August 5, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – When workers at the WCA Car Wash in the Bronx recently voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU], they became just the seventh car wash in the City of New York to organize against poverty wages and unfair working conditions. But the RWDSU, under the leadership of its president Stuart Appelbaum, has made a habit out of organizing disparate groups of workers that until now, have never been unionized – and they’ve done it by employing a coalition-centered philosophy that breaks away from outmoded organizing strategies. (Watch Video)
“I think what is going on is conditions have gotten so bad for so many people that people are willing to stand up,” Appelbaum told LaborPress. “I also believe that there has to be a new approach for labor. We believe that labor can no longer see itself as just a labor movement. It has to see itself as the labor component in a broad progressive coalition that engages community groups, communities of faith, everyone of good will who understand that keeping people in poverty and growing income inequality, is not moral, is not ethical, and is not sustainable.”
Together, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and the RWDSU comprise the WASH NY campaign which has been so successful organizing the city’s often overlooked “car washeros.”
Appelbaum’s group, however, has also been successful organizing low-wage workers at Guitar Center’s flagship store in Manhattan, as well as 64 workers at the Unique Thrift Store in the Bronx. The organization is also supportive of NYC fast food workers’ drive for “$15 and a union.” Other innovative organizing efforts are underway elsewhere.
“What we are saying is that low-wage immigrant workers can organize and will organize,” Appelbaum said. “And we’ve seen that over and over again. We’ve held six elections at car washes, and we’ve won each and every one of them. We won the election at the Guitar Center in Manhattan, we have filed for an election at a Guitar Center in Chicago, we have won elections in the south. Low-wage workers are willing to organize. It’s incumbent upon us as labor to do it the right way – and that is in coalition with all of our progressive allies.”
In March, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka underscored the need for organized labor to “create new models of worker representation.”
“We need to be more strategic and forward-looking,” the head of the nation’s largest labor federation said. “And we need to face this challenge collectively.”
With soaring rents and plummeting median household incomes in New York City headed in opposite directions, the potential pool of workers turning to unions like the RWDSU for relief only appears to growing deeper.
“There’s such extraordinary need in this city that if people are willing to step up, workers are willing to step up,” Appelbaum said. “We have to focus on organizing low-wage immigrant workers in this city. Too many people are living in poverty. Forty-five percent of all New Yorkers are either living in poverty or near poverty. That’s unacceptable. The way to do something about it is by creating broad coalitions. We cannot do it on our own. But we can do it when we engage the entire community.”