Image by Jim Cooke/ Photo via RWDSU

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?

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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...

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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].

When you look at 30-plus years of declining union membership in America, and less than 11 percent of American workers are union members—do you believe that it’s possible to turn that membership decline around?

Appelbaum: I look at where we’ve been organizing—our greatest concentration is here in New York. In the past few years we’ve organized the workers at H&M, about 1,200 people in New York City; we’ve organized the workers at Zara, another 1,200 people. I’m also excited about what we’ve done in the car wash industry, where people who were getting less than legal wages, whose tips were being stolen, who didn’t speak English, who had documentation issues, were willing to stand up and join together and make changes in that industry. Those are the people you would have thought would be least likely to organize, and yet they organized.

Is there a way to scale these retail chain organizing victories nationally?

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Appelbaum: Yeah, I think so. I think the American labor movement needs to re-envision itself. The organizing that goes on needs to be in communities of all different sorts throughout the country. We tend to be very hierarchical organizations, but I think the most successful movements have been when they’ve come up from the ground. I look at marriage equality, and the lesson for me was it really wasn’t being directed from one central source, but people from all over the country felt connected to the objective and took action. I look at the Fight For 15 in the same way. The Bernie Sanders campaign—how could that not create optimism for the future?

If the American labor movement thinks that we can just go out there and start and control the organizing that takes place, we’re not going to be successful. I think what we can do is create an environment in which organizing takes place... We have to think of ourselves less as an institution, and more as a movement.

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Does the mechanism to achieve that exist today? It doesn’t seem like the AFL-CIO, for example, is set up for that.

Appelbaum: I think that the mechanism to do that does exist today, and it’s social media... If we think that we’re going to do it through our structures, that’s not the way to do it.

In terms of policy, do you think groups like the AFL-CIO need to put more money into organizing?

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Appelbaum: I think that it’s easy for all of us to transmit these stories to America. We have all sorts of vehicles for doing it. We’re talking to you. We talk to others. We highlight the issues that are out there. When we organized stores at Guitar Center we used social media, even to get beyond the mainstream press. When people see these stories, they get inspired. They want to be involved. 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 collectively.

I also think that what happened in the election is maybe a kick in the ass—that we need to start doing things that we always should have been doing, and maybe have stopped doing over the years. In our workplaces, we took it for granted that people were members of a union, and had to be members of a union, and maybe we didn’t do as much to involve people...

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We represent a lot of people in poultry plants in Alabama and Mississippi. These are low wage jobs. But we represent over ten thousand poultry workers. We’re one of the largest unions in Alabama. Why is that? 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... We’re taking our Southern union representatives and organizers and we’re bringing them to New York, and we’re having them talk to our locals here about how it is they’ve been so successful. And the reason for that is there is a different relationship between the union and the people in Alabama. They can decide “I don’t want to pay dues” and get everything else that the contract provides. And yet they choose—even though it’s low wage jobs—to be part of a union. That’s what we need to do throughout the rest of the country.

That argument for unionizing is compelling, but statistically the vast majority of people still aren’t union members. What’s the impediment for scaling that up? Money, laws?

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Appelbaum: Both are problems. There are laws that are hostile to unions that are going to become more hostile in this new environment. 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, and what it is we’re able to accomplish through collective action and a union...

There are far too many people who are struggling. Part of what we need to do is to expand public services for people... We need tax laws that are going to make sure that everyone including the president of the United States pays his fair share. I’m not convinced on the [universal] basic income. I am convinced on higher wages and higher income for people. And I think the way to achieve that is by people coming together collectively and demanding it.

Where do you think the Democrats need to go now?

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Appelbaum: 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. 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. We have to talk about the stake that everyone has in this country that’s included in our governing documents, that this country needs to belong to all. 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. You can’t be for justice for some and not for all. And that’s what the Democratic Party needs to be talking about. It has to put forth a vision, it can’t just be about the gamesmanship.

When I got out of law school, I went to work for the Democratic Party, because I wanted to change the world. And I left there and went to work for the labor movement because I thought that the real politics were the politics of what the labor movement was trying to accomplish, and not the politics of the party. I think the party right now is just seen as something that is not relevant to people’s lives.

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Do you think in retrospect, unions should have supported Bernie Sanders?

Appelbaum: I don’t know. In retrospect there’s probably a lot of stuff that we should have done, and a lot of stuff that Clinton should have done. I think the decision that was made at the time, based on what was seen at the time, probably seemed like the best way forward. Hillary looked like she’d be our best vehicle for winning the election. But I believe that Bernie’s message was the right message... Bernie’s message is the message going forward.

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Trump has already met with the building trades unions. How should unions approach dealing with the Trump administration?

Appelbaum: If there are issues and places we can work with Trump, go ahead and work with him on it. But I don’t think that we should normalize him... We can’t look at what he’s doing now and say, “Never mind about the things he said to get here.” I think that it has to be an arm’s length relationship with him.

For regular people who want to do something meaningful in this political environment, what should they do?

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Appelbaum: They have to speak up. The people who marched [after the inauguration] spoke up. I think they have to assert the values that are important to them. They have to talk to each other. President Obama told us what we have to do—he told us that we have to become organizers ourselves.