Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)

Just prior to the end of World War II, the United Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (headquartered in New York), in co-operation with the Canadian Congress of Labour (now the CLC), launched a drive to organize workers in Saskatchewan. The campaign got off to a good start, and in the first year more than half a dozen shops had been organized. By 1947, local unions had been established in most major centres of the province, including Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Weyburn, North Battleford, Swift Current, and Moose Jaw. At the international level the reaffiliation of three large locals had been completed, and the word “United” was deleted from the name of the union. Also in the late 1940s, RWDSU members in Saskatchewan established the Saskatchewan Joint Board to coordinate the affairs of local unions in the province. Locals paid a modest per-capita fee to the Joint Board, hired a provincial representative located in Regina, and eventually opened a second union office in Saskatoon. By the mid-1960s, membership numbered over 2,000.

As RWDSU grew larger, its influence in the affairs of the Saskatchewan labour movement increased and the Joint Board became a leader in many campaigns of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), ranging from lobbying to improve labour and social legislation (including hours of work, minimum wage, occupational health and safety) to the first publicly administered medicare plan in Canada. Despite the effectiveness of RWDSU in Saskatchewan and its organizational success, a strong disagreement with the International over the autonomy of the Canadian area came to a head in 1970, when Saskatchewan members voted by secret ballot (1,601 to 16) to disaffiliate from the International. In spite of the fact that such a vote was permitted by the International Constitution, the CLC and the SFL expelled the Joint Board and denied it the right to participate in any activities sponsored by the central labour bodies. Except for a brief arrangement with the Canadian Food and Allied Workers, the Joint Board was on its own until 1983, when it affiliated with the Canadian Area of the International Longshore and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU), and was permitted to rejoin the CLC and the SFL. The Joint Board was nevertheless forced to fight off raiding attempts by Congress affiliates, and to a great extent was denied assistance from many affiliates in its battles with employers.

Concurrent with the growth of RWDSU’s reputation as a strong and progressive union, opposition by employers at the bargaining table intensified, and strikes and lockouts became more common and longer than ever before. For instance, union members at Morris Rodweeder in Yorkton barricaded themselves in the plant in a successful fight for a first agreement, and members at Pineland Co-op in Nipawin maintained a picket line for eight and a half years (possibly the longest strike in Canada). Laundry workers, packing house workers, Coca-Cola employees, warehouse workers, hotel staff, and co-op employees at both the retail and warehouse level used picket lines and/or plant occupation to win better working conditions and job security. As well, more employers began using the courts to counter the successful activities of the union. This attack fell short of what employers had hoped for, and the union won a number of cases that proved beneficial to all workers, including a Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding secondary picketing as a legitimate activity, the protection of working conditions during a period of collective bargaining, and confirmation of the right to picket a shop located in a shopping mall. Many employer-instigated injunctions to limit the size of picket lines were also defeated by the Joint Board.

Today the RWDSU Saskatchewan Joint Board represents approximately 6,000 members and employs a staff of six full-time representatives and three full-time clerical employees. It bargains close to 100 collective agreements, wins a majority of the hundreds of grievances filed by members, continues to organize new members, provides twenty-two annual scholarships for post-secondary education (open to members and their children), has established employer-funded but jointly administered pension and dental plans, publishes The Defender (a four-page newsletter) eleven times a year (and has done so for about thirty-five years); and has amassed a provincial strike fund in excess of $4 million. During the almost sixty years since the RWDSU Joint Board entered the Saskatchewan labour scene, even its critics admit that it has had a tremendous and beneficial impact on the lives of workers and their families. It has organized, bargained hard, and been in the forefront of the political battles for legislation designed to benefit all of Saskatchewan’s citizens.

Chris Banting