NEW YORK — In light of last month’s death of longtime union advocate Shelley Appleton, his wife, Jean Dubinsky, looked back on his commitment to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the lives he touched along the way.
The native New Yorker was 86 when he died. Appleton earned a Bronze Star serving in the Army Air Forces in World War II. He had a law degree, but instead of practicing, he spent 43 years working for the union, rising up the ranks to general secretary-treasurer in 1977. Along the way, he married the daughter of the legendary union leader David Dubinsky.
Appleton was chairman of the Organization of Rehabilitation Through Training from 1980 to 1993. In 1986, he was named president of the Tamiment Institute, a center for scholarly research on labor history and radical political movements.
Jean Dubinsky and Appleton met while standing in line to enroll for classes at New York University, where she was an undergrad and he was a law student. Like Appleton, Dubinsky entered college shy of her 16th birthday. “We were in line and he was whistling Tchaikovsky. I turned around and saw these blue eyes — very nice ones indeed — and we became friends,” she said, although years passed before they married.
After earning his law degree, Appleton did not “have the slightest desire to earn a lot of money,” preferring to devote himself to working for other people, his wife said. He began his career as an organizer for the ILGWU, which called for trips to Binghamton, N.Y., and Oneonta, N.Y.
Max Zimny, former general counsel for the ILGWU, said, “He was admired and liked on both sides of the table, and that made him quite effective. He could be tough as hell when he wanted to be. But even when he was tough, people would respect him.”
When World War II started, Appleton enlisted with a few friends. Although he was based in England and didn’t see combat, he earned several citations, including a Bronze Star, for analyzing economic problems in the Eighth Air Force. During the war, he and Dubinsky wrote letters to stay in touch. Their correspondence continued when she relocated to Georgia with her first husband, a captain and doctor in the Air Force.
Her friendship with Appleton resumed when she divorced her husband and returned to New York in the late Forties. At that time, Appleton was traveling a good deal, recruiting for the ILGWU. She recalled one of his trips to Binghamton that lasted for weeks and resulted in a factory strike. Besides his professional duties, Appleton was interested in how people in small towns lived.
“People always responded to him because he was engaging and an accepting human being,” Dubinsky said.
Louis Dworkin, Appleton’s union boss in the late Forties, had great hopes for him and trained him for other jobs. Appleton was promoted to manager of local 99, a union for shipping clerks, and moved on to manager of local 23, which became the 23-25, the largest local union covering Chinatown and representing about 20,000 workers. Appleton was named vice president of the ILGWU in 1962.
In the early Sixties, he started the ILGWU’s national agreement department — an accomplishment he was particularly proud of, according to Zimny, who worked with him there. The department, later renamed the master agreement department, was set up to help the union deal with conglomerates that had many plants in different states. Until then, the union had dealt with such companies uniformly, even though wages and operations varied from state to state, Zimny said.
Appleton’s relationship with his powerful father-in-law was double-edged. “That was always a difficult thing for him and for me. People who knew my father knew that he was not one to push his son-in-law. If anything, he held him back. But clearly, Shelley was so skilled, he had to be promoted.” Jean Dubinsky said.
Appleton was chairman of the ILGWU’s international affairs and was named general secretary-treasurer in 1977. In 1983, he retired from the ILGWU. During his tenure, he took great pride in securing health benefits, fair wages, regular hours and severance pay — the latter, something his father-in-law initiated in the union, Dubinsky said.
In addition to those benefits, Appleton was committed to enriching union workers’ leisure time, offering them concerts at Carnegie Hall, art classes and weekend escapes to Unity House, a sprawling resort for union members in the Poconos. The dining hall was decorated with a Diego Rivera painting, an open-air theater was used for readings and performances by poets and musicians, and 1,500 people could be housed in the cottages, which had porches.
Unity House prospered after World War II, but occupancy declined in the 1960s and continued to dwindle in the Seventies and Eighties. The ILGWU shut the resort in 1990. In 2000, Unity House was purchased by the Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts.
While still active in the union, Appleton joined Women’s American ORT as the associate secretary. From 1980 to 1993, he was chairman of the World ORT Union, often using the negotiating skills he sharpened with the ILGWU, his wife said.
“His entire career — both in the union and in ORT — involved working for the betterment of other people,” Dubinsky said.
The second half of his career involved a significant amount of travel, and his wife often accompanied him.
“He was the kind of guy who never once had a Customs inspector ask him to open his luggage. You could look at this man’s face and see who he was,” Dubinsky said.