Michael Danyluk was shopping for a video cassette recorder in an Eaton’s department store in Brampton, Ont., in November, 1983, when he had a casual discussion with a salesclerk who complained of low wages. As business agent for the 30,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), Danyluk gave the clerk his card. And for the Toronto-based union, that chance encounter proved to be fruitful: within two weeks 80 per cent of the store’s employees had signed union cards. Four months later the union had enrolled about 1,000 new members in six Eaton’s stores across the province. But that was the high-water mark in the union’s campaign at Eaton’s. It was followed by setbacks that included a bitterly fought 5 V2 -month strike and the decertification last February of all but one bargaining unit representing eight Eaton’s employees in London, Ont.
The Eaton’s strike illustrates the difficulties that labor has faced in trying to enlist the 3.7 million generally low-paid service-sector workers in stores, banks and fast-food outlets across Canada. Said Colin Waring, a Toronto-based Eaton’s furniture salesman who helped throw out the union: “I believe it’s going to be 40 years before another union will get a foothold in Eaton’s, if then.” Other critics of the RWDSU say that the union was poorly prepared to do battle with the retail giant and that it failed to exploit vital issues, including the fact that 80 per cent of the strikers were female—a likely focus for feminists who were concerned about women in low-paying jobs. Union officials reject those charges, but, like their critics, they acknowledge that the labor movement’s ability to organize service workers could be a key to its future survival.
Boycott: The RWDSU placed its Eaton’s members on the picket line on Nov. 30, 1984, withdrawing their services from six of the company’s Ontario outlets in an attempt to disrupt the lucrative Christmas shopping season. But many former strikers and some labor leaders now say that union executives were not ready for a protracted struggle—and that they did not move
quickly enough to drum up support for a national boycott campaign against all 110 Eaton’s stores.
For their part, Eaton’s spokesmen say that nearly two-thirds of all employees were working one week after the strike began and that the company continued to hire new employees during the strike. Even before the walkout began, the company gave its nonunion employees a 7.8-per-cent wage increase and made an identical offer to unionized workers—a raise that eventually became part of the collective agreement in May, 1985.
Failure: But when the boycott campaign was beginning to gather steam in March, 1985, the dwindling number of members who had shivered on picket lines all winter faced a hard choice: under Ontario law they had no right to return to their jobs if the strike lasted longer than six months. With the endof-May deadline approaching, the union accepted the same contract it had rejected in November. But by then newly hired workers dominated its bargaining units, and as a result union officials refused to let the members vote on the proposed contract. “The union was in a bit of a jam,” declared Waring. “How
could they sell failure, which the strike obviously was, as a success?”
That failure raised pointed questions as to whether the union could ever have won the strike. “A four-year-old would have known that strike was not winnable,” said lawyer Stewart Saxe, who represented the employees’ decertification committee at the Ontario Labour Relations Board. According to Saxe, Eaton’s
management would never have agreed to pay higher wages to the small number of unionized employees among the firm’s 35,000-member workforce. Added Saxe: “The RWDSU was taking a shot at trying to impress the 96 per cent of employees who were not unionized. And they made a bad decision.”
But RWDSU vice-president Thomas Collins, who rejects that view, responded: “Had we not fought, our critics would be telling us that we are just another one of those unions that wants to take dues and not do anything. It cost us about $2 million to fight Eaton’s.” Still, he acknowledged that one
of the strikers’ most potentially damaging weapons—the boycott—needed more time to be effective. Added Collins: “Six months is not enough time for a boycott to have a serious effect.”
Exploitation: The RWDSU also came under fire for failing to exploit the issue that eventually galvanized most support for the strike: the alleged exploitation of women. Declared Laurell Ritchie, a vice-president of the 40,000 member Confederation of Canadian Unions: “There was an old-style male leadership that did not understand the importance of having the women’s movement back up the strike and having it identified as a women’s strike.” Ritchie helped form a strike support committee that, among other gestures of solidarity, organized a rally that attracted 6,000 supporters to the Eaton Centre store on March 9—International Women’s Day. But the RWDSU accepted the company’s offer two months later—an act that foreshadowed its retreat from the Eaton empire when employees voted overwhelmingly for decertification last February.
Respect: Spokesmen for Eaton’s, and some employees, say that the strike and decertification drive have not left lasting scars. Said one employee who backed the union and spent the strike on the picket line: “If anything, things have improved since the strike. If the company continues to treat us with respect and dignity, there may not be a union again.” And that is the continuing challenge for the union movement in its campaign to organize the expanding service sector.
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