Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union
(RWDSU) is a labor union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...
in the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...
that is a semi-autonomous division of the United Food and Commercial Workers
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is a labor union representing approximately 1.3 million workers in the United States and Canada in many industries, including agriculture, health care, meatpacking, poultry and food processing, manufacturing, textile, G4S Security, chemical...
, Change to Win Federation
The Change to Win Federation is a coalition of American labor unions originally formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO. The coalition is associated with strong advocacy of the organizing model...
. The division represents service, clerical, sales and maintenance workers as well as employees in the citrus, food processing, tobacco, jewelry, novelty and toy industries.
Formation and early years
RWDSU was created in 1937 as the United Retail Employees of America
by the Congress of Industrial Organizations
The Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, proposed by John L. Lewis in 1932, was a federation of unions that organized workers in industrial unions in the United States and Canada from 1935 to 1955. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required union leaders to swear that they were not...
Clarence Coulter, then general secretary-treasurer of the Retail Clerks International Association (RCIA), was a strong supporter of craft unionism
Craft unionism refers to organizing a union in a manner that seeks to unify workers in a particular industry along the lines of the particular craft or trade that they work in by class or skill level...
and had suspended a number of RCIA's New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...
locals for opposing this policy. The suspended locals formed the United Retail Employees of America and affiliated with the CIO. The union experienced significant growth in the 1930s, primarily in New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...
In 1941, the union struck Gimbel's
Gimbel Brothers was an American department store corporation from 1887 through the late 20th century. The store is known for creating the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, the oldest parade in the country. Gimbels was also once the largest department store chain in the country...
department store and won a 40 hour work week. Many large department stores in the city followed suit.
In 1938, the union changed its name to the United Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. But despite the union's successes, many of the locals within the union criticized the national leadership for insufficient militancy.
Montgomery Ward strike
In 1943, the union struck Montgomery Ward & Co.
Montgomery Ward is an online retailer that carries the same name as the former American department store chain, founded as the world's #1 mail order business in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward, and which went out of business in 2001...
after management refused to comply with a War Labor Board order to recognize the union and institute the terms of a collective bargaining agreement the board had worked out. The strike involved nearly 12,000 workers in Jamaica, New York; Detroit, Michigan
Detroit is the major city among the primary cultural, financial, and transportation centers in the Metro Detroit area, a region of 5.2 million people. As the seat of Wayne County, the city of Detroit is the largest city in the U.S. state of Michigan and serves as a major port on the Detroit River...
; Chicago, Illinois; St. Paul, Minnesota; Denver, Colorado
The City and County of Denver is the capital and the most populous city of the U.S. state of Colorado. Denver is a consolidated city-county, located in the South Platte River Valley on the western edge of the High Plains just east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains...
; San Rafael, California
San Rafael is a city and the county seat of Marin County, California, United States. The city is located in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area...
; and Portland, Oregon
Portland is a city located in the Pacific Northwest, near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers in the U.S. state of Oregon. As of the 2010 Census, it had a population of 583,776, making it the 29th most populous city in the United States...
. Ward's then cut wages and fired many union activists.
On April 26, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt , also known by his initials, FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States and a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States during a time of worldwide economic crisis and world war...
ordered U.S. Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...
troops to seize the company's property in Chicago and remove Ward's chairman, Sewell Avery
Sewell Avery was an American businessman.Born in a wealthy family of lumber barons in Michigan, Avery attended public schools in Saginaw and Detroit and the Michigan Military Academy. He was a financier of the American Liberty League and a National Advisor for one of its front organizations, the...
(who was carried out of his office on the shoulders of American troops). Jesse Holman Jones
Jesse Holman Jones was a Houston, Texas politician and entrepreneur. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945...
, the United States Secretary of Commerce
The United States Secretary of Commerce is the head of the United States Department of Commerce concerned with business and industry; the Department states its mission to be "to foster, promote, and develop the foreign and domestic commerce"...
, was installed as manager of the company's Chicago plant.
The workers again chose (via a National Labor Relations Board
The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency of the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices. Unfair labor practices may involve union-related situations or instances of...
election) to form a collective bargaining organization in the summer of 1944, but Montgomery Ward continued to refuse to recognize the union. On December 27, 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the Secretary of War
The Secretary of War was a member of the United States President's Cabinet, beginning with George Washington's administration. A similar position, called either "Secretary at War" or "Secretary of War," was appointed to serve the Congress of the Confederation under the Articles of Confederation...
to seize all company property nationwide to force compliance with War Labor Board orders. The seizure was upheld by a United States Court of Appeals
The United States courts of appeals are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal court system...
