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The Jehoshua Novels

Wal-Mart Finds Union at Its Back Door

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.”

7 comments to Wal-Mart Finds Union at Its Back Door

  • Anonymous

    Downtown Montreal. They closed it because “it was not profitable” . My ass. It was in the godamn downtown.

    Same thing for Jonquière, if the wal-mart do not make money there, then they don’t make money anywhere. Jonquière is an isolated city in the north of quebec. it is surrounded by void, so the shopping options wall-mart or going in ten different small store to get what you want.

  • Anonymous

    Who get statue like that. No it is not stalin , its the Bust of Jean Lapierre , retired union leader for  Mtl blue collars ;)

  • Anonymous

    Wal-Mart’s union ban draws heat

    Olivia Chung

    October 21, 2004

    Wal-Mart, Kodak and other major American corporations are coming under fire in China for ignoring the mainland’s labour laws by forbidding their employees to set up trade unions.

    According to China’s official legal newspaper, Legal Daily.

    “Other companies which have been [preventing workers from organising trade unions] include Dell Computer (China) and the eight subsidaries of Samsung and American fast-food chains McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken … they have not established trade unions for many years.”

    The newspaper said that as the number of foreign-invested and privately-owned companies had risen, the establishment of trade unions on the mainland had faced increasing resistance.

    At the end of last year, 734,000 non-state-owned enterprises in China employed more than 24.87 million people.

    Wal-Mart, the US-based retail giant, which is universally described as anti-labour union in the United States, will not allow its more than 19,000 employees in 18 mainland cities to set up a trade union, the newspaper said.

    Although officials of the China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the only trade union that is legally allowed in China, have raised the issue with Wal-mar since 2001t, the Wal-mart companies in different cities are not co-operative, the report said. According to mainland labour law, foreign or domestic companies must allow employees to establish trade unions and bear all the operational costs.

    The ACFTU comes under the aegis of the Communist Party. Anyone wishing to establish a union has to do it under the ACFTU, giving the Chinese government sway over trade unions in privately owned companies and a way of reducing labour unrest.

    Copyright 2004, The Standard, Sing Tao Newspaper Group and Global China Group. All rights reserved. No content may be redistributed or republished, either eletronically or in print, without express written consent of The Standard.

  • Anonymous

    if you ask the Chinese to pay attention to their own trade unions, you get a different answer.

  • Anonymous

    Updated: 2004-11-23 21:52

    Under pressure from the Chinese labor federation, the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said Tuesday it would permit branches union in its Chinese stores if employees requested it.

    “Should associates request formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect their wishes and honor its obligation under China’s Trade Union Law,” said the Bentonville, Ark.-based company in a statement faxed to news media.

    “Currently, there are no unions in Wal-Mart China because associates have not requested that one be formed,” the statement said.

    The 123 million-member All China Federation of Trade Unions last month threatened to sue Wal-Mart and other companies based outside China if they don’t set up union branches in their China operations.

    The federation did not immediately respond to telephone or faxed requests for comment.

    The unionization drive was the latest attempt by the union ¡ª the sole body permitted to organize workers in China ¡ª to penetrate the most dynamic sector of the economy, shore up its declining membership, and boost its lowly political status.

    Wal-Mart, which operates 39 stores in China employing 20,000 people, didn’t say what specifically prompted its announcement. But it did note recent media coverage about the company’s relationship with the union and said the statement was intended to “clarify that relationship.”

    “Wal-Mart is currently in full compliance with China’s Trade Union Law, which states that establishing a union is a voluntary action of the associates,” the statement said.

    Wal-Mart has no unionized stores, although workers at a Wal-Mart in Canada recently had their union accredited by the local labor board. Wal-Mart was expected to fight that ruling.

    The retailer has more than 4,300 outlets in nine countries employing more than 1.3 million people.

    It sourced $15 billion worth of products in China last year.

  • Anonymous

    Des trucs pour prévenir la syndicalisation chez Wal-Mart
    trick to prevent union at Wal-mart

    Un document confidentiel qui semble issu de la direction de Wal-Mart, aux États-Unis, et qui est réservé au personnel de gérance des magasins, contient des trucs pour prévenir la syndicalisation.

    A confidential document wich seems to come for the direction of wal mart, in US, and reserved to the managing staff of the stores, contain trick to prevent unionization.

    À l’intérieur du document écrit en anglais et français, et consulté par TVA, Wal-Mart s’adresse d’abord aux membres de ses équipes de gestion en leur disant qu’ils sont sa première ligne de défense contre la syndicalisation.

    Inside the docs written in english and french, and consulted by TVA, Wal-mart talk first at the member of their management team saying they are the first line of defense against unionization.

