Silicon Valley isn’t exactly known as a stronghold of organized labor. Amy Dean is working to change that.

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It’s 11 a.m. at a youth center in San Jose, the southern edge of Silicon Valley, and Amy Dean is surrounded by a klatch of teenagers. A national strategist for the AFL-CIO, Dean has brought the youngsters along with her to a rally for janitors. The kids slump in metal folding chairs, staring at their scuffed Airwalks and glancing at the “Rising Out of Poverty!” posters on the wall. “Does anybody have a sense of the labor movement?” Dean asks. “What do you think it’s for?

As head of the South Bay Labor Council, at ground zero for the New Economy, Dean is bedeviled by her own question. At 37, the youngest woman ever elected to head a regional labor council, she coordinates the work of 110 local unions in Silicon Valley and directs a national committee of labor leaders fashioning new ways to make trade unions relevant in a changed world. Dean is lanky and fidgety, much like the teenagers in her group. She taps her sleek platform boots with open hands, tugs at the silk scarf over the collar of her faded denim shirt, and, palms up, repeats her question.

Like most teens, they’re exuberantly un-formed. Christina Gutierrez, a 12-year-old who describes her career options as “fashion designer, photographer, or rock star,” is impressed by Dean because “she’s head of the unions and she’s a girl and girls are still hardly ever allowed to be head of anything.” Now Christina glances at Saeed Al Shaybani, as if hoping to crib from his notes. Saeed, 14, offers up a bemused smile. “The labor movement is about making sure people have the same rights,” he says. Dean nods, but then leans forward to challenge him: “Say more about what that means.

The janitors filling the nearby auditorium know precisely what that means. More than one-third of all venture capital in the United States is invested in Silicon Valley, and its median family income of $87,000 is the highest in the nation. Millionaires.com are minted daily, and children generate fortunes through e-commerce. But the Valley is also a prime example of what historian Fred Siegel calls the “hourglass economy,” in which those at the top coexist with a squeezed middle and a burgeoning, low-skilled mass at the bottom. State officials estimate that in half of the job categories with the most openings, hourly pay will be $10 or less through 2006. The widening wage gap is no passing problem, but rather lies at the heart of the New Economy.

In the clapboard houses radiating out from the youth center in San Jose, multiple families wedge themselves into cramped rooms and small garages. Rising numbers of full-time workers are homeless. Because of soaring costs, a family of four in Santa Clara County can now earn $53,100 a year and still qualify for subsidized housing. According to a recent survey by the janitors union, member households average 104 hours of work each week, as parents sacrifice time with children to work as many as three jobs apiece in a white-knuckle attempt to keep up.

The teenagers listen as one of the janitors, a middle-aged woman named Leticia Garcia, talks about her life as a custodian at Hewlett-Packard. For years, the mother of three worked from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., returning home at 4 a.m. to grab three hours of sleep before waking in time to get her children off to school. When Garcia was injured on the job, things got even tougher. For six months, her family scraped by on her husband’s income, she says, with no benefits for her injuries. “They use us until we are useless,” Garcia adds bitterly, breaking into tears.

A few weeks later, as Dean testifies before a state legislative hearing, Garcia’s story still weighs heavily on her mind. Introducing a panel of Silicon Valley workers who have been victimized by piecework, chemical exposure, and unstable jobs, Dean presses California lawmakers to catch up with the profound changes under way and to moderate the deleterious effects on working families.

“Here in Silicon Valley, you can visit houses where every room plus the garage houses a family — not a worker, a family,” she says, her voice rising. “Here in Silicon Valley, you can meet a temporary worker who was forced into homelessness while a temporary agency and its client firm bickered over responsibility for an occupational injury. Here in Silicon Valley, you can find a place where unprecedented and rapid economic change has left our social institutions — and our community values — behind.”

When dean took over the South Bay Labor Council five years ago, she brought energy and savvy to the job, along with the lessons of her own upbringing. The child of second-generation working-class Russian Jewish immigrants in Chicago, she was planning to enter a Ph.D. program in sociology in the early 1980s. But not long after President Ronald Reagan crushed a strike by air traffic controllers, hastening the AFL-CIO’s long decline in membership and inßuence, Dean was offered a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. “Even though the labor movement was on its back, with everything short of rigor mortis setting in, I thought it could still be the place to advocate institutional change in the country,” she recalls.

