ing conditions?

Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is an impor­tant strat­e­gy for increas­ing con­di­tions for employ­ees and com­mu­ni­ties. It’s cer­tain­ly the core and bread and but­ter of Amer­i­can trade and union­ism. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is one of the many range of strate­gies that we have to employ to improve peo­ple con­di­tions. The argu­ment in ANND, and I think this goes back to the old deal, was that bar­gain­ing was a core com­po­nent of the old deal, but that there was also a very broad safe­ty net that worked along­side of col­lec­tive bargaining. 

Here’s how it worked: any­time employ­ees got [laid off], they were caught by the social safe­ty net. They didn’t hit rock bot­tom. When the econ­o­my did turn and became more sta­ble, peo­ple went back to work with­out los­ing their home and with­out com­plete­ly los­ing every­thing. Now we have way more volatil­i­ty in the econ­o­my, we don’t have mar­kets that are insu­lat­ed, we have no social safe­ty net to catch peo­ple when they get dis­con­nect­ed from employment. 

So yes, col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is impor­tant, but we also have to pay atten­tion to the oth­er kinds of wage sup­ports peo­ple need. Will we like­ly have a com­pre­hen­sive safe­ty social net in Amer­i­ca? I don’t know if we will again. I do know things like trans­porta­tion, hous­ing, land use and many of those deci­sions are made local­ly and statewide with fed­er­al frame­works that set the tone, but those deci­sions are made local­ly and statewide. We have to see those issues as wage-sup­port issues. They can’t be seen as dis­con­nect­ed from our con­cern. So labor shouldn’t aban­don its com­mit­ment to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, but it also shouldn’t walk away from the oth­er kinds of things peo­ple need if it’s will­ing to be an insti­tu­tion peo­ple are will­ing to look to in order to solve social problems. 

In Cal­i­for­nia in the 1990s, you helped to cre­ate the Children’s Health Ini­tia­tive in Sil­i­con Val­ley to pro­vide health­care for chil­dren. Do you think that region­al exper­i­men­ta­tion might be a way that health­care reform con­tin­ues to evolve, and is even­tu­al­ly made national?

Here’s what I think: There’s going to be a lot of fed­er­al frame­works that are going to get cre­ative around leg­is­la­tion in the next sev­er­al years. We know that after health­care, there’s going to be a bill that’s already being debat­ed in Con­gress about cli­mate change. While no one would argue the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shouldn’t cre­ate the frame­work for reform, the imple­men­ta­tion and innovation…will take place in the states and region­al lev­el. That’s why we argue for strong smart infra­struc­ture on the state and local lev­el to real­ize the objec­tives of a true pro­gres­sive America.

In San Jose, the ini­tia­tive cre­at­ed a pub­lic option, which is now almost ten years old. We’ve had every sin­gle eval­u­a­tion pos­si­ble — you don’t get big foun­da­tion mon­ey with­out being eval­u­at­ed by out­side eval­u­a­tors — to demon­strate we had a success.

So the exam­ple here speaks to two things. One, that we can solve real­ly big prob­lems at the region­al lev­el. Two, we can cre­ate inno­va­tion region­al­ly. The abil­i­ty to col­lab­o­rate and cre­ate rela­tion­ships and alliances is prob­a­bly greater at a local lev­el than fed­er­al­ly. I said two things, but it’s real­ly about three things. The third thing is we can cre­ate pro­grams that can be repli­cat­ed in oth­er parts of the country. 


What’s one piece of leg­is­la­tion you would like to see passed right now?

I think the most impor­tant thing the pro­gres­sives need to fig­ure out is tax and fis­cal reform. It’s real­ly hard to talk about much reform in the absence of rebuild­ing government’s role. The things Repub­li­cans have been so suc­cess­ful about is their abil­i­ty to be suc­cess­ful in starv­ing the beast. For 30 years these guys said we’re going to elim­i­nate the gov­ern­ments role oth­er than wars and financ­ing the inter­ests of our pri­vate friends… So to now expect we are going to have all these huge pub­lic resources to ful­fill social need — it’s not going to hap­pen. State bud­gets are hem­or­rhag­ing all over the coun­try, stim­u­lus mon­ey was used to prop up those gov­ern­ments. So if we are going to cre­ate pros­per­i­ty again, we have to have tax and fis­cal reform so that the pub­lic sec­tor has resources so it could do it’s job. 

The sec­ond thing is we have to make col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing avail­able to every sin­gle work­er. Peo­ple have to have the right and free­dom to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly with their employ­er. [The abil­i­ty to] do so would increase wages, ben­e­fits and con­di­tions at work. 

Can you high­light a project or orga­ni­za­tion that is doing real­ly great work right now?

Com­mu­ni­ty Labor Unit­ed, around their green jobs cam­paign. It gives def­i­n­i­tion to what it real­ly means to cre­ate a green job. And these guys are so hum­ble and so non-assum­ing, yet they’re doing amaz­ing stuff.

Who would you say is your favorite elect­ed leader, past or present, and why?

One of my favorite elect­ed lead­ers is Mike Hon­da, a con­gress­man in Cal­i­for­nia. I would do any­thing for this guy: He takes chances, he takes risk. He always sticks to his pro­gres­sive val­ues. Even when he is a minor­i­ty, he nev­er sways from his val­ues. I would also say Hil­da Solis [the for­mer Cal­i­for­nia con­gress­woman who now heads the labor depart­ment]. If we had more Hil­da Solis­es and Mike Hon­das, the world would be a bet­ter place.

Who deserves to be a lot more famous than what they are?

Antho­ny Thig­penn in Cal­i­for­nia, he runs an orga­ni­za­tion in Cal­i­for­nia called SCOPE [Strate­gic Con­cepts in Orga­niz­ing and Pol­i­cy Edu­ca­tion]. He’s real­ly an orga­niz­er. He ran the field cam­paign for Anto­nio Ver­agosa. He’s been doing a lot of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, and has worked to build alliances with labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. [Editor’s note: In 2006, SCOPE con­vened the Los Ange­les Apol­lo Alliance, which aims to con­nect low-income com­mu­ni­ties to the emerg­ing green economy.”] 

Often times com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions don’t see the val­ue in doing elec­toral work, which I think is an unfor­tu­nate rem­nant of the [Saul] Alin­sky era. He has the kind of dis­ci­pline and big pic­ture view and humil­i­ty that we need a whole lot more of. The abil­i­ty to put imme­di­ate insti­tu­tion­al inter­ests aside and keep col­lab­o­ra­tions togeth­er and think long-term. Antho­ny Thig­penn should be more famous than he is.

This inter­view was edit­ed for clar­i­ty and concision.


—March 262010

Amy Dean is a fel­low of The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion and prin­ci­pal of ABD Ven­tures, LLC, an orga­ni­za­tion­al devel­op­ment con­sult­ing firm that works to devel­op new and inno­v­a­tive orga­niz­ing strate­gies for social change orga­ni­za­tions. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Region­al Activism Will Reshape the Amer­i­can Labor Move­ment. Dean has worked for near­ly two decades at the cross sec­tion of labor and com­mu­ni­ty based orga­ni­za­tions link­ing pol­i­cy and research with action and advo­ca­cy. You can fol­low Amy on twit­ter @amybdean, or she can be reached via www​.amyb​dean​.com.
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