It’s a five-hour drive from my home in New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama; six with stops and traffic. I set out early, in time to catch Sen. Bernie Sanders and rapper Killer Mike address dozens of Amazon workers in the parking lot outside the local union hall of the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, the RWDSU. The press corps was roped off in a thicket of cameras behind staggered folding chairs, dispersed to ensure social distancing. People were helping themselves to the boxed lunches of pulled pork and chicken sandwiches that were stacked on a hospitality table for anyone needing a late meal.
This was the home stretch of a seven-week National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) campaign to determine if workers in the 850,000-square-foot warehouse known as Amazon Fulfillment Center - BHM1 in nearby Bessemer would unionize. The voting period was set to end in two days. Approximately 5,800 receivers, stowers, pickers, and packers would decide whether to become the first group of Amazon employees in the United States to join a union.
I was there to meet Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, who’d joined the fight at the request of a few Amazon workers there. He was coming down from New York City to help oversee the vote count. While waiting for him, I drove to Bessemer to see the fulfillment center. In the window of a local plumbing supply business was a sun-bleached “Welcome Amazon” sign. It must have gone up when the center opened last March.
Woolly clouds hovered over the flat top of the mammoth warehouse, which is the size of about 15 football fields. Three organizers were posted at the exits to the center’s parking lots, with RWDSU signs, ready to answer any last-minute questions. A French television crew was interviewing one of them. A police cruiser stationed nearby, a permanent fixture, had its blue lights flashing. Occasionally a car exited the parking lot and everyone would greet each other before the drivers turned on Powder Plant Road and sped off. Now and then another passing car would honk in solidarity as it drove by.
Bessemer is one of those neglected places in America where breaking your body for $15 an hour is often a good, even the best option available. I double-masked and stopped in a few thrift stores and pawn shops where I thought I might overhear some buzz about the vote, but no one was talking about it. I drove past plasma donation centers, payday loan operations, and locals walking along the roadside carrying grocery bags from the Dollar General. At the union hall in Birmingham, Sanders had spoken of the recent electoral victories of Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, equating the battle for the balance of power in the U.S. Senate with this unionization drive in Alabama. But in Bessemer it was hard to see the kind of grassroots energy that recently flipped Georgia blue.
I found Appelbaum in the lobby of the three-star hotel where he usually stays in Birmingham, a couple of blocks from the RWDSU union hall. He was dressed down and unshaven, looking more old-school union leader than he normally does. When he’s addressing the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee or being inducted into the Manhattan Jewish Hall of Fame, he looks like a modern-day Samuel Gompers, not a flat-capped arbeiter. He was serene, even buoyant. Neither of us knew that the vote was about to go against the union, by a large margin.
His phone rang, someone was calling to tell him she had gotten a job at the U.S. Department of Labor, working for the new Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh. I tried not to eavesdrop, but they were discussing the upcoming vote. I heard him say, “There’ve been over 2,000 articles on this.” The whole world was watching.
Appelbaum, 68, has been coming to Birmingham for decades. “At one convention, one of our members came up to me,” he said. “African American, a poultry plant worker, he knew I was from the Hartford area. And he started asking me about the synagogues there and he knew them, because he was Jewish.” Appelbaum regrets not finding out more when he had the chance. “He was talking to me about kashrut, and I don’t know his back story—was he born Jewish, adopted, converted? I don’t know.”
Appelbaum is only one generation removed from working class. His father was a postal worker. The family lived in Bloomfield, Connecticut, named an “All-America City” by the National Civil League in 1970 for its ethos of inclusivity. His town and school were racially integrated, their leaders prevented the scourge of “white flight” by banning the display of for-sale signs in front yards, and Appelbaum’s Conservative rabbis taught him the inherent dignity of all human beings. Theirs was social justice Judaism and it forged him. He took those values with him to Brandeis and then to Harvard Law School. He holds them close in what he believes is a workers’ fight with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—net worth nearly $200 billion—whom Appelbaum calls the “biggest pandemic profiteer.”
