The Roots of the RWDSU
For 80 years, the RWDSU has fought for the rights of working people. The roots of the RWDSU were laid down in the 1930s when a group of local unions including retail clerks and warehouse workers in New York City banded together. The RWDSU was chartered by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1937.
The RWDSU Executive Board in 1937.
In 1954 the existing RWDSU merged with the Playthings, Jewelry and Novelty Workers Union and the Distributing, Processing and Office Workers Union, forming the union as we know it today. Over the years a number of other unions have also merged with the RWDSU, including AFL founder Sam Gompers' Cigar Makers in 1974. In October, 1993 the RWDSU affiliated with the 1.5 million member United Food and Commercial Workers.
A Progressive Union
The RWDSU is proud of being a progressive union that is never afraid to use its voice to call for change and social justice. Members of our union marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the South during the early days of the civil rights movement, and were on hand at - and involved in planning - the historic 1963 March on Washington. And, we take special pride that in 1968 the RWDSU was the first union anywhere to negotiate a contract guaranteeing Dr. King's birthday as a paid holiday.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (right) meets with RWDSU Local 3 members in New York City to review a new contract with Bloomingdales in the 1960s. Senator and future President John F. Kennedy joined the RWDSU at a rally in the 1950s (below).
When different winds of change were blowing throughout the world in the early 1990s, the RWDSU was a part of it. The RWDSU became the first union to endorse Bill Clinton for President in 1992. And RWDSU officers served as election observers in South Africa in 1994, during that country’s first post-apartheid free elections. The RWDSU was also one of the first unions to pass a convention resolution to support black trade unions in South Africa.
RWDSU members support Bill Clinton in 1992.
And the progressive spirit continues up until the present day.
In 2008, the RWDSU negotiated a contract at the Tyson plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, that recognized Eid-Al-Fitr as a paid holiday. This was a key request for the hundreds of Somali refugees who work at the plant, as Eid-Al-Fitr is one of Islam’s most important holidays. Various right-wing organizations falsely reported that Labor Day had been sacrificed as a paid holiday in return, and put pressure on both Tyson and the union to remove this provision from the contract, despite the fact that a union’s responsibility is to fight for the interests of its members. Today, Labor Day is still a paid holiday at the plant, as is Eid. The RWDSU is proud of this progressive achievement on behalf of Tyson workers in Shelbyville.
Tyson members negotiated a contract that respects all workers' religious backgrounds.
In 2012, retail workers at Bloomingdale’s in New York City won LGBT nondiscrimination language for the first time. The union continues a progressive approach to negotiating contracts that further the rights of RWDSU members.
The RWDSU also remains committed to immigrants' rights. Too often, immigrant workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers. The RWDSU fights for the rights of immigrant workers - regardless of documentation status - to be treated fairly at work.
Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, gender, physical limitation or sexual orientation, we are all stronger when we stand together. It’s a credo that helped build the RWDSU.
The RWDSU Today
The 21st century has seen working people face a new host of challenges, and the RWDSU has been there fighting for progressive action on behalf of workers, while continuing to negotiate strong contracts and bring a union voice to working people. We’ve broken new ground legislatively and in contracts, we’ve stood up to corporate greed on the picket lines, and we've risen to the challenge of the worst public health crisis in a century.
Protecting Our Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down in 2020 and presented dangers and challenges for working people that seemed unimaginable beforehand. But RWDSU members, and their union, rose to the occasion. RWDSU members stepped up by the thousands to do the essential work that has kept the U.S. afloat during this historic public health crisis.
RWDSU members work in a number of industries that have proven essential in helping us cope with the pandemic. You'll find RWDSU members at supermarkets, food processing facilities, nursing homes, and retail stores; all industries that were crucial as the pandemic took hold.
And, the RWDSU has been there every step of the way to fight for members who are putting the health and welfare of themselves and their families on the line to help countless others survive during these unprecedented times. The RWDSU fought for and won proper PPE, social distancing, sanitizing, barriers, and hero pay for RWDSU members throughout the country, allowing them to help get Americans through the crisis while making their jobs safer.
