Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Amy Dean’

Labor Day's Legacy: A More Inclusive America

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Amy DeanAt some point in their lives, almost all parents think about making a will to ensure that their assets are passed on to the next generation. But material gains, of course, are the least of what we give our children. Far more important are the values we teach them.

This Labor Day, I propose we think less about the material gains that working Americans have secured for their families over the past century. Instead, we should consider the values that organized labor embodies that we might hope to pass along to our children.

What I inherited from my grandparents — and what I want to see the labor movement impart to the next generation — is a legacy of inclusion.

In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to this country as Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. Although they worked low-paying jobs in the textile and apparel sectors, they were deeply motivated by a vision of building a better society.

Part of their motivation was secular, and part came out of their faith. Their vision of creating a better America involved a politics of mutual aid and mutual support. Working with this in mind, they helped to establish some of the foundational institutions of our democracy. Their generation built hospitals and synagogues. They built public schools. And they built trade unions.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought me from meeting to meeting, where we would hear people talk and argue. They would discuss pooling their resources to take care of someone who was sick, or to bury the dead, or to help a family whose breadwinner had been suddenly thrown out of work. Those informal networks of support, which existed for generations, were the precursors to modern trade unions. In more recent decades, unions have been the means for employees to come together, work in their collective interest, and help provide one another with a measure of economic security.

The result has been profound. Because my grandparents’ generation built unions of textile and apparel workers — as well as unions in other industrial sectors of the economy — their children were able to go to college. Many in the next generation became educators and public servants, and they built organizations of their own. Today’s teachers unions and public sector unions stand in this same tradition of being a bulwark of middle class life in America.

On this Labor Day, we can witness a new wave of immigrants coming to this country with a vision of building a better life. They may come from different countries, their complexions may be different, and they may be more likely to work as janitors or housekeepers than as factory workers. But their hopes and aspirations are the same.

The question for us as a society is: Will we leave a legacy behind of inclusion and preserve our country as the place that the world looks to as a haven of opportunity? Or will we take America down a very alien path, close our doors, and become a nation laden with fear-mongering, scapegoating, and exclusion?

This is an especially important question for Labor Day, because organized labor has been the central institution in our country that has allowed previous generations of immigrants — people like my grandparents — to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. Today, as we work to create pathways that will allow newly arrived immigrants to weave themselves into the civic fabric of American society, a large part of our efforts must be to create a revitalized labor movement, one eager to welcome them into its ranks.

We need look no further than labor’s past to give us direction toward a more inclusive future.

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

From Civil War to Labor Vision

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Amy DeanTo the outside world, hearing that unions are fighting amongst themselves does not seem like anything new. Sadly, that’s what a lot of people expect from the labor movement. But the civil war between SEIU and UNITE HERE was a particularly painful internal dispute. It created a rift between two of the most dynamic organizations in organized labor and limited the ability of the entire movement to address critical challenges facing the American economy over the past year and a half.

America is a country of immigrants. The unions at the core of the recent dispute, the former UNITE and HERE, are each deeply rooted in the dreams of immigrant workers to create better lives for themselves, their co-workers, and their families. Organized labor in the United States has always grown with the newest wave of immigrants to our country. Moreover, the labor movement has been the most important institution, bar none, in allowing those who are newly coming to America to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. It is central to our mission, and the continuing importance of this goal far surpasses any internal disagreements we may have within organized labor. Even while the combination of the two organizations, UNITE and HERE, did not last, the labor movement as a whole should reaffirm the broader principles that inspired the merger.

The immigrants who organized the textile and apparel sector a century ago—immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, like my grandparents—believed that if working people were going to have strong institutions that could go toe-to-toe with employers, they needed solid infrastructure. So they founded trade unions, and they fashioned institutions like the Amalgamated Bank—which today is a significant asset that was a point of contention in labor’s family feud. We must remember that these institutions are not prizes to be divvied up. They are embodiments of the hard work and foresight of previous generations, who left them so that their children and future generations of working immigrants could create better lives for themselves.

Family feuds are painful. They rip at the very fabric of an institution. Likewise, internal disputes within the labor movement can be deeply harmful, eroding the foundations of organizations that we have worked so hard to build. Like in a family, each side in a dispute believes that it is right. However, within the family, the imperative to resolve a dispute and to mend wounds often outweighs the particulars of any given disagreement. The damage an internal fight can cause is so profound that sometimes being right is not enough.

For this reason, the announcement of a settlement between SEIU and UNITE HERE represents an important moment for the entire labor movement. Going forward, we need to put our unifying mission ahead of any disagreements that divide us.

Today, we face a sea of opponents ready to defame and defeat all unions. The only side that wins when we don’t work hard to put our differences behind us is the side of organized money. When they see us divided, the big corporations and the Glenn Becks of the world laugh all the way to the bank. Every family has its internal disputes. But the labor movement doesn’t have the luxury of fighting against itself any longer

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

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