The Retail Clerks International Union, then known as the Retail Clerks National Protective Union, was chartered by the American Federation of Labor in 1890. At the point that it was chartered, the union was made up only of workers from the Clothing and Gents Furnishings and Shoe Store in Muskegon, Michigan.
Two years later, the RCNPA chartered with seven locals, and its membership spread throughout the Midwest, including stores in Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois. By 1899, the union officially became an international when a local was chartered in British Columbia, Canada.
Early in the Retail Clerks’ history, they fought for better wages and shorter hours. Equal pay for equal work was also an issue early on, as women employees were strongly discriminated against.
Boycotting became the main tactic used by the union to force employers to enact better working conditions with fair hours, as well as better and equal pay for all employees. An early victory for the Retail Clerks took place in 1896 in Kansas City, Missouri. After calling for a series of boycotts against a particular retail store, the union’s newsletter the Advocate spoke on the success of the boycotts, “they found they could not do business in this city with the boycott on them, so they moved, and that is what all such firms should do. Let them move or sign the agreement with the others to close at a reasonable hour.”
Shortly after this success, the local unions began negotiating contracts, focusing their attention on shorter working hours. In focusing primarily on working hours , the Retail Clerks became the first to establish the principle of overtime pay. In 1906 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Retail Clerks Local 131 won a $0.30 increase in pay for all hours over the average 63 hours worked.
Despite many long, bitter strikes throughout its early history, the Retail Clerks continued to grow. At its onset, membership was at 3,000, growing dramatically to over 50,000 by 1904.
Although the Retail Clerks experienced strong growth early in the century, the Depression nearly wiped out the union, dropping membership down to 5,000. As a result of the severe financial times facing the U.S., employers began cutting pay and replacing older workers with younger workers who would accept lower wages. In addition, employers offered little job security, forcing many employees to work as only temporary employees, never knowing when they might be without a job.
As the result of aggressive organizing programs and strong, united and strategic communication with employers, membership in the Retail Clerks soared in post-Depression America. Along with its astounding growth, the union began to diversify its membership, with many health care, bank, and footwear workers joining the union.
In 1974, a Professional Employees Division was established within the union which caused a rapid growth in membership in health care fields and related professions. Three years later, the Boot and Shoe Workers Union merged with the union, forming the Footwear Division of the Retail Clerks. The merger of the Retail Clerks and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union in 1979 united two union powerhouses, both with a long history of justice, fighting for justice and economic security for working people. It was this merger that gave life to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.