“Look at how difficult it is, how many working people are unable to survive; look at the number of people who are food deprived, who have to worry every day what’s going to happen to them and their families,” he said. “These are working people in the richest country of the world, who are just one crisis away from losing everything.”
Appelbaum has led the RWDSU since 1998. The union boasts 100,000 members from many sectors including hospitals, farms, and poultry plants. The list of other organizations where he holds or has held positions of influence is lengthy: the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the national and New York state chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the Democratic National Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Latino Victory Fund, not to mention two global union federations. He’s also president of the Jewish Labor Committee, which he said works to “bring worlds together, creating alliances.”
“That’s what Stuart does,” said Lenore Miller, his predecessor at RWDSU, who recruited him from the AFL-CIO in Michigan to become her assistant in 1987. “He maintains relationships—the important thing is the continuity.”
I talked with Appelbaum about Camp Ramah, his mother’s death, his 104-year-old Aunt Betty whom he calls every night, his sister in California, 11 far-flung cousins, some of whom are frum. He told me about trips he’d organized with New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan of Catholic Charities. They’d visited Bangladesh and Central America to get a firsthand look at economic violence against workers. His anecdotes were personal, full of pathos and Yiddishkeit. We agreed to meet again over breakfast at the locally owned pancake place he’s been coming to for 30 years. It was Pesach, so I promised to bring matzo.
Appelbaum has had two previous experiences going up against domineering billionaires, including Bezos. In New York in 2009, he fought against the Kingsbridge Armory development supported by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and in Long Island City in 2019, he opposed the HQ2 project, a proposed second headquarters for Amazon. “Economic development is a waste of money unless you’re creating good jobs, and the armory jobs would be minimum wage jobs,” Appelbaum said. “And I saw no reason why we should give $3 billion in tax breaks to Amazon to build a headquarters in New York when they were mistreating their own employees so badly. There were a lot of concerns—environmental and gentrification.” Appelbaum won and Bloomberg and Bezos lost. Both projects were stopped in their tracks.
Besides his Jewishness and his social activism, a third factor has shaped his life and work. Appelbaum was born in 1952, the year the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was a “mental disorder.” It wasn’t until he was in college that it was downgraded to a “disturbance.”
“I came out as a gay man late in life,” he told me. “I always felt somehow that coming out would interfere with all the other things I wanted to do. I was in my 50s and I felt a good portion of my life had been stolen from me. I couldn’t say who I was, I couldn’t have friends who knew I was gay, I sublimated in my work. A friend of mine told me when I finally came out, ‘the love that dare not speak its name won’t shut up.’ I had reasons for not coming out, none of them were valid—but they seemed valid at the time.”
His phone interrupted us again, and this time it was Michihito Osawa, Appelbaum’s husband whom he married in 2019. They exchanged vows in Battery Park against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty.
His personal liberation has astonished him. As he told the New Hampshire Democratic Convention in a speech televised on C-SPAN a week after his wedding, “Incomprehensible, inconceivable, unimaginable, extraordinary and rapid change is possible.”
I saw Appelbaum again the next day, an hour before the vote count was set to commence. He was sitting at a window table at the Pancake House, centered in a beam of sunshine, a good omen. We talked about solidarity and he was telling me about how they do Simchat Torah in Birmingham. “What they do here, they unravel the entire Torah. So when you start reading the end, the whole thing is unraveled,” he said. “You go to the end and walk to the beginning, the whole congregation is holding the Torah.”
He told me his dream for what would happen after this union drive. He thought success there would open the door wide and Amazon workers would begin organizing across the country. “People will see that no matter how difficult the situation may be, no matter how powerful and wealthy your employer may be, no matter where you live, you’re still able to stand up and demand that you’re treated with respect,” he said.
The final vote was announced shortly after that. There was no way to spin it: It was a rout. 1,798 No votes, 738 Yes, and 505 uncounted ballots challenged by Amazon.
