Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Infobox Union
name= RWDSU
country= United States, Canada
affiliation= CWF, CLC
full_name= Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

founded= 1937
head= UFCW
office= New York City, United States
people= Stuart Appelbaum, president
website= []

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is a labor union in the United States and Canada which is a semi-autonomous division of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Change to Win Federation. 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 (CIO).

Clarence Coulter, then general secretary-treasurer of the Retail Clerks International Association (RCIA), was a strong supporter of craft unionism and had suspended a number of RCIA's New York City 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 state.

In 1941, the union struck Gimbel's 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 more progressive locals within the union criticized the national leadership for insufficient militancy.

Montgomery Ward strike

In 1943, the union struck Montgomery Ward & Co. 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; Chicago, Illinois; St. Paul, Minnesota; Denver, Colorado; San Rafael, California; and Portland, Oregon. Ward's then cut wages and fired many union activists.

On April 26, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered U.S. Army troops to seize the company's property in Chicago and remove Ward's chairman, Sewell Avery (who was carried out of his office on the shoulders of American troops). Jesse Holman Jones, the United States Secretary of Commerce, was installed as manager of the company's Chicago plant.

The workers again chose (via a National Labor Relations Board 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 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 (United States v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 150 C. 2d 369), but the seizure was terminated in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman.

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 left-wing locals, who accused the national leadership of incompetence in the planning and conduct of the strike.

Organizing health care workers

Leon J. Davis 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 which bolted the American Federation of Labor 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 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, ill-educated 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. 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.

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-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, 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 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 president Walter Reuther 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 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, Ohio and West Virginia, 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, an African-American health care aide at Lenox Hill Hospital 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 (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 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 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 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' 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 (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, the child returned home as 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. RWDSU/UFCW retained its members in Canada, and exists to the present time.


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)


Fink, Gary M. "Biographical Dictionary of American Labor." Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Fink, Leon and Greenberg, Brian. "Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: A History of Hospital Workers' Union, Local 1199." Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1989. ISBN 0-252-06047-4

"The Reminiscences of Moe Foner (1915-2002), labor union organizer." Oral History Research Office. Columbia University. []

"Guide to the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America. District 65 Records 1933-1992." Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. New York University. []

Linder, Walter. "District 65 RWDSU, AFL-CIO, an analysis." New England Free Press: Boston, 196?.

Opler, Daniel. "For All White-Collar Workers: The Possibilities of Radicalism in New York City's Department Store Unions, 1934-1953". Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

External links

* [ Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union]
* [ RWDSU Canada]
* [ United Food and Commercial Workers]
* [ Change to Win]

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