(United States v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 150 C. 2d 369), but the seizure was terminated in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States . As President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third vice president and the 34th Vice President of the United States , he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his...
Despite the federal government's intervention, RWDSU never did achieve a firm foothold at Montgomery Ward. Union membership at the company dropped to zero by 1948.
The Montgomery Ward strike only strengthened the criticism coming from the union's locals, who accused the national leadership of incompetence in the planning and conduct of the strike.
Organizing health care workers
Leon J. Davis
Leon J. Davis, Polish-born U.S. labor leader, November 26, 1906, Obecz, Russian Empire - September 14, 1992, New Hyde Park, New York.At the age of 15 he settled with his Russian-speaking family in Hartford, Connecticut where he attended public schools and learned English. In 1927 his family moved...
had founded the independent Pharmacists Union of Greater New York in 1932 by merging a number of small medical and clerical unions. In 1936, the Pharmacists Union became Local 1199 of the Retail Clerks International Association. Davis led the workers on strike during the winter of 1936-1937-and won African-American pharmacists the right to join the union.
Local 1199 was among many of the progressive New York City area unions that bolted the American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...
in 1937 for the CIO, where it became part of the United Retail Employees of America. Davis became president of Local 1199 in 1945 and an international vice president of RWDSU in 1955.
Local 1199 was one of the first unions in America to establish a union-owned insurance
In law and economics, insurance is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment. An insurer is a company selling the...
plan for its members. The 1199 Benefit Plan was formed in 1945 to provide employer-paid hospital, disability and life insurance benefits. The fund became a self-insured and self-administered plan in 1948, and a prescription drug benefit was added in 1951.
In 1957, Local 1199 leaders made the decision to begin organizing service and maintenance workers in hospitals. By this time, the union had organized nearly 90 percent of all pharmacy workers in New York City, and was looking to extend the benefits of union membership to other low-paid workers in the city. Hospital service and maintenance workers was a logical extension of the union's jurisdiction.
RWDSU organized its first hospital workers at Montefiore Hospital in 1958. Committed to a radical program of improved race relations, helping the poor and organizing, Local 1199 quickly expanded its organizing drive to other non-profit hospitals in the city. Under Leon Davis' leadership, the union led a 3,500-worker hospital recognition strike at seven hospitals in 1959. A strike at Beth El Hospital in 1962-during which Davis was jailed for 30 days-helped win passage later that year of state legislation extending collective bargaining rights to non-profit hospitals in New York.
By 1964, Local 1199 counted 20,000 members and had expanded into New Jersey
New Jersey is a state in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic regions of the United States. , its population was 8,791,894. It is bordered on the north and east by the state of New York, on the southeast and south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Pennsylvania and on the southwest by Delaware...
. A Guild division was established that same year for clerical, professional and technical employees. Divisions for registered nurses, pharmacists and other workers soon followed.
In 1969, the Local 1199 organizing committee decided to expand its organizing efforts to health care workers throughout the country.
Charleston hospital strike
In 1969, Local 1199 became involved in a major recognition strike in Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is the second largest city in the U.S. state of South Carolina. It was made the county seat of Charleston County in 1901 when Charleston County was founded. The city's original name was Charles Towne in 1670, and it moved to its present location from a location on the west bank of the...
Workers at Medical College Hospital-most of them African-American women with little education earning only $1.30 an hour-began to agitate for a 30 cent wage increase, desegregation of the hospital's medical staff and the end of racist treatment by white hospital workers. White doctors and nurses openly referred to black hospital workers as 'monkey grunts' and 'niggers,' and hospital administrators paid white staff more for the same jobs done by blacks. Working conditions at the hospital were described by organizers as similar to the 'plantation overseer-slave relationship.'
In the late winter of 1968, the hospital's nonprofessional workers, led by Naomi White, contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) for assistance. The SCLC asked Local 1199-which had extensive links with the civil rights movement
The African-American Civil Rights Movement refers to the movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring voting rights to them. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1955 and 1968, particularly in the South...
