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RWDSU leader speaks on life devoted to labor rights

Stephon Johnson | 9/19/2013, 3:02 p.m.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), has union leadership in his blood. While being ...
Stuart Applebaum

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), has union leadership in his blood. While being honored by the AmNews this Thursday at the paper’s annual labor breakfast, Appelbaum talked about his experiences with unions at a young age and what makes unions good and his vision of unions’ future.

“The labor movement was a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Appelbaum told the AmNews. “My father was a postal clerk and a rank-and-file member of APWU Local 147 in Hartford, Conn., for about 40 years. I would read every issue of his union newspaper as a child, and was able to afford law school because of a scholarship I received for a local. I always presumed the labor movement was a vehicle for positive change—I particularly saw it up close when my father’s union went on strike.”

After law school, Appelbaum worked as chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee, where he worked alongside other union leaders. Appelbaum told the AmNews that once he had the opportunity, he wanted to work directly for the labor movement because he believed that it was the best vehicle for touching people’s lives. He eventually left D.C. and moved to Michigan to work for the Michigan AFL-CIO in 1982.

Popular liberal opinion holds that presence of unions contributed to the prosperity of America for the past half-century. Appelbaum holds that same opinion and believes that unions are the best way to combat a second Gilded Age, where only the wealthy are catered to.

“The most effective way to deal with obscene income inequality in our city and in our country is through strong unions,” said Appelbaum. “We are the most significant counterweight to the Republican vision of a country by the rich and for the rich. Only by workers joining together in collective action can we counteract the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

“The Democratic Party needs to understand that better,” Appelbaum continued. “Everybody who wants an inclusive society has a lot at stake in helping to build a strong labor movement in New York City and in our country.”

But with the anti-union fervor reaching a fever pitch the past several years in Republican-dominated state governments, do unions like RWDSU have a future? Appelbaum thinks so.

“I’m optimistic about the future of unions, because we have begun re-envisioning ourselves,” Appelbaum said. “The labor movement must see itself not just as a labor movement, but as the labor component of a broad progressive coalition—a coalition which includes community groups, worker centers and communities of faith.”

Appelbaum pointed to recent movements and sects of groups fighting for their rights as proof of the necessity of unions. “I look at what the RWDSU is doing in the car wash industry in New York, and I am very optimistic,” he said. “We are organizing low-wage immigrant workers successfully. Our partnership with New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, two powerful community groups in this city, provides a model for building a strong and progressive movement in

New York.”