It’s no exaggeration to say that RWDSU members who are working through the pandemic are essential workers and have earned the title of “RWDSU Heroes.” Together, we’ve helped America deal with its worst national crisis in decades. RWDSU heroes will keep courageously doing their jobs, and the RWDSU will keep fighting for safer workplaces, and for recognition and appreciation of the courageous work RWDSU members are doing.
Bringing Workers a Voice
The RWDSU has organized tens of thousands of workers in the 21st Century, including some significant wins in notable industries.
RWDSU organizers in the south have helped thousands of poultry workers win protections and improvements in what is traditionally dangerous and underpaid work. In 2000, 850 poultry workers at CP Poultry in Eufaula, Alabama, joined the RWDSU.
CP Poultry members join the RWDSU in 2000.
Over 500 workers employed at the Alatrade poultry plant in Phoenix City, Alabama became RWDSU members in 2008. And, in the summer of 2012, 1,200 workers at Pilgrim’s Pride Poultry in Russellville, Alabama scored the biggest union victory in the state in decades when they voted to join the RWDSU Mid-South Council. Organizing in the poultry industry and negotiating strong contracts for poultry workers remains a top priority for the RWDSU.
Bringing workers in the South a union voice remains a priority as well. In 2016, workers at Autoneum, an auto parts manufacturer in Aiken, South Carolina, voted to join the RWDSU Southeast Council.
Alatrade members show their RWDSU pride.
In 2003, over 2,600 full-time employees at Duane Reade pharmacies and other drug stores throughout the New York metropolitan area voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with RWDSU Local 338.
Workers at Duane Reade joined RWDSU Local 338 in 2003.
Retail continues to be one the RWDSU’s core industries. In 2007, over 1,000 H&M department store workers throughout New York City joined RWDSU Local 1102, and would go on to win wage and benefit increases in their first contract.
Local 1102 has continued organizing workers at H&M stores. In 2015, workers at the largest store in the H&M chain in Herald Square, New York City, joined the RWDSU, bringing the total of RWDSU members at H&M to over 1,400.
And, in 2016, over 1,000 workers at Zara, one of the world's largest retailers, joined RWDSU Local 1102 at stores throughout New York City. These are the first unionized Zara employees in the United States.
H&M workers sign their first RWDSU contract.
120 workers at Flexon manufacturing in Newark, New Jersey joined the RWDSU in 2014.
But it’s not just large organizing wins that have been the hallmark of RWDSU organizing in the 21st century. The RWDSU has also pioneered in new sectors, proving to workers everywhere that they can win a voice on the job and the dignity and respect that union membership brings.
New York City supermarket deliverymen (above) were among the most exploited immigrant workers in the city when a 2003 organizing drive brought 250 of these workers an RWDSU contract, and, a settlement worth $3 million. The New York Attorney General’s office pursued the case after the RWDSU brought the story to light, and various supermarkets agreed to the settlement to compensate the new Local 338 members for unpaid back wages and overtime. Along with a union voice, deliverymen received between $30,000 and $60,000 checks to address past injustices.
In 2012, the RWDSU initiated an exciting and innovative campaign to end the exploitation of New York City’s car wash workers, or “carwasheros."
Hi-Tek carwasheros won an historic first RWDSU contract in 2013.
Since then, the campaign has had a substantial impact on the lives of the city’s car wash workers by bringing workers a union voice and winning union contracts. The campaign has helped workers at many other New York City car washes win NLRB elections, becoming the first car wash workers on the east coast to win a union voice. And, on May 23, 2013, employees of Hi-Tek car wash in Elmhurst, Queens, overwhelmingly voted to ratify their first RWDSU contract. These workers – who were also the first car wash workers to join the RWDSU – will see guaranteed wage improvements, scheduling protections, and of course grievance procedures, arbitration, and representation that only comes with a union contract. Since then, workers at many other car wash facilities in New York City have ratified their first union contracts.
The campaign to reform the car wash industry continues to grow beyond workers winning a union voice.
In March, 2014, the New York State Attorney General announced that New York City car wash kingpin John Lage and two associates agreed to pay $3.9 million in a settlement for numerous labor law violations, including underpayment of workers and failing to pay for required employees’ compensation and unemployment insurance.
