If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of Camille Rivera as she zips through crowds of old white dudes at one of the many, many labor conferences and meetings she has to dash around the country for, cutting deals for hard-working mujeres too often left without a voice. Her dark curly mane, a statement of her uncompromising identity, demands attention as the Black Puerto Rican organizer, who probably has two phones in her hand, scans the room to find her squad, or her boss, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of one of the most powerful labor unions in New York City: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
Rivera, 38, is the national political director at the union, where she’s responsible for overseeing the union’s political, legislative and electoral work on behalf of its members and leadership.
“We, us, — me! — have to find spaces for women of color to succeed in leadership roles. …You have to push everyone to the top,” Rivera tells Fierce of one of her biggest goals at RWDSU.
Prior to joining the union, she was the national deputy political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) during the 2016 presidential campaign, managing a $4 million dollar campaign to get out the Latino vote in swing states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada. She was also the executive director of UNITED NY, a community organization that mobilized fast-food workers for a $15 minimum wage.
Through much of her career, Rivera has invested in empowering Latinas who work in retail, supermarkets, packing plants and various service industries where low wages, poor benefits and unpredictable work schedules add to the myriad challenges working mujeres face.
Fierce caught up with the Bronx, New York native to learn more about what kind of work goes into organizing Latinas on the job and how she wants to inspire more mujeres to step into their power together to build stronger movements — no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Why did you get into this work? Did you have a community of mentors and supporters who helped you get started?
I think it was inevitable. My mom was a single mom, and I was the only child. She worked full time, and times were hard. I remember her working night shifts and doing overtime to make ends meet from 5 to 12 every day.
But looking back, when I was growing up, the Latinas in my life were my community. I was always surrounded by fierce Latinas: my mother, my godmother Shirley, my godsister Arlene. They were all independent and held their own. We all lived in this one building in the Bronx on various floors, and on Sundays, they would come to my house and do cafe con leche from like 10 a.m. to 4 in the afternoon. When my grandma was in town from Puerto Rico, she would also join us.
I would watch them have coffee and talk about everything from politics, to fashion and all the chisme in the world. My mother, who was fiercely independent, would always say that to change the world, you have to hold on to your culture. Through them, I learned that I needed to be strong to survive, that you could never totally rely on men. You had to find your own path first. It was very modern, and I kept that with me. As I got older and entered high school, my community expanded to include my homegirls from the neighborhood. All of us were trying to find our way in a tough world that was not always positive, but we were all trying to find our way and eventually all did.
Things changed for you when your daughter was born. How so?
(Courtesy of Camille Rivera)
I had my daughter, Samantha, when I was 16, and my family sat me down and said, “Get it together, don’t lose sight and make a difference for you and your daughter.” And that’s what I did. When my daughter was born, I suddenly felt more awake to the realities of living in a world full of so much injustice. Honestly, I did not have any intention of being involved in the social justice movement. I was planning to be a nurse. I was a young mom trying to get through work and school when the welfare laws changed in the ‘90s. Women like me could not use the program to attend school unless it was a training program, like secretarial training or medical assistant programs. I thought it was ridiculous that the state would put restrictions on getting an education that would allow me and my little girl the opportunity to better our lives. I wrote letters and made calls to the city and read the state law and found a loophole that if I changed my major between registrations and take vocational courses, I could keep my childcare.
After that, I started to think differently, and realized that there was no way I could just think about myself. I needed to get engaged for everyone. I eventually joined a higher education campaign by the New York Public Interest Research Group, working on poverty issues, and from there took on welfare rights with another student-run group. We began lobbying the state to change the law that would allow women who maintained a certain GPA to continue to receive welfare aid and childcare. We found a Republican senator and a bipartisan coalition and got the law passed and signed.
I delved into the world of activism quickly and was elected the first Latina chair for the Board of Directors. In that capacity, I began working to open up chapters in the Bronx and coordinating work on environmental justice in communities of color as well as working to pass the lead paint prevention bill that was stunting poor Black and Latino neighborhoods.
How does your work directly impact the lives of Latinas?
