Adam Geller | Jonquiere, Quebec | October 17
AP – The signs topping sales racks wear the same yellow smiley face, but promise “Chute de Prix,” instead of price rollbacks. The boxes of Tide shelved in housewares come packed with a bonus CD inviting shoppers to experience “la passion du Hockey.”
Otherwise, the Wal-Mart store off highway 70 could be almost any one of the retail Goliath’s nearly 5,000 discount emporiums in the United States and eight other countries. And that’s what worries executives at the Arkansas headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The 165 hourly workers at this store 2 1/2 hours north of Quebec City could soon become the first anywhere to extract what the world’s largest private employer insists its 1.5 million “associates” around the world neither want nor need — a union contract. A government agency has certified the workers as a union and told the two sides to negotiate.
“One person against Wal-Mart cannot change anything,” said Gaetan Plourde, a 49-year-old sales clerk, explaining frustration over pay, scheduling and other practices. “Wal-Mart wants to be rich, but it won’t share.”
Wal-Mart responds that it does share its cost savings with consumers through lower prices and that it treats its workers fairly. The company has redefined retailing by squeezing its suppliers and keeping a tight lid on other costs, including labor, allowing it to undercut competing stores. That translated last fiscal year into profits of more than $9 billion on sales of $256.3 billion.
It would be easy to overlook events in northern Quebec as purely local. But they are not.
There has been angry name-calling by workers riven into pro-union and anti-union factions. There have been accusations of intimidation by managers and threats of a lawsuit by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
And on Wednesday, Andrew Pelletier, a spokesman at Wal-Mart Canada, said this: “If we are not able to reach a collective agreement that is reasonable and that allows the store to function efficiently and ultimately profitable, it is possible that the store will close.”
The struggle over the Jonquiere store is part of a larger chess game, waged by labor organizers in Wal-Mart stores scattered across Canada — including two others in Quebec, where union spokesman Michael Forman said employees have applied for union certification.
The public jockeying is also geared to capture the attention of workers in the United States.
Hourly wages are Wal-Mart’s biggest operating cost, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the bill to run its stores. Benefits are second. Those costs have been rising because of higher health care bills and the retailer’s entry into more expensive cities.
Wal-Mart says the average hourly wage of its U.S. workers is $9.96 an hour — just below the $10 an hour average pay for U.S. discount department store workers and short of the $10.87 an hour earned by the average supermarket employee. But pay and benefits are substantially better at some unionized food stores.
Wal-Mart defends its pay as competitive and says its chief concern with unions is that they would get in the way of doing business.
Even if a union gains entry, it will make only an incremental difference in Wal-Mart’s costs and profits, said Emme Kozloff, an analyst who tracks the retailer for Bernstein Research in New York. It’s the perception among employees and shareholders, as much as the bottom line impact, that concerns Wal-Mart, she said.
“I do think the union thing would be a symbolic blow externally and internally, but they’re probably gearing up to handle something like this,” she said. “For a retailer, the biggest component of your cost structure is labor and so you’re going to be darn sure you do everything in your power to make sure you avoid an increase.”
Wal-Mart does not disguise its distaste for unions. It has built such a high wall against organized labor that it’s not clear what would happen if a single brick was yanked loose.
Maybe, as has been the case often before, Wal-Mart’s bankroll, tenaciousness and skill at buying time will win out and the union effort here will fizzle. Or just maybe, something else happens — a prospect the union savors — something with an impact beyond Jonquiere.
“It’s a little bit like watching a hurricane form,” says Robert Hebdon, a professor of labor relations at McGill University in Montreal. “You don’t know whether it’s going to be just be a little bit of wind … or whether it’s going to be a storm.”
The whispered complaints began almost three years ago, months after Wal-Mart opened on the fringes of town. It was only two or three employees at first, grumbling mostly to themselves. Some, like Patrice Bergeron, were irritated about what they perceived as pay inequities — he was making $7.70 an hour (about $6.05 in U.S. dollars) stocking groceries, while a co-worker was earning $8.50. Others say they were angered that managers locked the doors on workers restocking shelves after the store closed, even though they were not being paid for the time. Soon, there was a small cadre of workers, including Pierre Martineau, a 60-year-old maintenance man.
Their clandestine discussions were almost out of character in a region where union membership has long been worn proudly. While union membership in the United States has declined to about 13 percent of the labor force, about a third of all Canadian workers are unionized.
Even so, the talk about a union did not win universal support in the new Wal-Mart, with some workers worried it might cost them their jobs, others rejecting the idea of paying union dues.