And, in 2015, the New York City Council passed the Car Wash Accountability Act. The law, spearheaded by the RWDSU and the car wash campaign, will protect workers, communities, and consumers by creating much-needed government oversight of the car wash industry.
In 2015, the RWDSU continued to organize at health care facilities throughout the U.S. The RWDSU Southeast Council helped a courageous group of health care workers at Pruitt Health Virginia Park (above), near Atlanta, Georgia, take control of their lives and their jobs. On August 20, the employees at the facility won their election to join the RWDSU. The 85 workers at Pruitt Health Virginia Park join thousands of other health care workers represented by the RWDSU throughout the South and Northeast.
In 2018, over 100 workers at the Nestlé’s logistics and shipping center in McDonough, Georgia, voted overwhelmingly to ratify their first RWDSU contract after winning their organizing campaign in 2017. Workers improved conditions at the facility, won a voice and fair treatment in the workplace, as well as job security and guaranteed wage increases through their first collective bargaining agreement.
In 2019, the RWDSU returned to one of its core industries, cereal producers, by winning representation of over 500 workers at General Mills in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (above). These workers won their first contract in 2019, a three-year agreement bringing workers more paid time off and wage increases, while also creating more full-time jobs at the plant.
In 2020, the RWDSU scored one of the biggest organizing victories of the year anywhere when 605 employees at Housing Works (above) throughout New York City voted overwhelmingly to join the RWDSU. The new RWDSU members – employed at Housing Works housing units, thrift stores, healthcare, and other locations – triumphed after a long, two-year campaign. By winning their campaign, workers will not only receive better treatment and a voice on the job, they'll be able to provide better care for their patients with better scheduling and staffing practices.
Continued Focus on Retail
Organizing workers at retail superstores has been a daunting task, but in May, 2013, the RWDSU was successful in making Guitar Center’s 14th street Manhattan store a union shop. In an organizing campaign that won the support of numerous professional musicians, and an article in Rolling Stone magazine, workers fought back against an anti-union assault headed by union-busting law firm Jackson-Lewis and gained a union voice. Workers at Guitar Center stores chain-wide have experienced deteriorating working conditions and commission pay since the company was bought by Bain Capital in 2007, and now are turning to the RWDSU to make their jobs better.
Workers at the Guitar Center store on Halsted St. in Chicago voted RWDSU in August, 2013.
In August, 2013, workers at another Guitar Center superstore - this one in Chicago - voted to join the RWDSU. Since then, workers at Guitar Center stores in Las Vegas and Massachusetts also joined the RWDSU.
And, in July, 2017, Guitar Center workers successfully ratified their first RWDSU contract, bringing them protections and benefits that they had never before enjoyed.
Las Vegas Guitar Center Workers celebrate winning an RWDSU voice.
In July, 2014, retail workers (above) at Book Culture stores in New York City showed that you don't have to work for a large chain for your voice to be heard. Workers at the two Manhattan locations joined the RWDSU to address pay and communications issues. The chain's owner fired five workers for voting for the union. The new members immediately went on strike and won the support of the community. Management saw sales slow to a trickle, and quickly agreed to recognize the union and rehire fired workers. Soon after, workers at Book Culture negotiated their first RWDSU contract, raising wages and improving working conditions.
The RWDSU ushered in another first in May, 2016, when 25 employees of Babeland, an adult toy store with three locations in New York City, voted overwhelmingly to join the RWDSU. The move, workers said, would help them address a number of wage and training issues, as well as some concerns related more specifically to the nature of adult retail work and to a handful of transgender employees. In 2017, these workers ratified their first union contract. Under the new contract, workers will receive general wage increases and adjustments, as well as signing bonuses and post-probationary wage increases. Most significantly, it’s the first union contract that includes added safety and security training and protocols to protect Babeland’s predominately LGBTQ and women workforce in this highly emotionally intimate industry.
Workers in New York City at a second adult toy chain, Pleasure Chest, joined the RWDSU in 2017, defeating an insensitive anti-union campaign and voting unanimously to claim their union voice.
Babeland workers voted to join the RWDSU in 2016.