-to help the workers form a union, which it did. The new union was known as Local 1199B. Mary Moultrie was elected the local's first president, and she requested that Medical College Hospital recognize the union in February 1969. Medical College Hospital president Dr. William McCord, a native of South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...
, agreed to meet with the union leadership to discuss their grievances. But when union representatives arrived at his office, McCord was absent. The workers staged an impromptu protest, and the administration fired 12 of them.
More than 300 service workers at Medical College Hospital walked off the job on March 19, 1969. The strikers demanded recognition of 1199B, a fair grievance procedure, and a 30 cent raise (which would bring wages to the federal minimum of $1.60 an hour). They also insisted that the hospital rehire the 12 workers.
Although strike planners intended for the strike to be peaceful, violence quickly broke out. White was arrested after exchanging insults and blows with police officers. Strike organizers put up pickets around the Old Slave Market Museum to equate the plight of the hospital workers with slavery. Black youths began throwing stones and bottles at police, and 1199 organizers privately admitted that they were losing control of the strike at times.
About a week after the Medical College Hospital workers struck, a third of the service and maintenance workers at Charleston County Hospital joined them on the picket lines. Like their peers at Medical College Hospital, the workers were overwhelmingly black, female and poor.
Charleston police chief John F. Conroy attempted to cool things down by walking peacefully with the marchers throughout the strike. In contrast, South Carolina governor Robert McNair
Robert McNair may refer to:*Bob McNair , American businessman, owner of the Houston Texans National Football League team*Robert Evander McNair , American politician, governor of South Carolina...
responded by threatening the strikers with prison time and then placed the city under curfew.
On May 11, over 5,000 people marched in support of the striking hospital workers-including United Auto Workers
The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, better known as the United Auto Workers , is a labor union which represents workers in the United States and Puerto Rico, and formerly in Canada. Founded as part of the Congress of Industrial...
president Walter Reuther
Walter Philip Reuther was an American labor union leader, who made the United Automobile Workers a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic Party in the mid 20th century...
and five U.S. Congressmen. Moultrie roused the crowd to a fever pitch by declaring, 'You thought we'd say 'Sorry, boss' and put those handkerchiefs back on our heads. Sorry about that governor, but we just had to disappoint you.'
The strike became a national sensation, and a cause célebré among civil rights activists.
A month after the mass rally, the South Carolina legislature voted to raise pay scales for all state employees-from the governor on down to the lowliest hospital worker. Gov. McNair ended the curfew and publicly announced that the decision to rehire the 12 fired workers was up to Medical College Hospital administrators.
The Medical College Hospital board of trustees then met secretly with a small group of strike leaders to hammer out an agreement. After 99 days of protest, a compromise was reached. Because South Carolina was a right-to-work
Right-to-work laws are statutes enforced in twenty-two U.S. states, mostly in the southern or western U.S., allowed under provisions of the federal Taft–Hartley Act, which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership, payment of union dues, or fees a condition of...
state, the hospital did not feel compelled to recognize the union. But the administration did rehire the fired workers, created a credit union for hospital employees, and instituted a six-point grievance system.
The workers felt they had won despite the lack of union recognition.
But Local 1199B did not last. Within three years, the union had shed most of its members.
Union within a union
As Local 1199 expanded beyond its New York City base into Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...
Ohio is a Midwestern state in the United States. The 34th largest state by area in the U.S.,it is the 7th‑most populous with over 11.5 million residents, containing several major American cities and seven metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.The state's capital is Columbus...
and West Virginia
West Virginia is a state in the Appalachian and Southeastern regions of the United States, bordered by Virginia to the southeast, Kentucky to the southwest, Ohio to the northwest, Pennsylvania to the northeast and Maryland to the east...
, Davis argued that the union needed greater autonomy from RWDSU in order to organize effectively.
To Davis, it was clear that the health care union had to establish its own identity separate from the retail workers in order to attract new members. RWDSU president Alvin E. Heaps was not opposed, so long as an overwhelming majority of the local's members approved of the move. By this time, Local 1199 accounted for about 40 percent of the RWDSU membership. Realistically, Heaps could not have opposed the decision to seek autonomy without causing a major split in RWDSU.
In November 1973, Local 1199 was established as a semi-autonomous organization and renamed the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE). The New York City district became the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union, Local 1199. Other areas used the 'National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees' name, designated as 1199B, 1199C, 1199D, etc., to differentiate themselves from the New York affiliate. Davis retained the presidency of both the New York local and the national NUHHCE union.
