Jewish labor organizer puts the New Deal in a new light

While Amy Dean reveres President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his famous New Deal of the 1930s, she thinks she can do him one better.

In her book, “A New New Deal” (co-written with David Reynolds), Dean offers a remedy for revitalizing the U.S. labor movement.

Amy Dean

It’s a prescription, Dean says, that stems not only from lessons learned over 20 years as a labor organizer, but also from the Jewish community values she grew up on.

Her central message: Whereas FDR’s bold social policies were centered in Washington, D.C., the new New Deal is all about regional coalitions.

In other words, think globally, act locally.

“If you look all around, you see the seeds of a resurgent labor movement,” Dean said while on a swing through the Bay Area. “This work at the regional level demonstrates we can solve big social problems regionally, and labor begins to be seen as a real force.”

Though she now lives in her native Chicago, Dean called the Bay Area home when she was the leader of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council. When elected to that post in 1993, she was the youngest person and first woman head of a major labor federation.

During her tenure, she pioneered the techniques she writes about, notably founding Working Partnerships, a coalition of labor, government, industry and nonprofits.

She also stressed that the labor movement has a bigger community role to play than just negotiating contracts and calling strikes. Organized labor can play a constructive role in everything from health care to improving the environment.

As Dean calls it, “turtles and Teamsters.”

“If the labor movement is going to reverse its fortunes, then we have to engage in the major economic decision-making that takes place every day,” she said. “For example, things like affordable housing, transportation and land use policies are all things that concern us, our [union] members and the broader community of working families.”

Dean speaks as passionately about Judaism as she does of the work she’s done.

“No question my lifelong work in the labor movement is an outward expression of my Jewish values,” Dean said. “When my grandparents came from Eastern Europe, they had very little, but their bags were overflowing with a social vision of a better world.”

Noting that Judaism is a faith that “has to be practiced in community,” she remembered how her parents would argue politics at the dinner table, while always volunteering their time in the Jewish community. From an early age, she said, she was taught that “the on-ramp to one’s faith isn’t initially theology, but action.”

When she lived in the South Bay, Dean and her family belonged to Congregation Shir Hadash, a Los Gatos Reform synagogue with a strong social-action bent. Dean learned just how strong that bent was during the High Holy Days sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron a few years back.

Aron expressed solidarity with local union janitors who were threatening to strike.

“Her sermon was about our obligation to take care of others,” Dean remembered. “She specifically talked about plight of the janitors in Silicon Valley. She taught we as a community were only as strong as the weakest link. She took a huge risk. She demonstrated it’s more important to be a leader and take a stand.”

With union rolls declining (about 12 percent of Americans belong to unions, compared to 20 percent in 1983), Dean knows her new New Deal might not happen tomorrow, but based on her San Jose experience and similar coalitions popping up around the country, she remains optimistic.

“The labor movement has to be its own advocate,” she said. “It would be a big mistake if we wait for the president and Congress to advocate on our behalf. If we can’t articulate a bold policy for America, then we will marginalize ourselves.”

Dean likewise sees a link between Jewish community activism and the progressive labor work she’s done. It’s all about repairing the world.

“Jews have to be seen as one of the loudest an strongest voices for social justice,” she said. “I think our political survival depends on it.”

“A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” by Amy B. Dean and David B. Reynolds (272 pages, Century Foundation, $29.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.