“When we treat workers as partners we have more success,” said United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 1500 Secretary-Treasurer Aly Waddy. “We have to fight harder for them and can’t let go.”

Aly has had a decades-spanning career as a union organizer in the New York City metro region, focusing primarily on empowering the workers whose labor keeps the retail and food industries together. Since beginning full time with 1500 in the 1990s, she’s made her way up the organization, eventually winning election as the Local’s first ever female Secretary-Treasurer in the fall of 2019. (Read more about her journey here.)  

Aly spoke with Unit about her history as a worker in the same industries she now organizes, her experiences running union campaigns, and the challenges she sees organized labor needing to overcome to better serve and uplift workers across the United States.

In this article, you’ll read about:

  • Affiliated and federated union structure in practice
  • Hurdles to organizing and how to overcome them
  • Aly’s experiences agitating in the corporate world through a campaign at Target in 2011

What is UFCW?

UFCW is a union that operates at the national level overseeing locals like 1500 who in turn oversee a collection of organized workplaces, which are commonly referred to as affiliates. Originally chartered as the Retail Clerks Union in 1937, the national union would eventually form after the Clerks merged with the Amalgamated Meat-cutter's and Butcher Workmen in 1979 and took on the name it continues to go by to this day. At that time, UFCW also joined up with other national unions in a partnership governed by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), adding to a growing coalition of labor organizations known as a federation.

1500 is a Local union of approximately 20,000 representing the interests of workers in New York State, including the following counties: Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess. Read more about the differences between affiliated and federated unions here.

Food industry worker turned food industry organizer

Aly became one of many thousands of 1500 members early on in her working life. Before then though, her family emigrated to the United States, and at that early age, she grew to understand the hardships endured by those working low wage jobs through her parents.

“My family didn’t really have any guidance or understanding or real idea of what they were supposed to get paid,” Aly said. “My dad worked in a factory. Well, eventually he became a landscaper, which was not the job that he held when he lived in El Salvador. I knew my dad to wear a suit and tie and my mom was an educator.”

“We definitely felt a difference in lifestyle, but we really wanted to be here,” Aly continued. “El Salvador was in a civil war.”

Later as a young mom, Aly started working in the fast food industry; “I was making almost nothing, I mean a hundred dollars a week was on the top end of the pay check spectrum back in 1993.”

She soon after took a job at a nearby Key Foods represented by 1500.

“It came as a happy mistake,” she said. “30 days after I started working there, I get a raise… I was in a position to have benefits for myself and my daughter and I felt like I had real stability. I woke up differently every morning. I had a pension!”

As she became more comfortable in her work, she began attending more union meetings and developed a deeper interest in the contract details. She met more regularly with her union representative and was eventually encouraged to apply for an organizer opening with the Local.

On union misconceptions

In her years of work with Local 1500, Aly has seen some through lines in worker misconceptions of unions and the effects of anti-union boss campaigns:

On media representations and lack of union education: “There’s no real education on what unions are. You’ll watch it on TV and you’ll see some sort of a role. Sometimes the role is cool - the union comes in with so much strength - and sometimes it’s much uglier and there’s a lot of confusion.”

The power is in the hands of workers: “People are under the assumption that the union will do it all for them and I think that they don’t realize that the power is in their own hands. To be able to instill that in a worker - it’s almost like you're talking about a magical thing that doesn’t exist - and since it’s not tangible, it’s very difficult to gain that trust and for that person to believe in it.”

A healthy sense of skepticism: “There are times that people want to believe in the good in everyone and even in their own managers about what they’re doing. Getting then to believe in the process and that change is possible and very real is one of the biggest difficulties.”

Oftentimes for Aly, unionizing workers has nothing to do with exterior struggles. Organizers spend a lot of time; “trying to break ‘the boss’s campaign’ even when there isn’t one because people put up their own hurdles.” She added; “there’s a very low self esteem that workers don’t realize they have because they just go through that grind every single day.”

Becoming conscious of their exploitation, the value of their labor, and the power of collective action to make a difference is essential before they can build a meaningful campaign that can lead to a strong, worker-centered union.

On the challenges and hopes of unionizing the corporate world

Of all the organizing campaigns in Aly’s career, her attempt to unionize a Target store in 2011 stands out both as both a news story that made national headlines and an experience that led to deep reflection. 2011 marked her 15th year as an organizer.

“The Target campaign - I felt like I was picked,” Aly said. “The organizers organized me and those are the best campaigns that will ever happen.”

After being approached by curious workers at the store, Aly suggested that they hold off on signing authorization cards until the workers built up a stronger list of supporters and campaign.

“‘The rest of your team has to be on the same side - it's not just by signing cards,’” she recalled telling them.

Her honesty and approach stood out to the workers and they decided to pick her to lead their campaign; “I walked out of that room feeling like I did something right that day. A lot of times organizers don’t give workers the credit they deserve or the place that they deserve.”

Ultimately and unfortunately, the campaign faltered when Target shut down the store for renovations after an election was scheduled. According to Aly, this gave management time to go through the worker list. If they found anyone with a written record of a negative nature, they used the note as a justification to transfer the worker to another store. Hoping for the NLRB to read this as an Unfair Labor Practice, Aly and the workers were disheartened to find the Board siding with the company.

“The Board can be helpful,” Aly said. “We all need rules to live by and the process needs some rules, but once you get to the Board and are dealing with Unfair Labor Practices, there’s also a lack of worker retention. A campaign really wears people down. By the time you get into the voting booth, you’re basically beaten up.”

Lessons from Target and her years of organizing

I’ll let Aly take it from here: “We need to have more focus on worker needs. We have to have better skills, better approaches, more courage, and allow workers to make decisions for themselves. They have to run the campaigns because in true reality, those campaigns are about their lives. We could all sit back and say that we’re the professionals. I could probably reiterate how a campaign works, but you have to find the passion and right approach for every worker.”

To sign a digital authorization card or talk with an organizer affiliated with UFCW 1500, click here.