Negotiations that could lead to the first union contract at any of Wal-Mart’s 5,000 stores worldwide began last week in Jonquiere, a town about 250 miles north of Quebec City in Canada.
In August, after more than half of the store’s 165 employees signed union cards, the Quebec Labour Relations Board certified the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 503 to represent the workers in contract negotiations with Wal-Mart.
The organizing drive’s success has given new energy to unionization efforts at Wal-Mart stores across Canada and the United States. Securing a contract in Jonquiere, according to UFCW Canada spokesman Michael Forman, will further propel these drives. “Once that’s published, [Wal-Mart employees at other stores] are going to see that some Wal-Mart workers out there are doing better than them,” he said.
Organizing drives are progressing in at least half a dozen Wal-Mart stores across Canada. Seeing an opportunity to gain a toehold at the chain, union officials in the United States have dedicated resources to the Canadian campaigns, according to the Globe and Mail.
With such high stakes, Wal-Mart has worked hard to crush the union in Jonquiere. According to organizers, the company engaged in an aggressive intimidation campaign to discourage workers from signing union cards. When that failed, it appealed the decision by the Quebec Labour Relations Board certifying the union. That too failed.
Then in October, Wal-Mart issued a press release threatening to close the store. “The Jonqui?re store is not meeting its business plan, and the company is concerned about the economic viability of the store,” the statement read. “Wal-Mart Canada believes the unresolved labour situation at the Jonquiere store is proving detrimental to improving the performance of the store.”
Wal-Mart enclosed a copy of the press release with every Canadian employee’s pay check.
“They know how to walk the line,” commented Forman. Had the chain conveyed the same message in a letter to employees, rather than a press release for stockholders and the general public, provincial labor boards likely would have seen that as illegal intimidation of workers at stores where union organizing drives are underway.
Wal-Mart has taken extreme steps to block unions in the past. When meat cutters at a Jacksonville, Texas, store voted to unionize in 2000, the company eliminated the meat-cutting departments at all of its stores.
When workers at a store in Windsor, Ontario, formed a union in 1996, the chain dragged out contact negotiations until another political party won control of the provincial government and re-wrote Ontario’s labor law. The changes—known to this day as the Wal-Mart Exception—undercut the union’s position and ultimately the effort collapsed.
Dragging out contract negotiations in Jonquiere is not an option, because Quebec labor law requires binding arbitration should the parties not come to a timely agreement.
The UFCW Canada’s Wal-Mart campaign has focused primarily on stores in Quebec and Saskatchewan. “In those two provinces, the labor laws create a more even playing field between labor and employers,” said Forman. Both provinces, for example, allow employees to form a union without a vote, if a majority of the workers sign union cards.
“It’s much more difficult in the U.S., under the National Labor Relations Board, to get to the point of applying for certification,” said Forman.
While union membership in the U.S. has dropped to 13 percent of the workforce, in Canada, nearly one-third of all workers belong to a union. The rate is even higher in Quebec, with 41 percent of the workforce unionized.
Regarding Wal-Mart’s threat to close the Jonquiere store, the UFCW’s strategy is to create more fires than the company can put out. “We’re going to organize more stores than they’ll be willing to close,” said Forman.
The UFCW has gathered card signatures and applied to represent workers at two other Wal-Mart stores in the Quebec towns of Saint-Hyacinthe and Brossard. Those applications are pending before the Quebec Labour Relations Board with a decision expected no later than December 13.
In Saskatchewan, applications are pending for union representation at three stores. In November, the union won a critical legal victory when a provincial appeals court ordered Wal-Mart to turn over internal documents related to its efforts to block an organizing drive in the town of Weyburn.
Organizing drives are also underway in British Columbia.
Wal-Mart entered Canada in 1994, when it bought 122 former Woolco stores. Wal-Mart declined to purchase 22 other Woolco outlets, including the only 10 stores in which workers were represented by a union. Today, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the country.
Most Wal-Mart employees in the U.S. and internationally earn less than is required to meet basic needs, forcing many to rely on public assistance. Workers also complain of poor working conditions and of being forced to work overtime without pay.
In their contract negotiations, Jonqui?re workers hope to achieve a process for voicing and resolving grievances, a wage ladder based on seniority, and non-preferential treatment in scheduling and promotions. Workers contend that managers punish employees who complain about working conditions by changing their schedule, cutting their hours, and denying them promotions.