Stuart Appelbaum, the head of the most powerful retail workers union in America, swears he is optimistic. Why?
Appelbaum has been president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) for nearly 20 years. He previously worked as a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, and is still a DNC member. Under his leadership, the union has had notable victories in the generally hostile retail world, representing workers at H&M, Zara, Duane Reade, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s, as well as significant numbers of car wash workers, southern poultry workers, and factory workers across America. Appelbaum spoke to us last week about the future of unions in the Donald Trump era.
When you look in your crystal ball for the next four years, what are your top concerns with respect to the Trump administration?
Stuart Appelbaum: I’m concerned that the people around Trump—in his cabinet, and people within Congress—are going to look at this as an opportunity to remove the labor movement from the political playing field, by trying to decimate us in different ways. I don’t know whether or not they will do national “Right to Work,” but there are many other things they can do relating to certifications of unions in workplaces, rolling back workers’ rights, trying to handcuff our ability to operate... Even without “Right to Work” there may be other approaches that can be harmful, such as recertification of bargaining units, a rejection of card check certification. We’re going to look at all sorts of rulings from the National Labor Relations Board that can be harmful. And I also think that there may be a new mood among employers in this country, that even if not legislated or regulated, will make them think that now is the time to go after unions.
In times like these there’s always some tension in the labor movement between doing more political action, or doing more labor organizing.
Appelbaum: I don’t see it as an either/ or situation. I think that we need to organize, and we also need to find electoral solutions to problems as well. Before we were talking about how much more we could expect from a new administration if the election went another way. Now we find ourselves in a defensive mode. And I think that the answer is organizing, and that we need to organize people politically, and we need to organizing people into unions. But I think that we also need to organize people who are already organized within unions—we have to organize the organized. And I have to tell you I’m optimistic, even in this new era, because I believe that part of the message for us has to be that we need to do the things that we always should have been doing...
People are often members of a union and don’t feel a real connection to the union, and don’t feel that they made a choice to become part of the union. I think that 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 across America].