Book Review:
A New Deal: How Regional Activism will Reshape the American Labour Movement
Authors: Dean, A. & Reynolds, D.

Dean, A. & Reynolds, D. (2009). A New Deal: How Regional Activism will Reshape the American Labour Movement Ithica and London: ILR Press

Reviewed by: Peter Fairbrother

Debates about the future of unions, their role and place in communities, and the way they could develop are many. Such debates are important because they help us understand the ways in which work relations are changing and developing and the challenges facing communities, particularly in the rust belts, in rural regions in the settler societies, as well as in new economic growth areas. They are important because any understanding of politics in a modern liberal democratic society requires an understanding of trade unions and their place in the political economy. Finally, these debates are important because as globalisation proceeds many suffer and have seemingly bleak futures. By its very focus (and location) this book contributes to an understanding of these themes.

The book has large ambitions. It seeks to present a model of change, where the labour movement (broadly defined) is at the centre of a revival of labour politics, via regional power building. The premise is that organised labour is a critical social force in the U.S. (and by implication other liberal democracies) which can become the lynchpin of broad based social movements committed to social and economic change, promoting a more humane, sustainable and improved world. The overriding question is of course how this might occur? For the authors, the answer rests with a progressive model of political mobilisation committed to social change. The model has three legs: deep coalition building (with the labour councils as the means and the focus developing thick alliances with inter faith organisations, low wage groups, immigrant rights organisations and single issue social movements), research and policy work (defining and framing the issues so they are evidence based and clearly articulated, about health, labour markets, corporate practice and so on); and aggressive political action (strikes, demonstrations, campaigns and lobbying). The three legs have four conditions. They are: the emergence of movement institutional leaders; foundation support and resource; established models and the availability of peer to peer support; and regional economic conditions.

There is a twist at the core of the analysis, which makes it seem parochial and at times narrowly focused. These emergent regional power blocs have often developed around electoral activity, at a city level, State level and nationally, notably with the successful Obama election campaign. While important, there is a degree of parochialism to this formulation, despite superficial comparisons that could be made with ‘work choices’ in Australia or the struggles in Greece, or the curious recent political history of the United Kingdom or Germany or even Canada and Mexico.

The model is about building regional power, and core to the process is an active labour movement. Bu, as the authors note there are complications. First, the analysis focuses on labour councils (union confederations or local peak bodies) at a regional level (although the regions are often based on cities, many of which have millions of residents, such as Los Angeles). Hence, it may overlook the many small and under resourced labour councils across the U.S. Second, and related, these initiatives rest on an extensive resource base; foundation support, for example, is deemed critical so as to employ a number of researchers and organisers but such largesse is limited—then what? Third, national labour leaders may be sceptical of labour councils, may be concerned with industrial rather than political matters and take a negative view of these councils and their allies outside the union movement. More generally, the model downplays the insight that most trade union activists and managers know, that at the end of the day unions have industrial concerns and preoccupations, called jobs and workplaces. If these are not at the centre of union engagement then what is their purpose? Nonetheless, over the last fifteen years sections of the U.S. labour movement have begun to rebuild political and industrial activism via labour councils and in conjunction with community organisations, beginning in California and working outwards. It is this prospect that is beguiling.

The two authors are activists and writers. Amy Dean is a major union leader and played a leading role in developing what is called a ‘regional power building’ strategy. In 1993, she was elected to lead the South Bay AFL-CIO Labour Council in San Jose, Silicon Valley. She states that the council developed ‘new approaches that drew together the different parts of the labour movement and the wider community of working people around a shared vision’ (p. xix). What makes this case especially interesting is that it is based in San Jose and covers the world famous Silicon Valley which despite its image is a community marked by the very rich, resting on the very poor. David Reynolds is a union activist and writer based at Wayne State University in the Labour Studies Centre. They have written a most interesting book, part analysis and part manifesto.

This book rewards reading and debating. The claim is that the labour movement provides the organisational form, the resource base and the politics to engage in regional power building. While not an answer as presented, it is a beginning.

Professor Peter Fairbrother
RMIT University