Saskatchewan Insurance Employees’ Union, Local 1, a direct charter of the Canadian Congress of Labour, was certified as a bargaining unit and chartered in 1946. The local was comprised of thirty-one members employed by Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office. The first president of the local was Doreen Christiaens. The longest-serving president was Bill Wittal, who served for ten years in the 1970s and the early 1980s. Seven of the union’s twenty-one presidents have been women.
In 1948, with William (Bill) Turner as president, Local 1 went on strike. The strike lasted eighteen days, resulting in a 35% wage increase for the members; the local was the first union to strike a Crown corporation. The local affiliated with the newly created Canadian Labour Congress on May 1, 1956, and with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour on October 9, 1957. On February 1, 1962, the Saskatchewan local affiliated with the Office Employees’ International Union as Saskatchewan Insurance, Office & Professional Employees’ Union, Local 397. Joining the larger organization supplied the strength and stability needed to remain a strong local union.
Local 397 provided strong vice-presidential representation to OPEIUs’ International Executive Board. Bill Wittal, who retired as an OPEIU Representative in 1988, remains as vice-president emeritus of the International Executive Board—a rare and important achievement for him and the local union. In 1983, under the Progressive Conservative government, SGI planned to close motor vehicle offices around the province; in order to protect its members, OPEIU Local 397 was successful in getting the first-ever injunction against the Crown to stop the closures.
OPEIU Local 397 also worked with the NDP during the late 1980s to stop the privatization of SGI. In addition to an advertising campaign, members spent weekends leafleting around the province; this combined effort put sufficient pressure on the Conservative government to stop the privatization. On June 20, 2004, the OPEIU locals across Canada took another major step by separating from the international union. The new union, Canadian Office and Professional Employees’ Union (COPE), has fifty-one locals and 34,000 members across Canada. COPE Local 397 has approximately 1,500 members in nine bargaining units.