Her decision to become an organizer was reinforced by personal considerations: Her own parents had lost their home during the recession of the early ’80s, and she remembers once having to buy her father a tire for his car so he wouldn’t lose his job.

“Their membership in the middle class was revoked,” Dean says. “For me, this is not academic.”

After years as an organizer for the garment workers in Chicago and San Francisco, Dean moved to San Jose. As political director and now chief executive of the regional council, she has turned it into a vibrant workshop for the labor movement; some observers call her the “Mother Jones of Silicon Valley.” Dean understood from the start that there would be opportunities for organizing at the bottom, as well as among highly trained workers nearer the top.

“Here we were, sitting in the heart of the New Economy,” she says. “Labor always had decent density here in traditional sectors of the economy. But we’d failed to carve out bigger terrain for ourselves. We found ourselves being marginalized as players in politics and in the economy.”

Dean teamed up with a professor from San Jose State University to start the Labor/ Community Leadership Institute, which trains up-and-coming activists and provides a network for leaders of progressive organizations. She encouraged pro-labor candidates to run for local office, established a computerized political action hub in labor council headquarters, and enmeshed the unions, which represent an estimated 110,000 members, in campaigns for immigrant rights, minimum standards for temporary workers, and a living wage for public-sector employees. She also cofounded the Interfaith Council, a clearinghouse for community groups and churches. “Amy is a consummate organizer,” says Father Eugene Boyle, who chairs the group. “You know, during the Vietnam War there was just such an enormous split between labor and church communities. Amy brought churches, synagogues, and unions together again.”

Dean’s signal achievement, though, reveals her roots in social science. She set up Working Partnerships USA, a nonprofit research arm of the labor council funded partly by foundations. Like business leaders in the Valley, she understands the value of research. “We needed information that was more than anecdotal,” Dean explains. “It’s not enough to get up and make the case that something is the right thing to do. You only win when you show that your proposed solution is in the public interest.”

The research institute, housed at labor council headquarters in San Jose, has produced three reports documenting the challenges for working families in Silicon Valley — the rising income gap, the plight of low-wage workers, and the shift from permanent jobs in larger companies to temporary positions in smaller firms. The reports also outline in detail how government policy could make a difference.

In 1998, the labor council used the data to help mobilize broad support for a living wage ordinance in the city of San Jose. In the process, Dean and her colleagues steamrolled over opposition from local business leaders and the powerful San Jose Mercury-News. Her foes, such as Steve Tedesco of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, were impressed. “I don’t think she’s made any missteps. They’ve been very strategic,” says Tedesco. “We both made our arguments to elected officials. She made her argument more effectively.”

Although she feels pressure to stay focused on building membership, Dean devotes much of her time to broader campaigns. “That’s what brought me to the labor movement — the idea that it was the best shot at building social justice,” she says. “In the absence of having the space to do that, I wouldn’t still be here.”

Working Partnerships has launched its own agency to help train and place clerical workers in new jobs, and to improve pay and working conditions for temps. The results — a few hundred members enrolled in the first year — have fallen short of expectations. “I’m humbled by how difficult it is,” Dean says. “But I’m not disappointed. You never do anything that works out the first time, unless you’re doing something that’s already been done.”

Over the summer, the labor council took on an even bigger fight — to press the city and county to use money from settlements with tobacco companies to provide health insurance for all children. Over the opposition of Mayor Ron Gonzales of San Jose, who wants to use the money for other projects, the labor council plunged much of its political capital into the effort to help poor children get medical care. When the campaign comes to a head this fall, Dean predicts labor will win “one more small stepping stone for universal coverage.”

A week after bringing the teens to the rally for janitors, Dean speaks to 40 scientists and engineers in a cavernous hall at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a few hours and a world away from the gritty realities of low-wage work. Though they’re highly educated and well paid, the scientists murmur and nod when Dean jabs her finger in the air, asserting that “the social contract has broken down.” Dean’s delivery is cool, wedged with facts. Since many new jobs in the New Economy are temporary instead of permanent, she points out, “we see a lot of job churning and instability.” Californians currently average just three years in a job, and turnover is even faster in highly specialized positions that are increasingly being shifted to subcontractors — many of whom offer workers few protections and no benefits.

