Despite growing anti-American rhetoric in the late 1960s, breakaways from internationals were caused as much by bureaucratic indifference to Canadian concerns and calls for regional autonomy as they were by anti-American nationalist ideology this would prove to be the case in the secession of the Saskatchewan division of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in 1970. The RWDSU had the distinction of being among the first in the handful of unions to break away from their US parent in 1969 and 1970. RWDSU would pay a price for marginalizing itself from the mainstream of CLC unionism during the first eight years of their independence suffering a frustrating round of raiding by other unions because they lacked the protection afforded by the SFL and the CLC.
The story of Saskatchewan’s RWDSU is remarkable for more than its breakaway from its American parent. Indeed, the union seemed to gain strength and confidence from its newly won independence and became prominent among the province’s unions in a large part through its efforts to win union recognition for the unorganized. Later, when an internal rift within the union triggered a flurry of CLC-sanctioned raiding, RWDSU found itself entangled in the left-versus-right debates taking place within the province’s labour movement over issues like wage controls and support for the NDP.
The RWDSU began organizing in Saskatchewan in 1946 under the leadership of international representative Howard “Buster” Mitchell. Mitchell was born in Preeceville where his family was involved in the creation of one of the first co-operatively run farms in Canada. This was the same district that provided a temporary refuse for Sam Scarlett of Workers’ Unity League fame in the 1930s. Buster Mitchell mentored novice union activists like Walter Smishek and Len Wallace. Buster’s nephew, Bob Mitchell, would later become Deputy Minister of Labour, then a labour lawyer in the Saskatoon law firm Mitchell, Taylor, Ching and Minister of Labour in the Romanow NDP government.
Causes of Secession
By 1970, RWDSU’s Joint Board, its provincial central, claimed 2,323 members in fifteen locals scattered throughout the province. According to the Joint Board’s head staff person at the time, Secretary-Treasurer Len Wallace, “As the union grew, we began to seek reforms in the makeup of the international union. We submitted resolutions and constitutional amendments called for a distinct Canadian structure within the international union.”
The Saskatchewan Joint Board’s grievances with the international extended as far back as the 1955 RWDSU convention held in Toronto. That convention was called by the union’s Canadian affiliates for the purpose of setting up a Canadian council. “The convention opened and closed within minutes after the Ontario director of RWDSU moved “That a Canadian district council with a formal constitution is superfluous.”
After years of frustration, the Saskatchewan Joint Board adopted a resolution for disaffiliation from the international on December 10, 1969. The Defender – the Retail Wholesale Saskatchewan newsletter – didn’t mince words when laying out the argument for secession: “The Leadership of the international RWDSU has developed into an oligarchy with an independent life of its own which no longer carries out its primary function of representation. It not only does not represent its members but also has vigorously refused to allow its Canadian affiliates to establish a distinctive Canadian organization which can make decisions democratically and act on Canadian issues.” The international resisted the secession. Its first action was to fire Len Wallace for disloyalty, replacing him with Bud Hodgins from Alberta. The international offered to allow Walter Smishek to return from his leave of absence to replace Wallace but this came with the price tag of dropping its affiliation resolution. Despite the international’s lobbying efforts, after a ninety-day waiting period, a membership vote was taken with overwhelming majority of members from all fifteen Saskatchewan locals voting for secession from their international.
The Nonreverter Clause
RWDSU’s constitution was almost unique among international unions in North America. Virtually every other international had what is called a reverter clause in its constitution which stated that if any affiliated local or group of locals seceded from its parent body, all of its assets, including money, buildings and office furniture, would revert back to the international. RWDSU didn’t have such a clause. It was an international that had the right to secession built into its constitution. According to Len Wallace, “There were strong indications that the international intended to eliminate the (non-reverter) clause from the constitution at its next convention. This encouraged us to go ahead with the disaffiliation. We decided we had better get out while we still could.”
Resisting the Urge to Merge
The newly independent Saskatchewan Joint Board quickly reinstated Len Wallace as Secretary-Treasurer. The response of the labour centrals in Canada to the secession came as a surprise to the Saskatchewan Joint Board of RWDSU. Since disaffiliation was permitted within the international’s constitution, the Saskatchewan breakaway locals didn’t believe any disciplinary action by the CLC would be warranted. Nevertheless, the CLC labeled them a rebel organization and excluded them from continued membership in both the congress and the SFL. This meant other unions could go after RWDSU members without fear of sanction from the labour centrals. Consequently, according to Wallace, “For quite a number of years, we were on our own and were frequently raided by other unions.”
