By 2004, Make the Road decided to add something new to its worker justice repertoire: unions. It was a bold move, and one with a high risk of failure. Union election victories are hard to come by in any sector, especially given the incentive for employers to systematically violate the few remaining worker protections under US law. But in view of the sheer number of people experiencing wage theft, Make the Road wanted to scale up. If the workers could form unions, it would give them access to ongoing assistance and potentially raise their wages and living standards above the poverty line. Make the Road sought a union partner. Enter the RWDSU.
The RWDSU under Stuart Applebaum’s leadership joined Make the Road to attempt the near-impossible—a win in marginal retail in the shadows of a big city in the Bush era. And so Despierta Bushwick was born. According to Edward Ott, distinguished lecturer at the City University of New York’s labor studies center and the former longtime executive director at the NYC Central Labor Council, “From almost day one, Make the Road caught the attention of New York City’s unions, because the group’s leaders understood that a union contract could be a tremendous tool for their members. This union-friendly approach—and their demonstrated ability to turn out large numbers of their members for events—set them apart from every other group in New York City.”