In 2016, over 1,000 Zara retail workers at eight stores in New York became the first Zara workers (above) in the U.S. to join a union, winning representation by RWDSU Local 1102. The campaign, like Local 1102's H&M campaign years before, continued to show that large retail chains can grow and prosper while treating their workers fairly and negotiating strong contracts with employees. Zara workers in New York have continued to join RWDSU for a voice in the workplace over the years, with the latest workers winning union representation in 2019.
In 2019, workers at McNally Jackson Bookstores and Goods for the Study Stationery Stores in New York City ended the year with a new beginning; they voted to join the RWDSU. Approximately 90 workers at five locations (three bookstores and two stationery stores) have joined the union. The workers in the bargaining unit handle sales, events, stocking and information services in the stores.
Standing Up to Corporate Greed
RWDSU members never want to have to take to the picket lines due to unreasonable demands by their employers. But when pushed against the wall, RWDSU members aren't afraid to push back, and stand up for what is right.
RWDSU Local 513 members went on strike in 2004 (above) after management at the Pepsi distribution plant in Haverhill, Massachusetts, proposed a contract that would raise workers’ health care costs and failed to address numerous workers’ concerns. After two weeks walking the picket line, the New England Joint Board members won a fair new contract.
Over 500 RWDSU Local 87 members at Vlasic in Imlay City, Michigan (above), stood strong during a seven week lockout after refusing to accept a contract with no wage increases and reduced health benefits. Once again proving that RWDSU members have the entire union behind them, pressure came from not just activists in Michigan, but in New York City, where J.P. Morgan Chase, which held a controlling equity in Pinnacle Foods, Vlasic’s owner, were greeted with protests. Vlasic workers returned to the job with a strong contract with big wage increases and protected health benefits.
When management at Mott’s Applesauce in Williamson, New York, presented their “final offer” during contract negotiations in 2010, the 305 RWDSU Local 220 members (above) who work there were stunned and outraged. Mott’s was demanding painful wage cuts and drastic healthcare and pension concessions even though the plant itself and the company as a whole were highly profitable. The only explanation was blatant corporate greed.
Mott’s – and its owner, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group – knew that it was a down economy with high unemployment in the area, and expected that the workers, including many who had been there for decades, would be afraid to reject the company’s proposal. They weren’t counting on the determination and solidarity of RWDSU Local 220 members. They weren’t counting on a strike.
In May, 2010, RWDSU Local 220 members declared that enough was enough and that they were going to stand up for themselves, and for quality middle-class jobs in America. They overwhelmingly voted to strike, and hit the picket lines.
With the support of the entire RWDSU and the UFCW, activists began showing up wherever Mott’s products, and Dr. Pepper Snapple executives, could be found. In Galveston Texas, Local 220 supporters shadowed the “Mott’s Magical Taste Tour,” where beachgoers received leaflets and information about the company’s anti-worker tactics along with their free samples of Mott’s goods. In Aspers, Pennsylvania, and in St. Louis, Missouri, Mott’s strikers set up picket lines and leaflet stations in front of Dr. Pepper Snapple plants. Local 220 members took their picket line to National Fruit manufacturing plant in Winchester, Virginia, to protest Mott’s outsourcing and co-packing of applesauce due to slowed production at the Williamson facility.
Mott’s workers even showed up at a Dr. Pepper Snapple stockholder’s meeting in Plano, Texas, to ask them why they weren’t treating their workers fairly despite huge earnings. And the company was besieged on social media sites by customers and strike supporters who were outraged by the company's behavior.
These strategies worked, and soon national media were reporting on the strike, and the important issue of protecting America’s middle class and fighting corporate greed that the strike represented. Support poured in from unions and consumers around the globe.
After four months, the strike was over. Despite management’s expectations, the workers never faltered, and forced Mott’s to agree to a fair contract that maintained wages and benefits.
And, in 2013, members overwhelmingly approved a subsequent contract that this time significantly raised wages for workers across the board. The victory of the strike laid the groundwork for successful negotiations three years later. Mott's workers - who just three years earlier saw their jobs facing a very real threat - ratified their best contract ever.
Vegas Auto Spa workers won their strike in 2015.