    La trousse suggère aux gérants de sonder le moral des employés pour déceler la présence syndicale. Elle identifie les raisons pour lesquelles les employés se tournent vers les syndicats : une gérance rigide, des jurons et plaisanteries, des horaires de travail 24 heures sur 24, un manque de respect de l’individu, du personnel insuffisant et même des toilettes sales.

    The kit suggest to managers to probe the moral of the employees to detect the union presence. They identify the reasons why he workers turn to union : a rigid management, insult and jokes, 24 / 24 working shift, lack of respect, insufficient staff and even dirty toilets

    La compagnie ajoute croire que les syndicats encouragent les clients à boycotter les magasins. Elle affirme aussi que lorsqu’une campagne de syndicalisation est en cours, il faut intervenir rapidement pour mettre fin à toute activité.

    The company add that unions bring the customers to boycott the store. they also affirm that when a  unionization campain is in progress, they must act  fast to stop all activities.

    Le porte-parole de Wal-Mart au Québec, Roch Landriault, affirme que la compagnie réagira aujourd’hui.

    The spokesman of Wal mart in Quebec, Roch Landriault affirm that the company will react today.


    Réaction de Wal-Mart

    Le manuel antisyndical ne s’adresse pas aux gérants québécois

    The manual was not intended to Quebec stores

    Wal-Mart réagit à la trousse antisyndicale révélée par nos collègues de TVA à Saguenay.

    Wal mart react tothe anti-union kit found by our colleagues from TVa in Saguenay.

    Le géant du commerce au détail reconnaît l’authenticité du document, à savoir une trousse antisyndicale remise aux gestionnaires de magasin aux États-Unis, pour éviter la syndicalisation.

    the giant of commerce acknowledge that the kit is genuine

    La multinationale ajoute toutefois que ce document n’a pas été conçu pour circuler au Québec, ni ailleurs au Canada. Elle accuse le syndicat des TUAC d’en avoir commandé la traduction afin d’en savoir plus sur la position antisyndicale de la compagnie.

    The multinational add that however the document was not targeted to uebec and accuse the TUAC union of ordering a translation to know more on the anti-union stance of the company.

    More here:

  • Anonymous


    Court tells Wal-Mart to obey the law and hand over evidence

    Date: Tuesday November 23rd, 2004

    SASKATOON, SK – The Saskatchewan Appeal Court has struck down a lower court decision and ruled the Saskatchewan Relations Labour Board (SLRB) was within its rights when it ordered Wal-Mart to deliver evidence that outlines the company’s anti-union strategies. The order by the SLRB was originally issued to Wal-Mart in June 2004 during hearings by the board on an application by the UFCW Canada union to represent employees at a Wal-Mart store in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

    “The appeal court has ruled unequivocally that Wal-Mart is not above the law,” said Michael Fraser, national director of UFCW Canada. “When the SLRB asked the union to turn over our own organizing materials we complied immediately. What does Wal-Mart have to hide?”

    In May 2004, UFCW Canada Local 1400 applied to the SLRB for certification after a majority of the Weyburn employees had signed union membership cards. During the initial hearings the board ordered Wal-Mart to deliver internal anti-union strategy materials for the SLRB to determine if the company had breached Saskatchewan labour laws during the campaign.

    Wal-Mart refused to comply and in July successfully appealed to a judge of the Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench to set aside the SLRB order.

    Today’s ruling (see for the written ruling) overturned July’s decision. The Weyburn certification hearings, which were suspended pending the appeal, can now proceed. If Wal-Mart declines to deliver the material as ordered by the SLRB in June, the company could be charged with contempt.

    “Wal-Mart’s stalling has already shown contempt for the Weyburn workers and the SLRB,” said Fraser. “Wal-Mart workers have the right to join a union. Let the board determine if that’s what the Weyburn workers want and whether Wal-Mart broke the law during this organizing campaign, just like they did in Quesnel, British Columbia and at the Brossard store near Montreal. As Québec’s Premier Charest stated recently, Wal-Mart has to play by the same rules as everyone else and obey the laws of the land.”

    Workers at a Wal-Mart in Jonquière, Québec were certified in August as members of UFCW Canada and are currently the only unionized Wal-Mart labour force in North America. Contract negotiations have now commenced there. UFCW Canada has also applied for certification at other Saskatchewan Wal-Mart stores in North Battleford and Moose Jaw; at Wal-Mart stores in Saint-Hyacinthe and Brossard, Québec; in Terrace, BC; and at seven Wal-Mart Tire & Lube Express departments at Wal-Mart stores in Surrey, Terrace, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Quesnel, Kamloops, and Langford, British Columbia.

    UFCW Canada Local 1400 president Paul Meinema will be holding a press conference at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 24th to discuss today’s ruling.

    The briefing will be held at the UFCW Canada Local 1400 offices, 1526 Fletcher Road, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7M 5M1, telephone 306-384-5787.

    For more information contact:

    Michael Forman, UFCW Canada Communications

    (416) 579-8330

    Back to news

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