organizing Silicon Valley

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Sun Nov 14 09:30:46 PST 1999

Amy Dean is a dynamite organizer. I worked with her a number of years ago when her Central Labor Council was helping host statewide meetings of unions, environmental groups, community groups and defense conversion organizations to grapple with the early 90s recession. She has since taken over the CLC and has made high-tech contingent organizing a priority and has hired some very smart researchers to assist strategic planning.

I highly recommend looking at their web site and especially at their reports at their Working Partnerships non=profit companion site. Chris Brenner, a researcher who has written for DOLLARS AND SENSE among other areas, has written or co-written some very good reports on the state of contingent labor in the region and around the country.

--Nathan Newman

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lbo-talk at
> [mailto:owner-lbo-talk at]On Behalf Of Doug Henwood
> Sent: Sunday, November 14, 1999 10:59 AM
> To: lbo-talk at
> Subject: organizing Silicon Valley
> [This is something to be optimistic about, no? Or is the Prada bag
> fatal to all the rest?]
> New York Times - November 14, 1999
> The Most Innovative Figure in Silicon Valley? Maybe This Labor Organizer
> SAN JOSE, Calif. -- With a Prada bag and the air of an entrepreneur,
> Amy Dean is an unlikely labor trailblazer.
> But as head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Silicon Valley office, Ms. Dean,
> at just 37 years of age, has become the labor movement's chief
> navigator, its Christopher Columbus in the roiling and uncharted seas
> of the new economy.
> Working in a flourishing, free-wheeling valley that has hardly
> welcomed the often stodgy labor movement, she spends her days
> thinking up ways for unions to be relevant to workers in booming
> high-tech companies, and labor leaders nationwide are tripping over
> themselves to copy her ideas.
> To help the valley's horde of temporary workers who have no health
> insurance, she has taken the unorthodox step of creating a nonprofit
> temp agency that, unlike most profit-making agencies, offers health
> coverage that temporary workers can afford.
> She has established a research institute that has reshaped
> California's economic debate by churning out weighty studies,
> including one on the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots in
> a valley often thought to have mostly millionaire haves.
> Through a full-court political press, she and her army of union
> members have pressured San Jose to enact the country's highest
> living-wage law, requiring city contractors to pay workers at least
> $9.50 an hour, nearly double the minimum wage many were earning.
> And she has proposed using a hiring-hall concept to provide
> uninterrupted health and pension benefits to high-tech workers, who
> often jump from job to job.
> "She's a new breed of labor leader," said Harley Shaiken, a professor
> of industrial relations at the University of California at Berkeley.
> "She's put a number of issues about Silicon Valley on the public
> agenda -- inequality, temporary workers and the lack of affordable
> housing. She's hit nerves in a way that resonates."
> Her goal, Ms. Dean acknowledges, is nothing short of turning the
> A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Silicon Valley operation into a model for the rebirth
> of the labor movement, just as the valley's entrepreneurs have
> brought about a rebirth of American industry.
> So far Ms. Dean's efforts have made a difference in the lives of many
> of the valley's have-nots. But all her strategizing has failed to
> strike a chord with the valley's haves, like software designers, who,
> happy with their stock options, often think unions are as useful as
> manual typewriters. Her biggest challenge is figuring out a way for
> unions to connect to these high-tech workers.
> Her exploits, especially the living-wage law, are already irking many
> business executives, fueling worries that labor's growing power is
> signaling that a valley renowned as a fertile ground for
> entrepreneurs is turning unfriendly to business.
> Ms. Dean put on such a bravura performance in pushing through the
> living-wage ordinance that business executives speak of her with
> equal parts awe and anxiety, fearing what her next battleground will
> be.
> When the San Jose City Council was debating the wage ordinance Ms.
> Dean, all 5-feet-3 of her, came on like a petite field marshal. She
> packed the chamber with allies, lined up clergymen and community
> leaders to testify, and, in a sure-voiced speech, nearly brought down
> the house.
> "There's part of me that envies her because she's so good at making
> an emotional, passionate pitch," said Steve Tedesco, president of the
> San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, who fought the
> living-wage proposal, saying it would hurt San Jose's business image.
> "She's tenacious. She doesn't tilt at windmills."
> Instead, she tilts at what she views as economic injustice, and she
> does so by mobilizing the valley's union movement to back her
> crusades. Five years ago, Ms. Dean took the helm of the South Bay
> Central Labor Council, becoming the youngest person to head one of
> the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s 600 local councils.
> While many of her fellow Generation X'ers see unions as irrelevant
> and outmoded, Ms. Dean says she is devoting her life to labor because
> she is convinced it is the only movement that can lift America's
> have-nots and stop the nation's rightward tilt.
> "Why do I spend so much time in the heart of this new economy working