Car wash workers in New York City have also stood up their employers when forced to stand up for their rights. In 2015, after more than four months on strike walking the picket lines during a freezing winter, ‘carwasheros’ at Vegas Auto Spa in Brooklyn, New York, won a landmark contract agreement that includes wage hikes, strong worker protections and a $1,500-per-person signing bonus.
Fighting for Our Communities
The RWDSU has taken the lead in the progressive movement for better pay and better, and call to task those who put profits ahead of people in our communities.
In Alabama, the RWDSU put the spotlight on the need for bankruptcy reform that protects workers when it fought for the jobs of hundreds of workers in Alabama in 2009. Workers at Meadowcraft, a wrought iron furniture manufacturer in Wadley and Selma, Alabama, saw their lives turned upside down when Wells Fargo and several other financial institutions revoked the company's credit and pushed Meadowcraft into involuntary bankruptcy. The RWDSU mobilized political and community support and pressured the banks funding Meadowcraft to keep the company open longer.
Fighting for Meadowcraft workes in 2009.
During that time a buyer was found for part of the operation saving some 400 jobs. It wasn’t a total victory, but it showed the resilience of the workers, and how they can fight back with they join together with a united voice.
In 2012, the New York City Council passed the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, a law that stipulates that when significant public dollars are used to help fund private development projects, the jobs these projects create will pay a living wage - $10/hour with supplemental health benefits or $11.50/hour without benefits. And in 2014, the law was expanded to cover thousands more workers, and to increase the living wage to $13.13 per hour.
The passage of this historic law came as a direct result of the Living Wage NYC Campaign, which was led by the RWDSU. The power of this coalition – and of the community partnerships the RWDSU is cultivating - was apparent at a rally at Harlem’s Riverside Church to support the living wage movement. Thousands of community members demanded that when taxpayer money goes to help fund development projects, the developers give back to the community in the form of jobs that can build better lives and stronger families.
Economic developments which only create poverty wage jobs are no longer acceptable for communities, and living wage agreements will help raise all low-wage workers higher.
In 2016, the RWDSU led the efforts to pass the Grocery Worker Retention Act, which protects grocery store workers' jobs in New York City when their stores change ownership.
In 2017, following a campaign led by the RWDSU, the New York City Council passed Intro. 1387, legislation that bans on-call scheduling for retail workers. This crucial and historic legislation will end the abusive practice of on-call scheduling.
The RWDSU is proud to have led the fight against on-call scheduling, which disrupts workers’ lives and their families’ lives by requiring them to keep themselves available when they are not scheduled to work with no guarantee of an actual work shift. On-call scheduling has made it impossible for workers to take a needed second job or plan for the basic necessities of their lives, including child care, education, or medical care.
The law bans New York City employers from scheduling workers to be on call. Employers will not be able to cancel a shift within 72 hours of the start of the shift except under extreme conditions like a natural disaster. Employers can only add shifts within 72 hours with workers’ consent. The new law takes away from employers a cruel, exploitative computer-driven system designed to optimize employer profits while sacrificing any considerations for working men and women. It will restore control and balance to the lives of working people in New York City.
In 2019, the RWDSU joined community leaders, elected officials, other unions, and religious leaders all raised concerns about an agreement – crafted in secret and without any community input – that Amazon, world’s richest companies, $3 billion in tax subsidies. Amazon chose to abruptly walk away from New York City rather than engage in any meaningful discussion about responsible development. The lesson in the backlash against Amazon’s abandoned NYC deal is that corporations – no matter how powerful - should be held accountable in how they treat their workers and for their affect on the communities they come to. And, elected officials should understand that economic development should be done responsibly with the interests of workers and their communities taken into account. Economic development can and should benefit all of us, not just wealthy corporations.
The RWDSU remains committed to meeting the challenges of the 21st century head on. We can do it by building upon the solidarity that created the labor movement and employing new strategies which recognize the importance of building coalitions with community groups and communities of faith. When we stand together, we can fight back against global corporations or anti-worker politicians. We do it because we continue to believe that people are more important that corporate profits, and that all working people can build better lives when they have the power of a union behind them.