To achieve re-affiliation with the CLC, protect itself from possible raiding and rejoining the provincial house of labour, RWDSU needed to find an existing affiliate in good standing to merge with. The CLC suggested the Canadian Food and Allied Workers (CFAW), a union that RWDSU had been on fairly good terms with but the Saskatchewan Joint Board was reluctant to join another international union that had a reverter clause in its constitution. In the end, RWDSU rejected the CFAW’s affiliation offer. As long-time United Steelworkers of America official Terry Stevens recalls, “The CFAW’s Saskatchewan leadership felt somewhat jilted at the altar. Prominent packinghouse union leaders, including Clarence Lyons, had made a significant effort to help RW win admission back into the mainstream. At one point, they created a ‘formal’ arrangement that granted RWDSU a security blanket of protection from raiding for a small token affiliation fee. I believe that RW’s rejection of the offer hardened people like Clarence Lyons a little with respect to RWDSU’s cause but no significant raiding went on until other events came along to provoke things some years later.”
The fact that RWDSU was seriously considering affiliation with the CFAW which, despite its Canadian-sounding name, was an affiliate of an American-headquartered international, adds emphasis to the point that Canadian nationalism wasn’t the sole driving force behind the breakaway. Maintaining a strong degree of local autonomy and the control of local assets was a more powerful factor. The newly independent Saskatchewan RWDSU was actively committed to organizing the unorganized, with eight new certifications in 1972 and six more the following year. By 1973, RWDSU was negotiating a total of ninety collective agreements. From 1970 until 1979, although they lacked the protection against raiding that membership in the CLC could provide, there was very little raiding action against them. However, this would change.
RWDSU experienced a two-year period of internal rivalry and division between 1977 and 1979. The divisiveness was the result of controversy over the results of an election of union executives. A lasting outcome of those political and personality differences was the breakaway of a few of the union’s locals, which subsequently affiliated with the CFAW around the time that union was merging into the newly formed United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). RWDSU’s internal problems signaled the start of accelerated raiding efforts led primarily by the UFCW. The four-year period of conflict that followed saw an unprecedented level of raiding and competition within the province’s labour movement.
Even without CLC and SFL backing, RWDSU survived the flurry of raiding but not without a substantial amount of effort.
RWDSU clearly wanted to be free of the threat of continued raiding and a growing number of SFL affiliates were disturbed by the disunity and bitterness that raiding produced in a movement that prided itself on worker solidarity. The solution was to get RWDSU back into the CLC fold where it would be afforded the protection of the Congress’ anti-raiding rules. Moral support from sympathetic unions like CUPE wasn’t enough in itself. RWDSU needed to find an affiliate in good standing to merge with. A partnership was arranged with British Columbia’s RWDSU which had also defected from the RWDSU international and the BC-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canadian Region. In 1983, the BC Longshoremen submitted per capita fees to the CLC on behalf of RWDSU Saskatchewan. The re-affiliation was accepted and in 1984, the union was automatically reinstated by the SFL. The Federation brought official closure to the events of the previous four years by formally adopting a “bury the hatchet” no-raiding policy.
The Pepsi Challenge
RWDSU developed a reputation for fighting and winning precedent-setting cases at the Labour Relations Board and in court and for appealing troubling lower court decisions. RWDSU has taken a number of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Its first, in 1973, resulted in the reinstatement of a wrongfully dismissed worker at the Yorkton Zellers store. More recently, RWDSU won a ground-breaking Supreme Court of Canada case over the issue of secondary picketing. This case was the result of a dispute at a Pepsi Bottling plant. RWDSU had broadened the scope of its picketing to include retail stores that sold Pepsi. Lower court decisions had produced injunctions against the secondary pickets. The Supreme Court disagreed and, as a result, secondary picketing remains a legal tactic for unions all across Canada.
RWDSU members also led the campaign to limit retail store shopping hours defending Saskatchewan’s Sunday and Monday closing laws, in opposition to the big retail companies of the day such a Eaton’s which were also pushing for expanded night shopping.