A chink in the evil empire's armor.

For Labor, a Wal-Mart Closing in Canada Is a Call to Arms

Published: March 10, 2005

Robert J. Galbraith for NYT
The Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Quebec, will close this spring because of what the retailer said were escalating union demands and falling sales.


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JONQUIÈRE, Quebec - Shoppers in this Quebec mill town are about to pay more for ice-fishing gear, snowmobile covers and cheese curds for poutine: the local Wal-Mart is closing this spring.

But Wal-Mart's announcement in February that it could no longer do business here because of skimpy store revenue and escalating union demands is having a much broader impact across Canada and even south of the border. The closing - the first of a Wal-Mart in Canada - is a strategic retreat for the retailer in its war with organized labor.

Since August 2004, when this store became the only unionized Wal-Mart in North America, Jonquière has become a rallying cry for retail union organizers who want to stop an erosion of membership in the grocery industry in both Canada and the United States.

At least three other Wal-Mart outlets in Quebec have received bomb threats since the Jonquière closing announcement, forcing evacuations and losses in sales. Bernard Landry, the leader of the separatist Parti Québécois and a former premier of the province, has announced that he is boycotting the chain. A Quebec television broadcaster compared Wal-Mart to Nazism, but later apologized.

In the last decade, Wal-Mart has become Canada's biggest retailer, shoving the T. Eaton Company out of that spot and contributing to its demise. But in contrast to their counterparts in the United States, unions in Canada have had traces of success in organizing. For the giant American chain, Jonquière has become another barricade in its battle to keep unions out of its business.

"What we were left with was a store that was not going to be viable," Andrew Pelletier, director for corporate affairs at Wal-Mart Canada, said in an interview. "We felt the union wanted to fundamentally change the store's business model."

Unionizing efforts at Wal-Marts in North America have virtually never stuck. A store in Windsor, Ontario, was unionized in 1997, but workers dissolved the union three years later when it failed to deliver a contract. A vote in 2000 to unionize meat cutters in Jacksonville, Tex., was followed by Wal-Mart's turning to prepackaged meat, eliminating the need for meat cutters.

[On Tuesday, 74 percent of workers in Windsor voted against a new union, with both the organizers and Wal-Mart filing unfair labor practices complaints.]

Union leaders say Wal-Mart is using Jonquière as an example to whip workers into line at a second Wal-Mart store outside Montreal that successfully organized in January and in more than 20 other outlets in at least three provinces where organizing efforts have begun.

They also claim that the 17-to-1 vote against unionization at the Wal-Mart Tire and Lube Express in Loveland, Colo., in late February was a sign of the chill sweeping down from Jonquière for workers who fear that organizing a union could mean the loss of their jobs.

"What's at stake here," Michael J. Fraser, Canada national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said in an interview, "is whether or not Wal-Mart is going to be successful at attempting to prevent people from exercising their democratic right to form a union."

Workers at various Wal-Marts around Quebec say they are being pressured by both management and labor. They describe a workplace atmosphere poisoned by rumor-mongering, insults and damage to personal property.

Anti-union workers at the Ste. Foy store, which other workers are trying to organize, reported unwanted visits to their homes in the middle of the night by organizers during the unionization drive. Two pro-union cashiers at the Ste. Hyacinthe store outside Montreal reported that they recently had shortages in their registers, which they believe were the work of management trickery to get them into trouble.

"This store is basically hell right now," said Noella Langlois, 53, a saleswoman in the Jonquière store who opposes unionization. "You have two deeply divided clans."

Wal-Mart has been struggling to keep unions out of its Canadian stores since it bought more than 100 outlets from another retailer 11 years ago; it now has 256 Wal-Marts and 6 Sam's Club stores in Canada. A local of the United Food and Commercial Workers succeeded in gathering the signatures of a majority of Jonquière workers last summer.

But the battleground in Quebec, where Wal-Mart has 47 stores, is not particularly favorable to the chain because provincial labor law is tilted in favor of unions. Forty percent of the province's work force is unionized, a rate 25 percent higher than the rest of Canada and more than three times the rate in the United States.

Quebec's labor relations board recently ordered Wal-Mart Canada to stop "intimidating and harassing" cashiers at a store in Ste. Foy, a suburb of Quebec City, amid an organizing drive.

Since the union's success in Jonquière, it has successfully organized a Wal-Mart outlet in Ste. Hyacinthe and collective bargaining is about to begin there. But a union meeting in February was poorly attended because, some workers contend, employees are afraid of losing their jobs.

"The workers are nervous," said Veronique Falardeau, 23, a part-time cashier in the Ste. Hyacinthe store who says she wants a union to gain a more regular work schedule and benefits like insurance. "People are wondering if they closed Jonquière, they'll close our store, too."

Wal-Mart filed a court challenge to the certification process for union cards at the Ste. Hyacinthe store in February, claiming it is undemocratic and open to union pressure tactics.

Wal-Mart managers say a majority of their Canadian workers do not want unions, and they point to the fact that the 190 employees in Jonquière voted in a secret ballot in 2004 against the union. But under Quebec law, union organizers were able to unionize the store anyway by persuading a majority of employees to sign union cards.

Once recognized, the union entered collective bargaining at the Jonquière store and demanded work schedule changes that management said would have forced the hiring of at least 30 more workers and were financially impossible.

"After four collective bargaining meetings, it was clear we were not getting anywhere," said Mr. Pelletier, the Wal-Mart Canada senior manager. "The union is targeting us everywhere in virtually every part of the country. What it feels like and looks like is that they are transferring much of their effort from the United States to Canada."

Mr. Fraser of the United Food and Commercial Workers said he still hoped a government arbitrator could bring the two sides together, and keep the store open. He argued that union card-signing campaigns were more democratic than secret votes because "when there is a vote Wal-Mart uses intimidation tactics."

Intimidation appears to go both ways, according to workers at three Wal-Mart stores in Quebec.

Sylvie Lavoie, a 40-year-old single mother and part-time cashier in the Jonquière store who says she needs a union, accused store managers of taking workers aside before the secret vote and warning them that a union would mean the store would close.

Afterward the workers came to union organizers crying and pleading for promises that they would not lose their jobs.

"They intimidate and do what they want," Ms. Lavoie said.

But Steve Lemieux, a 20-year-old cart pusher in the Ste. Foy store, says it is the union that is the abuser. "People who are for the unions have trouble accepting other opinions and they keep knocking on our doors to get us to sign their cards," he said.

"We don't need a union since there is easy advancement if you work for it."