Appelbaum immediately fired off a request to the NLRB to investigate Amazon’s union busting, which was so flagrant, he claimed, it violated federal labor law. There’s widespread agreement among labor leaders that Bessemer workers will win the right to another election based on such charges of unfair labor practices. But will a new election have a different result? “The genie is out of the bottle, and won’t be put back again,” Appelbaum told me later. “If it were not for employer interference there would be no question that the workers would vote for the union.”
We’ll have to wait and see if there’s a rematch. But it’s too early, at least for Appelbaum, to embark on a detailed public debrief. He’s certainly not making any mea culpa. Other seasoned organizers, however, had concerns about the campaign for months, saying the union never had the numbers it needed to move forward with filing in the first place.
Jane McAlevey, senior policy fellow at the University of California’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, laid it out on Democracy Now! on April 12: “When I was trained to be a union organizer when I was very young, by a union called [Local] 1199, I was trained to file with no less than 75% of the workers on membership cards—not 30%, not 40%, not even 55%. We assume 25% of our vote is going to be shaved by aggressive union busters.” She also explained in a recent article in The Nation that the overtures and explanations of key union precepts to the workers were insufficient, that the RWDSU team had not reached enough people with a persuasive case, and that too little political education had been provided. She argued that “overhyped campaigns also leave people feeling defeated. Sometimes, in fact, they feel so defeated that they withdraw and give up forever.”
How had RWDSU missed the right signals? And is it possible that Appelbaum and his union had not bothered to allocate enough on-the-ground resources because they were distracted? Appelbaum himself went on Democracy Now! to reinforce what he thought should be the key takeaways. Losing didn’t matter. It was a win-win opportunity.
“We put a spotlight on the way Amazon treats its workers, and people around the world were astounded to hear about the conditions there,” he said. “I think that we have become an important argument for the PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act, because we exposed what it is that employers like Amazon do to try to crush union organizing.”
The PRO Act, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, gives teeth to existing labor laws by strengthening workers’ rights to strike, protecting union elections by banning many of the tactics used by Amazon at Bessemer, and authorizing the NLRB to collect serious fines from bosses who violate workers’ rights. It’s a potentially historic labor reform that would help workers unionize in right-to-work states like Alabama. Prevailing wisdom holds that it has no chance of passing the Senate unless the filibuster is abolished.
“There’s a sense that change is possible after we were able to elect a new administration, which gives people hope,” Appelbaum said. “Joe Biden understands the core role of working people. Clinton and Obama, how often did they talk about unions?”
Did the RWDSU shortchange workers in Alabama in order to score longer-term points in Washington? Some critics have suggested that in his fight for the workers of Bessemer, Appelbaum’s union overemphasized its national media game, linking the Alabama vote to Black Lives Matter, even while underinvesting in the ground game, with few grassroots organizers and no home visits with workers, which he knew going in would be limited by the pandemic. Indeed, Appelbaum can give the impression that the needs of the larger Democratic Party trump on-the-ground context or details. “There is no democracy without a strong labor movement, and there is no Democratic Party without a strong labor movement,” he said, “and you’d better understand that.”
Appelbaum likes to present himself as the haimish union organizer, underdressed and unshaven, but it’s a little bit of a shtick. In fact he’s a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s been earning solidly six-figure salaries for a very long time. By most measures he’d be considered well off and powerful. His influence extends into dozens of organizations with real clout in economic and political arenas; he was an elector in New York for Obama in 2008 and for Clinton in 2016. In his own telling, he’s so well-connected that he was able to get a bill passed in the New York state legislature that would have enabled a federal district court judge of his choice to legally officiate at his wedding. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed the bill. “I presumed he did it because he was angry over HQ2,” Appelbaum told me. “We led the fight in Long Island City.”)
It’s a common error for entrenched leaders in any field to ignore objections from upstart stakeholders as inconvenient, fanciful, or dismissible. But the suspicion that RWDSU was not fully committed to the organizing drive, except as part of a larger political game played at a higher stakes table, will continue to nag. Appelbaum has spent a lifetime in the labor movement, but when it comes to fighting for vulnerable workers, you’re only as good as your last battle.
Frances Madeson is a freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village, a satire on the war on terror set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.