Morris Rodweeder Strike

One of the most significant working-class struggles in Saskatchewan history occurred in Yorkton. While the workers—members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—finally prevailed, the struggle to organize and sign a collective agreement between the company and more than 300 employees at Morris Rodweeder was an epic one. Dozens of workers were fired; the company was charged with several unfair labour practices; and the workers faced almost unprecedented hostility from the company, other businesses, the media, politicians, and much of the general public. Working conditions, poor pay and indiscriminate firings were among the reasons the workers wanted a union. Talking was not allowed during working hours. There were no showers, no washrooms and no sick benefits. If a worker became ill and stayed home, he simply lost his pay. There was no job security, and employee turnover was extremely high.

RWDSU began a full-scale organizing drive in mid-September 1972, led by organizers Ken Engel and Chris Banting, under the direction of secretary-treasurer Len Wallace. Morris management countered by laying off fifty workers and firing two key union supporters. When the union filed an application for certification with the Labour Relations Board, the Board ordered that a vote be held on February 1, 1973. The union lost by two votes. Right after the vote, RWDSU began a new organizing drive. Within forty-eight hours, a majority of workers signed new cards, but Morris management refused to recognize or bargain with the union. The union’s actions also caused increased hostility within the community of Yorkton. A “Concerned Citizens Committee” was formed to exert pressure on the public and politicians. The owner of the plant, George Morris, was considered by many to be a model citizen because of his charitable donations to the community. On August 22, the Court of Appeals threw out a second bid by the company to decertify the union, but the company still refused to bargain.

Employee frustration finally erupted at 2 a.m. on August 27, 1973. Twenty-five welders staged a sitdown strike. Supervisors ordered forklift operators to drive their vehicles into the welding area, spewing black smoke and almost running over some workers. The welders responded by building ten-foot-high barricades. When the day shift arrived at 6 a.m., no one knew if they would join the strike. They unanimously did so.

As more shifts arrived, more workers became strikers and refused to work, despite threats by management and the RCMP. A request was made to Attorney-General Roy Romanow that the Mounties be allowed to forcibly evict the strikers. He turned down the request. Police and management departed from the plant, leaving ten workers inside. During the night, management tried twice to get in through a skylight, but retreated when they were met with a hail of metal parts. After ten days, management finally agreed to bargain and the workers ended their occupation. This first contract was far from ideal, and it would take another week-long strike in January 1977 before the workers received somewhat better wages and working conditions.

Clare Powell