> with unions to build a voice for working people?" she said. "It has
> everything to do with whether we can revitalize an institution that
> so many people in this country depend on. It's the only vehicle in
> this country that can balance the political landscape."
> Ms. Dean is a rara avis in labor, a movement not exactly known for
> promoting women, the young or those who spout new ideas. In a
> movement in which entrepreneurship is usually considered the enemy,
> she is an entrepreneur par excellence. And in a movement where blue
> jeans are favored, she wears pumps and gold bracelets, although her
> Ann Taylor look has not stopped her from earning the nickname the
> Mother Jones of Silicon Valley.
> Convinced that the labor movement should be a social movement, Ms.
> Dean has refocused the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s operation here so it helps not
> just unionized workers, but all workers, especially those, like
> janitors and temps, on the bottom rungs.
> When Ms. Dean took labor's helm here, many high-flying high-tech
> companies were using cleaning contractors that paid their janitors
> the minimum wage and scant benefits. So, working with the Service
> Employees International Union, she led a Justice for Janitors
> campaign to pressure and embarrass giants like Apple Computer so they
> would force their cleaning contractors to pay janitors higher wages
> and grant union recognition.
> "The labor movement was strongest when we were the moral voice in the
> community," Ms. Dean said. "That's when people were attracted to us,
> wanted to be part of us, wanted to be mobilized into action with us.
> That's when we just weren't seen as a special members club for a few
> people. Our job has to be helping folks who don't have a voice."
> Ms. Dean's central labor council represents 110,000 unionized
> workers: carpenters, nurses, teachers, but precious few high-tech
> workers. She acknowledges that labor's traditional
> contracts-are-everything model is largely irrelevant to high-tech
> workers because it is based on a 1930's notion of people working at
> industrial behemoths, not agile start-ups, and of workers spending
> decades at one corporation, not jumping like grasshoppers between
> companies.
> Recognizing this, Ms. Dean has become the foremost exponent of a
> provocative theory: that labor should return to its craft guild and
> hiring hall roots as a way to keep up with the fast-changing
> high-tech world.
> For high-tech workers, who often hold 10 jobs over a career,
> constantly losing and regaining health and pension coverage, Dean
> says unions should be a source of stability and protection. No other
> institution, she says, is as well-equipped to provide such workers
> with the two things they say they need most: portable benefits and
> continual upgrading of their skills.
> Like the craft guilds of old, she says, unions could provide
> high-tech workers with classes in the latest skills, like writing new
> software languages, and could provide certification that workers have
> attained specific skill levels.
> Then, like construction unions, which have hiring halls, unions could
> become the place high-tech employers turn to for trained workers.
> Also like construction unions, high-tech unions could provide
> uninterrupted health and pension coverage for workers who jump from
> job to job.
> "Is the current model that unions are offering relevant to the
> knowledge workers of today? No." Ms. Dean said. "Are the principles
> and benefits that unions offer relevant? Yes."
> Hers is a compelling vision for high-tech unions, but if she builds
> it, there is little guarantee that high-tech workers will come.
> Ms. Dean has come a long way from the mid-1980's, when, having just
> graduated from the University of Illinois, she was planning to pursue
> a Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Chicago.
> But inspired by a grandmother who organized apparel factories, she
> left academia for a job as an organizer for the International Ladies
> Garment Workers Union in her native Chicago.
> In 1989, she moved to San Francisco for that union, partly to follow
> the man, now an Internet entrepreneur, who would become her husband.
> Soon she was climbing the ladder at labor's Silicon Valley office,
> where she made such a mark that John J. Sweeney, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s
> president, tapped her to head a national committee charged with
> recommending ways to rev up the nation's local labor councils.
> Her most innovative work has come in seeking to help the thousands of
> temporary workers who flood in and out of high-tech companies --
> secretaries, clerks, bookkeepers, software testers.
> Aided by foundation grants, she has set up a nonprofit agency that is
> placing temporary workers, for the most part secretaries, who start
> at $10 an hour, compared with the $8.50 paid by many agencies. Unlike
> most for-profit agencies, her agency offers low-cost health coverage,
> paid sick leave and paid holidays and works with a community college
> to furnish subsidized courses to upgrade the workers' skills.
> Ms. Dean has also set up an association, in essence a fledgling
> union, where temporary workers can compare notes, air grievances and
> map strategies to win better working conditions. The latest idea is
> to pressure agencies to adhere to a code of conduct requiring health
> insurance and a respectable wage.
> Eileen Wodula, a secretary tired of bouncing between jobs, said,
> "This is like a dream come true because it's giving a voice to
> temporary workers."

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