Soon word got back to managers. Exactly what happened next depends on who is providing the account.
Martineau said the situation grew tense after managers called his name on the intercom one morning soon before opening. He said he went into the employee’s assembly room, only to find himself surrounded by department managers demanding that he explain his organizing activities. The store’s manager referred all questions to a Wal-Mart spokesman who denied there has been any intimidation.
Noella Langlois, a worker who opposes unionization, said “the atmosphere in the store has totally changed. Instead of helping each other, it’s become ‘It’s not my responsibility. It’s not in the job description.’” She, like her co-workers, spoke in French through an interpreter.
A statement released Wednesday by Wal-Mart questioned the store’s viability given what it called a “fractured environment” there. Wal-Mart’s Pelletier said the store has never made money and that its finances have gotten worse recently. Asked whether the company was using intimidation tactics in hinting that the store could close, he said: “We think we are being realistic and honest.”
Forman, the UFCW spokesman, responded: “It’s not about profitability; it’s about power.”
Protocol says that each day, workers at Wal-Mart stores are supposed to join in a cheer: “Whose Wal-Mart is it? My Wal-Mart!” But just how employees should exercise their stake in Wal-Mart has long been a subject of virulent disagreement between the company and unions bent on recruiting its workers.
Christi Gallagher, a spokeswoman at the retailer’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., notes that Canadian laws and customs are different, but that the company’s thoughts on unions transcend borders.
“We just don’t feel like the union would add anything to our culture or improve our relationships with our associates.”
Union officials are no more generous when it comes to their appraisal of Wal-Mart. But if Wal-Mart’s employees are dissatisfied, unions have failed to tap that sentiment.
The closest a U.S. union has ever come to winning a battle with Wal-Mart was in 2000, at a store in Jacksonville, Texas. In that store, 11 workers — all members of the store’s meatpacking department — voted to join the UFCW, the retailer’s principal adversary in organized labor.
Wal-Mart took a stance that is now being repeated in Canada — arguing before labor officials that any union should represent all employees at the store. That argument was rejected. But Wal-Mart announced a change that it said had long been planned — eliminating meatcutters company-wide.
The case of the Texas meatcutters, who were offered other jobs by the company, remains alive before the National Labor Relations Board, but none of the employees who voted to unionize still work at the store and the union campaign there has stalled.
Unable to get in through Wal-Mart’s front door, union leaders have been trying the latches on the rear windows and think they’ve found an opening in Jonquiere and six other stores in three Canadian provinces.
“It’s the contract that’s the key,” Forman said, because once the retailer’s other workers see it, “what they’ll see in front of them is hard evidence that there are some Wal-Mart workers out there who are doing better than them.”
The faceoff in Canada provides a compelling case study in Wal-Mart’s creativity in keeping itself union-free.
Wal-Mart entered Canada in 1994 by buying 122 stores in the discount Woolco chain, and putting its name on them. In doing so, the retailer took a pass on 22 Woolco stores — including the only 10 whose workers were represented by a union. The company portrays it as a coincidence.
Two years later, the Canadian affiliate of the United Auto Workers tried to organize workers at a Wal-Mart in Windsor, Ontario, but that drive eventually fizzled. In Weyburn, Saskatchewan, the union collected enough membership cards to apply for government recognition, the effort now tied up in several court suits. In Thompson, Manitoba, the union has twice sought — and lost — a vote to represent workers.
Then there is Jonquiere, where the two sides have parried for the past year over how to proceed.
Despite managers’ discouragement, talk of a union continued in the store, slowly finding new converts. But pro-union workers say the balance shifted in their favor only after what at first seemed a failure. In April, after the union collected membership cards from more than 35 percent of the workers, the provincial labor board oversaw a vote on representation. The union lost by nine votes.
When the results were announced, about two dozen managers and employees who opposed the union began dancing and shouting the company cheer. Pro-union employees said co-workers who had been on the fence found the celebration boastful and unbecoming.
Enough minds were changed for the union to persaude more than half the workers to sign membership cards, enough for the provincial labor board to certify a union without a vote and instruct the two sides to negotiate a contract.
Wal-Mart objects that no vote was required.
“We believe that the only way to ensure that employees can express their views without coercion or intimidation is by allowing a secret ballot,” Pelletier said.
To the union, the events in Jonquiere are precisely the entry point it’s been searching for. “For the first time Wal-Mart will have to sit with us at the negotiation table,” says Louis Bolduc, who directs the union’s activities in Quebec province. “We’re not going to let them play with us.”