Sitting among lawmakers, labor organizer Stuart Appelbaum could be mistaken for a colleague, having walked the legislative halls for years in support of legislation that improved workers’ lives. But he is also an activist who marches in demonstrations, and gathers signatures in unionization campaigns.
He is also a diplomat in a way, building relationships between American labor organizers and their counterparts in Israel, among other countries. He did not make much ado before going into a manifesto on the virtues of organized labor. “We have the greatest income inequality since the Great Depression. Fewer workers belong to unions. It’s bad for our society,” said Appelbaum at the Queens Jewish Community Council’s (QJCC) Legislative Breakfast on February 4 at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. “When workers come together collectively, they come together to improve their workplaces.”
Alongside his position as President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), Appelbaum is also an Executive Vice President of the 1.3-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, and a longtime fixture in Democratic Party institutions, such as its past presidential conventions and election campaigns. Focusing on building connections between workers of all industries and places, he acknowledged New York State Comptroller Tom Dinapoli at the breakfast. “We flew together to Bangladesh in 2013, where the Rana Plaza factory floor collapsed,” said Appelbaum. “He didn’t use government funding or campaign funds to fly; he used his personal funds.” Along with Monsignor Kevin Sullivan of Catholic Charities of New York, they met with labor leaders, survivors, and family members of the dead to highlight unsafe working conditions that produced clothing worn by Americans, and the need for workers to organize. Appelbaum described the mission as an example of Jewish teachings and Catholic social values put into practice.
On the local scene, Appelbaum spoke of his union’s work in fighting for fixed schedules, which would enable members to attend school and take care of their children when they are not “on call.” Another campaign in which RWDSU has been active is the movement to unionize car wash workers, who were being paid wages below the minimum wage with the expectation that the difference is made up in tips. Appelbaum said that the tips do not always cover the difference, must be split between workers, and their supervisors. “When you pay the tip, you do not know where it goes,” said Appelbaum. With Pesach cleaning approaching, Appelbaum promised to share a list of unionized car washes in Queens so that supportive Orthodox consumers will patronize those businesses.
On the higher end of retail, in the past two years RWDSU successfully unionized employees at Zara and H&M, based on the labor practices of these two companies’ European home countries. “Polls show that a majority of workers wish to unionize if they have the freedom to do so.”
In his role at the Jewish Labor Committee, Appelbaum has been critical of Israel’s leadership at times, but is also an important voice of opposition to BDS, encouraging investment in Israel and cooperation between the labor movements of both countries. In his speech to the QJCC, Comptroller Dinapoli spoke of his effort against BDS by continuing to invest the state’s pension fund in Israel, and visiting the country to take a firsthand look at how the money is being spent.
In her address at the breakfast, Congresswoman Grace Meng spoke of mailbox fishing, a practice where thieves take signed checks from mailboxes using sticky tape and then cash the checks. “Many of the victims of mail fishing are seniors who are particularly vulnerable to these reprehensible schemes and have no means of protecting themselves,” said Meng. “The Postal Service must act at once to stop this unconscionable crime. The agency must replace all collection boxes in Queens with anti-theft collection boxes to prevent continued mail fishing in our borough.” In her letter to the Postal Service, Meng also noted delays in service that followed a snowstorm last month, which surprised her constituents. “Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld brought this to our attention. I am working together with Congressman Greg Meeks and Congressman Joe Crowley on this,” said Meng. “Postal delivery is one of the most basic functions of postal service.”
By Sergey Kadinsky