Barely a month goes by when Stuart Appelbaum isn’t quoted in one of New York’s daily or weekly newspapers. But it’s a small wonder when one considers how many hats the 59-year-old Appelbaum wears.
Known by most as a labor leader, Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and a vice president of both the New York State AFL-CIO and the New York City Central Labor Council. He’s also a leader in the Jewish community, where he’s president of the Jewish Labor Committee; he’s played a growing role in the gay community ever since he came out publicly as gay three years ago; and he’s active in the Democratic Party, once working as chief house counsel for the Democratic National Committee.
The Jewish Week caught up with Appelbaum Monday for his perspective on last week’s Wisconsin recall election, a contest won by Scott Walker, the incumbent governor, whose decision to cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers triggered the race.
Q: In the wake of Wisconsin, many observers are saying that the recall election spells bad news for labor throughout the country. How do you interpret the results?
A: The deck was stacked against working families in Wisconsin from the start, where the Democrats were outspent eight to one. With such overwhelming resources, the Republican governor could have told people that night is day and they would have believed him. … I don’t see Wisconsin as a repudiation of labor unions as much as a demonstration of why campaign-finance law is so urgently needed.
What, if anything, do you think the results in Wisconsin say about the general election this November?
Polling in Wisconsin showed that voters preferred [President Barack] Obama to [presumptive Republican nominee Mitt] Romney. I don’t believe that the vote in Wisconsin for governor says anything about the general election. The crucial factor in determining the Wisconsin results was the extraordinary money that Walker had to spend.
Some progressives believe that, by staying away from Wisconsin and saying very little about the race, Obama didn’t side with labor as strongly as he should have. Will this injure the president with union members this November?
Union members understand that President Obama is the best insurance for their families’ well being. They have seen health care extended to millions of Americans. They know that Republican trickle-down policies benefit only the 1 percent. They won’t accept the anti-worker policies of the Romney team.
Are there any bright spots in the country for labor unions these days?
In the same week that Wisconsin voters re-elected Scott Walker, 1,200 poultry workers in Russellville, Ala., voted to join my union by a vote of 706-292, despite a vigorous anti-union campaign. This vote occurred in one of the most conservative sections of the country, yet people were willing to stand up and fight back.
Many progressive Jews, especially those at the JLC, see a strong connection between the health of this country’s labor movement and the health of the Jewish community. How would you explain that connection to others?
The American labor movement has remained one of the Jewish community’s and the State of Israel’s greatest allies, because of shared values. In states where there are very few Jews, it was the labor movement that stood in support of Israel when anti-Zionist resolutions were introduced at Democratic Party conventions in the 1980s. All major unions in the United States, working with the JLC, have opposed calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions. …
You recently told the Village Voice that the future face of labor looks a lot like your own union, which is made up largely of immigrants, blacks, Latinos and gays. How much of a role do you think Jews will play in labor’s future?
I believe strongly in the importance of coalition building — and a coalition between the Jewish community and the labor movement has always made a lot of sense.
This is an edited transcript.