RWDSU and Local 1199 also agree to treat NUHHCE as a 'union within a union.' NUHHCE was permitted to contribute only one-quarter of its per capita dues to the international union, but its representation on the RWDSU executive board was significantly reduced.
NUHHCE used the retained per capita for organizing and administration. The union grew swiftly, organizing statewide amalgamated local unions outside New York and New Jersey. The 'union within a union' arrangement was to NUHHCE's advantage because it gave the image that the division was a national union of hospital and health care employees rather than a union of retail, wholesale and department store workers.
But the agreement also gave RWDSU certain advantages as well-including large numbers of new members and increased per capita dues flow. RWDSU was also able to project an image of an active, aggressive, feisty organization even though it had ceased to organize new members outside the health care division.
Merger debate and breakup
As early as 1973, a struggle began over the future of the new organization. Leon Davis had groomed Doris Turner
Doris Mildred Coysh was an English cricketer. She played in the first four Test matches, which were played during England's successful tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1934-35,, although her personal performances were disappointing...
, an African-American health care aide at Lenox Hill Hospital
Lenox Hill Hospital, on Manhattan's Upper East Side in New York City, is a 652-bed, acute care hospital and a major teaching affiliate of New York University Medical Center. Founded in 1857 as the German Dispensary, today's 10-building Lenox Hill Hospital complex has occupied its present site since...
and a union member since 1959, as his successor. Nearly all of the union's leadership and staff were white, while a majority of the membership was African-American or Latino. Davis resolved that the next president of the national NUHHCE union had to be more representative of the membership.
But by 1980, a number of NUHHCE leaders began to express doubts about Turner's qualifications, administrative style and temperament. Turner had built a large and loyal base of support within NUHHCE, however, and her desire to lead the union could not be easily dismissed.
In a compromise, Turner agreed to support Henry Nicholas, a veteran 1199 organizer and vice president of the New York union, for president of the national health care union while she ran for president of the New York affiliate. Both were elected to their respective positions in 1981.
Merger talks, too, were in the air.
NUHHCE had come into conflict with a number of other unions while organizing new members, notably Service Employees International Union
Service Employees International Union is a labor union representing about 1.8 million workers in over 100 occupations in the United States , and Canada...
(SEIU) Local 144. To Davis, competition was harming the labor movement's growth in health care. Merger, not competition, seemed the best solution to union growth in the industry.
By 1980, NUHHCE represented more than 150,000 members and Davis felt that NUHHCE was large enough to consider transforming itself, through merger, into a national health care union.
Davis had conceived of a national health care union in the mid 1960s and approached SEIU president George Hardy
George Hardy was a Canadian-American labor leader who was president of the Service Employees International Union from 1971 to 1980. At the time of his death, SEIU had grown to become the fifth-largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Hardy was a vice president of the AFL-CIO from 1972 to 1980, and a...
about a possible dual affiliation with RWDSU. SEIU had organized health care workers in California and a few other locations, and was the second-largest health care workers union in the AFL-CIO.
In 1980, the national NUHHCE leadership approved merger talks and a 1981 merger referendum among the membership passed easily. (The RWDSU constitution permitted affiliates to seek disaffiliation and/or dual affiliation without a vote of the RWDSU executive board.) Turner campaigned vigorously against the merger, and convinced Heaps that NUHHCE was split on the issue. Although more than 75 percent of the members approved of dual affiliation in the 1981 referendum, Heaps trusteed NUHHCE two weeks before its December 1981 convention—using, as justification, 'dissension' within the union.
NUHHCE immediately challenged the trusteeship in court.
In 1982, RWDSU amended its constitution to provide that an affiliate could not secede or disaffiliate without approval of the RWDSU executive board.
NUHHCE then asked the AFL-CIO to charter it as a directly-affiliated local union. AFL-CIO vice president Thomas R. Donahue
Thomas Reilly Donahue was Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995 and served briefly as its acting President during the second half of 1995.- Early life :...
and several AFL-CIO executive council members privately expressed support for the request. But the AFL-CIO could not constitutionally issue a charter without the permission of RWDSU, and turned down the charter request in February 1984.