When I wake up every morning, I am lucky enough to know that what I do is directly connected to fighting for better wages for low-wage earners, who disproportionately tend to be women of color.
Our union represents people who work in retail department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdales, but they are also car wash workers, catering cooks and people working in manufacturing factories, those doing really tough jobs with unpredictable schedules and many times facing abuse from management.
We worked closely with the mayor and the governor as well as other policymakers across New York to pass legislation that ends on-call scheduling for retail workers. That’s important because on-call scheduling makes it almost impossible for working parents to plan for their lives and all its ups and downs. They shouldn’t be in limbo not knowing when they work.
I was a fast-food worker in high school and for a bit in college, so this fight is also extremely personal for me – being able to turn poverty into possibilities for all of these hard-working Latinas. When we first started to support and build out our low-wage worker table to support the fast-food strikes in New York and pushing the idea that $15 minimum wage was possible and necessary, a large portion of the women who joined were women of color. When the governor and the legislature turned it into a reality, it was a defining moment for so many.
Unions get a bad rap, but we know that women of color, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, refugees and so many disenfranchised communities make up a large portion of low-wage, unpredictable and challenging jobs. How does the fight for better workplaces continue to grow and take shape?
(Courtesy of Camille Rivera)
It’s so funny you mentioned this! I was just talking to a number of women around this very issue. Yes, the labor movement can, and has, gotten a bad rap. Across progressive movements, there has been for many years this lack of diversity in leadership, where the top movement leaders are largely white and male. That is, however, rapidly changing, and I’m optimistic. There is so much growth, and people of color are in more leadership positions and making important decisions. Hector Figueroa, who is the president of Local 32BJ; Esther Lopez, executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union; Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union; Rocio Saenz, executive vice president for SEIU — these are people who I have great respect for and know that they are dedicated to creating a pipeline.
We, us, – me! – have to find spaces for women of color to succeed in leadership roles. I think there should be a real pipeline and mentorship programs dedicated to this and training. But there still aren’t enough Latinas in high-level places, and the progressive social labor movement is still dominated by white progressives. It is a real problem that we are still tackling in the movement.
How do we get more Latinas in the leadership pipeline?
I think whenever you see a Latina that is trying to make it, you build them up — no strings attached. People don’t want to hear this, but there are real double standards for women, Latinas and women of color more broadly. I remember being in these rooms with white women who had these degrees and pedigrees that were not me. I came from the Bronx, had an accent, went to public colleges and was a teenage mother. And sometimes no matter how hard I worked, I never could get to a place of acceptance that got past peoples’ stereotypes. Even when I did get promotions, it was always this odd feeling that maybe I wasn’t as good as people thought. I recently had coffee with an old friend who mentioned to me that when I received a promotion, a white woman said to him that I got it because I was Latina, not that I deserved it. This was a very progressive person, but clearly with a lot of privilege. The more women of color in the room, the more that stuff goes away. That is why no matter what, you have to push everyone to the top.
What does it feel like to be the only woman or person of color in some of these high-level meetings?
(Photo Credit: YouTube / CUNYTV75)
You know, it is very hard being the only woman of color in a room, and the higher in leadership you get, the harder it is. It is a privilege, but it is also mind-boggling that sometimes I’m not only the Latina and woman of color but the only woman. Most recently, I was in a room negotiating a very important policy that would have changed the lives of thousands of low-wage earning RWDSU members. I felt like I was the only woman in every meeting I was in. It can be intimidating, and your voice is not always heard, if you don’t make sure it is.
Do you ever feel the pressure to represent all Latinas or all women of color in some of the spaces your work takes you to?
In terms of pressure, I used to feel like I am supposed to represent all women of color, and how do I do that without belaboring the issue or being seen as too aggressive? I didn’t want to always be seen as rocking the boat. Now I just don’t care. I bring it up because you have to. If there are not enough women in the room, I say it. … If I feel like the room is being dominated by male conversations, I push back and say something like, “OK, let’s all talk now.” I also find when there are other women of color in the room, I elevate their voices. I do it consciously now because what helps her elevate her status helps all of us and trains people to act and listen differently.