One scientist in the audience reveals that she held temporary jobs for nine years before winning a permanent slot. Another admits that while few of the thousands of white-collar employees at the federal lab seem to connect their problems with the plight of blue-collar workers, he wouldn’t recommend his own career to his children. Others echo the comment, saying they feel powerless in their own working lives — unable to halt involuntary polygraph tests instituted in the wake of espionage fears or to participate in workplace decisions.

“This is a country that loves waste,” one scientist says, nearly shouting. He lurches forward in his chair, as if surprised by the force of his own emotions. “We waste resources, spoil industrial sectors,” he continues. “And we waste people’s potential.” Dean leans forward, too. It is striking how closely this middle-aged gentleman’s cry resonates with the complaint she’d heard from Leticia Garcia, a janitor whose circumstances could not be more different. Even though the laboratory is outside her labor council’s boundaries, Dean offers to set up a training session with the leaders of the employee group and her organizers.

To revive organized labor, Dean recognizes that unions must somehow bridge the gap between service workers and high-tech workers, linking people in the bottom bubble of the hourglass economy with those in the increasingly constrained middle. Those who feel adrift and unprotected in the churning created by hyperspeed innovation, she believes, could create coalitions that cross income lines and job categories.

So far, Dean’s labor council, like the AFL-CIO as a whole, has made few inroads among high-tech workers. Nearly 14 percent of all workers nationwide are union members, but just 4.4 percent of computer scientists belong. The success of white-collar strikers at Boeing earlier this year and the advent of an organizing drive among temporary workers at Microsoft are glimmers in a generally bleak landscape for labor. But nowhere is organizing tougher than among computer geeks in Silicon Valley’s famous start-up companies.

“What exists in the Silicon Valley is not unique,” Dean frequently warns. “It foreshadows what will take place in the rest of the industrialized world.” The flip side, she acknowledges, is that labor organizations may have to reform themselves in profound ways to win over workers in information-based industry. “The next generation of employee organizations will have to be as flexible and as decentralized as the New Economy itself,” she says.

Dean has inside information about how this vaunted New Economy works. She married a start-up entrepreneur, Randall Menna, her college sweetheart, and they now have a two-year-old son. Over coffee just across the street from a warren of cubicles in Palo Alto, where he’s overseeing the launch of his third startup, Menna volunteers that highly skilled technical workers like himself will forever be unlikely candidates either for jobs in big corporations or for unionization. But in “second tier” companies like Silicon Graphics and industry behemoths such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, Menna says, engineers, technical writers, and quality-control inspectors “really could use unions.”

Dean agrees. “I think he’s got it about right,” she says. “In startups, you have such high valuation as a specialist that you have ultimate bargaining power as an individual.” In bigger companies and midsize firms, “that’s where the real challenge is for the labor movement.”

To gain perspective on the larger challenges facing organized labor, Dean took a working sabbatical over the summer, moving to Japan for two months to learn more about the increasingly globalized economy. Trade unions there, she found, are in a good position to influence transnational corporations. She promptly set up a joint research project between Working Partnerships and the Japan Institute of Labor, and began to pine for “some sort of international organization which cross-trains organizers and leaders in economic development and social justice.”

A maelstrom of pressures awaited her on her return. Seven unions have requested strike sanctions from the labor council, the general election campaign is heating up, and the push for medical coverage for all children in Santa Clara County is heading into its final phase. As the global economy morphs at ever faster speeds, Dean believes, labor and community alliances like the ones she is forging in Silicon Valley can play an increasingly important role. Those alliances, once formed, could check the power of conglomerates, she argues, “and advance the principle of economic and social equity.”

In her effort to redefine what the labor movement is for, as she put it to the teenagers she brought to the janitors’ meeting, Dean stakes a bold claim for unions. “We are going to recraft the social contract in this country,” she declares. “We’re going to recraft a new New Deal.”

She knows it won’t happen tomorrow. “Change takes place over a lifetime,” Dean says. “It’s like watching the earth move. That’s going to take 30 years of working very, very hard.”


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