However, on May 3, 1984, RWDSU and NUHHCE agreed to an out-of-court settlement in which RWDSU and NUHHCE agreed to jointly request an independent charter from the AFL-CIO. The independent charter was granted by the AFL-CIO executive council on May 7, 1984.
On June 6, 1984, the NUHHCE executive board voted to disaffiliate from RWDSU, effective October 1, 1984. A mail ballot was issued on July 31, 1984, and the disaffiliation approved. The AFL-CIO issued its direct charter on October 1.
The loss of NUHHCE took roughly 150,000 members out of RWDSU.
Post-war period of merger and disaffiliation
RWDSU languished in the late 1940s. Other unions had begun organizing retail workers, and many RWDSU locals were content merely to service existing workers.
The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act
The Labor–Management Relations Act is a United States federal law that monitors the activities and power of labor unions. The act, still effective, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr. and became law by overriding U.S. President Harry S...
in 1947 triggered a crisis within the union. A large number of New York-area local union elected leaders refused to sign the anti-communist affidavits required by the act. This prevented their local unions from participating in elections sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board. To resolve the organizing impediment, the national RWDSU leadership suspended the local officers. Eight of the largest New York locals, representing 30,000 to 40,000 workers, disaffiliated from the union and formed the Distributive Workers Union.
The DWU absorbed the remnants of two other unions expelled from the CIO for communist domination-the United Office and Professional Workers of America (UOPWA) and the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union-to form the Distributive, Processing and Office Workers of America (DPOWA).
In January 1952, RWDSU unanimously adopted a resolution inviting any disaffiliated locals to rejoin the parent union. DPOWA elections held in June 1952 led to the ouster of most DPOWA officers, removing those elected leaders who had opposed the anti-communist affidavit requirement. In 1954, DPOWA rejoined the RWDSU and became known as District 65.
In 1954, the Playthings, Jewelry and Novelty Workers Union and the Distributing, Processing and Office Workers Union merged with RWDSU.
In 1969, differences over support for the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement as well as a disagreement over organizational procedures led once more to the disaffiliation of District 65. Joined by 10 other breakway RWDSU unions, a new national organization-the National Council of the Distributive Workers of America (NAWCDA)-was formed. In 1969, NAWDCA joined the short-lived American Labor Alliance formed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. In 1979, NAWDCA affiliated with the UAW.
In 1974, the Cigar Makers International Union-Samuel Gompers'
Samuel Gompers was an English-born American cigar maker who became a labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor , and served as that organization's president from 1886 to 1894 and from 1895 until his death in 1924...
old union-merged with RWDSU.
In 1977, RWDSU's parent union, the Retail Clerks International Association, merged with the Boot and Shoe Workers Union to form the Retail Clerks International Union
The Retail Clerks International Union , was a labor union that represented retail employees. The RCIU was chartered as the "Retail Clerks National Protective Union" in 1890 by the American Federation of Labor. It later adopted the name Retail Clerks International Association, and subsequently...
(RCIU) and the fifth-largest union in the AFL-CIO. A year later, the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen of North America merged with RCIU to form the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
In October 1993, RWDSU merged with UFCW as a semi-autonomous affiliate. However, many of the Canadian locals of RWDSU refused to merge and attempted to disaffiliate. RWDSU trusteed the locals, but a settlement was reached in which a majority of the locals were permitted to secede. RW/Canada, as the new union was called, affiliated with the United Steel Workers of America. The merger dissolved in 1999, and RW/Canada merged with the Canadian Auto Workers
The Canadian Auto Workers is one of Canada's largest and highest profile social unions. While rooted in Ontario's large auto plants of Windsor, Brampton, Oakville, St...
. RWDSU/UFCW retained its members in Canada, and exists to the present time. The only Canadian affiliates of the RWDSU to actually merge into the UFCW was the Northern Ontario Joint Council, and a small Local union in New Brunswick, headed by International Representative George Vair. In the late 1990s, the New Brunswick Local of the RWDSU merged into the UFCW. The Northern Ontario Joint Council maintained its affiliation with the RWDSU International.
Samuel Wolchok (1937–1948)
Irving M. Simon (1948–1954
Max Greenberg (1954–1975)
Alvin E. Heaps (1976–1986)
Lenore Miller (1986–1993)
Lenore Miller, divisional president (1993–1998)
Stuart Appelbaum, divisional president (1998–present)