Rhonda Nelson: Making Workers’ Rights Basic Rights

BY TRONE DOWD

Rhonda Nelson has been a leader in the movement for workers’ equity in New York for more than 40 years. A longtime advocate for the unionization of workers around the country, she currently serves as the recorder of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 in Westbury, representing more than 20,000 members in the supermarket and retail industry in New York City; Long Island and Westchester; Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Her passion for educating working men and women on the benefits of unions stems from the work she witnessed in her family from a young age. As she explained to the Queens Tribune, she attended school for social work and, at that time, she visited her mother, who was at a Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) Convention in Washington, D.C.

“My family going back to my grandparents, we were always involved in the labor movement,” she said. “That was always instilled in me growing up in terms of equal rights, fair pay and belonging to a union. Despite that, it wasn’t a field I was looking to get into until that day when my mother asked me to come with her. It was there that she introduced me to members of my former union. They grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, we need more women involved in the labor movement—young women.’ While there, just listening to the women on stage—not trying to sound corny, but their message resonated with me.”

Upon completion of her undergraduate study, Nelson shifted her focus to following in her family’s footsteps. She returned to New York and joined Local 1500 in 1976. She began working as a full-time clerk for King Kullen Grocery Company, Inc. In that union, she became one of its most proactive members, volunteering her time to help assist on picket lines, political action committees and various other activities.

On April 10, 1978, she was elected as a vice president on Local 1500’s executive board and served until July 1979. That year, Rhonda joined the staff of Local 1500 as an organizer, became a union representative and, in January 1993, was appointed as the recorder and an executive board member. In 1998, she was appointed as a field director to oversee the union’s field staff and its operations. In January 2010, Nelson was chosen to serve as Local 1500’s third trustee and, last year, was appointed as an executive vice president.

“I wanted to make a difference,” she said, looking back on all she has accomplished over the years.

Nelson’s work ethic has earned numerous accolades and recognitions outside of the Local 1500 chapter. She serves as the international chairwoman of the UFCW Women’s Network, which works to motivate and encourage UFCW women to become active in their local unions, so that they can contribute toward building and strengthening the UFCW. Nelson is also a trustee on the Local 1500 Pension and Welfare Funds board.

Outside of her work in unions, she is active in numerous community organizations, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks at Jones Beach State Park. She is an advocate for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and St. Mary’s Foundation for Children, and a member of the board of directors for Momma’s House, an organization dedicated to ensuring that young mothers continue their education, introducing them to vocational training opportunities and assisting in finding a home where they can raise their children.

When asked about the current fight for workers’ rights, Nelson said that she believes the fight is more important than ever.

“Look at what’s happening in the world today with the economy and all,” she said. “But it’s very difficult. There is a certain fear of the employer, and getting people to overcome that fear is the greatest challenge. But certainly, as we always say, it pays to be a part of a union.

There is a difference when workers work for a union. Guaranteed wages, benefits, representation and collective power in those numbers.”

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