NEW YORK, NY – The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] represents in a wide range of industries, including but not limited to retail, grocery stores, poultry processing, dairy processing, cereal processing, soda bottlers, bakeries, health care, hotels, manufacturing, public sector workers like crossing guards, sanitation, and highway workers, warehouses, building services, and distribution. LaborPress had a chance to catch up with RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum as part of our ongoing series on labor union organizing to learn more about the union, its latest organizing efforts and more.
LP: Please speak to efforts to organize difficult sectors, such as the warehouse industry, poultry processing, car washes, etc. What makes those efforts so difficult? Was it a losing game, or were there some victories? What was the cost in terms of time and money? Why are difficult groups targeted?
SA: Often, workers come to us with questions and concerns about how to improve their workplaces. Sometimes, they need help in standing up to a bad boss. They may have experience being a union member or have family members who know about the union. In other cases, the union looks to connect with workers in industries where we already have a presence or where we know we can make a difference. But in almost every case employers respond as if they are being challenged or attacked. What makes an organizing drive more or less difficult has little to do with the resolve of the workers, and much to do with the nature, tenor, and finances of the company. Companies with bottomless pockets and an anti-union animus will stop at nothing, including evading the law to spread lies and misinformation about joining a union. And our laws are very weak when it comes to protecting the right of workers to organize. The imbalance of power many workers face creates real hurdles to organizing. Organizing drives like this are winnable, many of the ones mentioned in your question as being more difficult the RWDSU has seen success, including the poultry industry, warehouses, along the food chain and at car washes. There is a notion out there that if a campaign is too difficult it shouldn’t be taken on, our union time and time again has taken on these industries and forever changed the lives of workers.
LP: What is the philosophy and thinking behind the organizing efforts, such as everyone deserves decent pay and benefits, etc.?
SA: We believe everyone deserves dignity and respect at work. It really is that simple. Each workplace or industry may have different ways that workers want that belief expressed.
When workers come together to organize it may be the first time that they truly feel their own agency and the power that they can have in their lives. Standing up to their boss and fighting for the dignity and respect that they deserve transforms many workers’ outlook on the things that they can stand up for in their own lives. It’s not just about pay and benefits. If workers were organizing solely on pay and benefits, there would come a point where they may give up because of the brutal psychological warfare of the anti-union campaign. We’re building solidarity and when workers create their own agency in their lives, they become part of something bigger than just their own fight.
When workers at a poultry facility felt strongly that [Muslim holiday] Eid al-Fitr be a union negotiated holiday, we put it on the table and won. When workers at car washes felt the tip-credit kept them from earning fair wages, we took it on in Albany and won. When workers came to us with concerns over sexual harassment at work, we developed safety mechanisms and committees to propose new policies and continually evaluate how their stores could improve. Each and every RWDSU contract is unique to the workforce who negotiated it, our worker-led bargaining committees face the companies firsthand and truly win provisions the workers want and need.
Workers’ concerns drive both organizing and contract campaigns. But all of what we do is guided by a belief in fairness, decent treatment and equality in all aspects of workers lives.
In my opinion and from the organizing perspective, I would say the union uses unique tactics to each campaign. At Housing Works for example, we started off demanding that the employer be neutral in the organizing campaign because of their progressive roots. When Housing Works refused to voluntarily recognize the union, workers took action in many forms, from a non-profit-wide walk out, to a delegation of elected officials, to a delivery of valentine demands to management showing a super-majority of support demanding that management stop union busting. Refusal to recognize the union led to the election process which we are very familiar with running at our union. Organizing campaigns are the workers’ campaigns, they are driven by the tactics workers want to employ. Collectively, workers along with the guidance of union organizers decide when and how to escalate their issues to management, be they around neutrality, union elections or workplace demands.
LP: What was the experience of trying to organize Amazon workers in Alabama like?
The organizing effort at Amazon is ongoing and long term. The workers in Bessemer have shown great strength in standing up to one of the wealthiest companies the world has ever known. It’s an effort that continues to inspire workers worldwide and is part of a growing movement to change Amazon for the better. How we deal with Amazon’s unchecked growth and power is one of the greatest challenges the labor movement faces. The workers in Bessemer are showing the world what is possible and that is incredibly powerful.