February 13, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – As the guy tapped to be the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s first-ever director for New York City operations, it somehow seems only right that talking tough and thinking broadly appears intrinsic to veteran organizer David Mertz. Organizing in this town and across the nation is both harder and more important than ever before — but Mertz says that those challenges will not deter the RWDSU from continuing to get out there and “mixing it up.”
“We’re tough,” Mertz told LaborPress this week. “We’re not afraid to take on the fight. And workers respond to that.”
After 28 years in the RWDSU trenches, Mertz, readily acknowledges that the deck remains well stacked in favor of employers and owners, and that the rules governing organizing efforts need to be changed.
“You see the results in a labor movement that has been on the defensive all too often over the last three decades,” Mertz says. “We’ve got to change that. But I also believe that we can’t wait for that to happen. You play the game with the hand that you’re dealt. You may try to change those rules, but you don’t let that interfere with getting in there and mixing it up.”
Mertz currently serves as assistant to RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, and will continue in that capacity as he takes on a more direct role in New York City. The RWDSU director for New York City post was created following Appelbaum’s election as UFCW executive vice-president.
Retail remains one of the toughest, and yet most vital industries in New York City for the RWDSU. High turnover rates, however, and the aforementioned rules, continue to make even this low-wage sector extremely difficult to successfully organize.
Nevertheless, Mertz is convinced that the RWDSU can make many new gains in the retail industry through better worker engagement and helping employees realize that fleeing to a new employer – even if possible – does not guarantee better working conditions without a union.
“Our message is not a narrow one that is just workplace-based,” Mertz says. “We’re talking to, and feel that we speak for, retail workers in general. Workers may not stay in the same workplace for any length of time, but they do stay in the industry.”
Similarly, Mertz supports Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019. But he also believes it should happen faster, and that workers still need to band together in order to protect their rights.
“Anything that puts money in people’s pockets is a good thing, but it is not the only thing,” Mertz says. “At some point, the conversation has got to come back to changing the equation around power — between workers and management. If you don’t do anything to address that, we’re always going to come back to the same problem.”
According to Mertz, working men and women will continue to be “screwed” if scheduling remains erratic, they can’t get enough hours, afford healthcare, or don’t have any kind of retirement security.
“You really haven’t done enough to address those kinds of problems by just legislatively raising the wage,” Mertz says.
In all of the RWDSU’ efforts, Mertz is steadfastly committed to building broad coalitions with many different communities.
“You also have to realize that you can’t do these things alone, and that there are other people out there, other groups, other organizations, who really have the same kind of vision that we have.” Mertz says. “We’ve worked very hard to build coalitions with community organizations and faith leaders, and tried to have a good political footprint, so that we have natural allies in the fight.”
No matter what measure of success the RWDSU may have already achieved, the group’s new director for New York City says that organized labor cannot afford to look back on things that may have worked even a few years ago, and assume those same strategies are going to work today.
“I’m a big believer that there is no silver bullet, no single answer to the problems that working people face,” Mertz says. “We’ve got to be willing to try different things. We’ve got to be willing to take risks, and we’ve got to be willing to let other people into our movement. We have to get into a broader movement if we’re going to make the kind of real, significant and systemic change that’s necessary to really turn things around for working people in this county.”