Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, March 2, 3 or 4
Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, representing more than 60,000 workers, and like most labor leaders he’s worried about the future under the new administration.
Unlike too many unionists, however, he’s also hopeful, seeing action, not fear, as the best response.
RWDSU president since 1998, Appelbaum also is a vice-president of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and of the AFL-CIO. Worldwide, he’s head of the Union Network International Global Commerce (representing 160 unions and 4 million workers) and is an officer with the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations. In the broader progressive community, Appelbaum is president of the Jewish Labor Committee, a board member of the Latino Victory Project, and a member of the Democratic National Committee, where he formerly served as Chief House Counsel.
Action is needed on the job and in politics, he said.
“We need to organize, and we also need to find electoral solutions to problems as well,” he said. “We also need to organize people who are already organized within unions. People are often members of a union and don’t feel a real connection to the union. When people organize each other, that’s when we’re going to be able to protect and advance what we’ve achieved over the years. I think that people are now asking themselves questions that they weren’t asking before – it was extraordinary to see the turnout at [the Women’s marches].
“The American labor movement needs to re-envision itself,” he said. “The most successful movements have been when they’ve come up from the ground.”
Further, Appelbuam is upbeat about the possibilities.
“I’m optimistic that we have more of an opportunity now than we ever had before to explain to people why they need to come together. What happened in the election is maybe a kick in the [pants] – that we need to start doing things that we always should have been doing. We took it for granted that people were members of a union, and maybe we didn’t do as much to involve people. We’re one of the largest unions in Alabama. Why? Because we’re very much involved in the workplaces, and with the people, and we’re constantly there. And people understand what’s at stake.
“There are laws that are hostile to unions that are going to become more hostile in this new environment,” he conceded. “Resources are limited. But I think we have new ways of communicating with people, and I think we can overcome those obstacles. We need to really speak out in an affirmative way about why collective action is important.”
Appelbaum stressed that political activism is key to resisting.
“What the Democratic Party needs to do is exactly what the labor movement needs to do, which is to see itself as less of an institution and more of a movement. The party right now is just seen as something that is not relevant to people’s lives. We have to articulate what our vision is for the future. It doesn’t just mean specific policy initiatives, but how it is that we see society coming together. We have to talk about the rights of all people to be treated with dignity and justice and respect.
“This country needs to belong to all,” he continued. “It needs to be inclusive. And that’s not the case right now. We talk about this nation being polarized, but mostly we’re polarized economically. I believe that there has to be a sense that you can’t just be for justice in certain cases without being for justice everywhere.
“The Bernie Sanders campaign – how could that not create optimism for the future?” he said. “Bernie’s message was the right message. Bernie’s message is the message going forward.”
And hearing messages must lead to taking action.
“Speak up,” he said. “The people who marched [after Trump’s Inauguration] spoke up. President Obama told us what we have to do – he told us that we have to become organizers ourselves.”
[PICTURED: Retail union leader Stuart Appelbaum, center, addresses a New York rally for fair wages. Photo from local338.org.]