CANADA: Closure of First Unionized Wal-Mart Sends Signal
TORONTO - Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, may be violating
international and Canadian laws by using covert strategies to undermine
a unionising drive at its Canadian stores, say labour experts and union
"The refusal to
recognise and deal with representatives fairly chosen by employees, the
whole notion of compelling unions to go through a whole certification
procedure before having to deal with them, is actually contrary to
international human rights law," Roy Adams, a labour studies professor
at Hamilton's McMaster University, told IPS.
Adams was referring to the 1998 International Labour
Organisation's Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, of which
Canada is a signatory. Its provisions include the freedom of
association and the right to collective bargaining.
The company's activities are "also fairly likely contrary to the Canadian constitutional law," he said.
In February, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing its store
in the small Quebec town of Jonquiere, just six months after the United
Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union of Canada had won the legal
right to represent its 190 employees.
At the time, a spokesperson for the Bentonville,
Arkansas-based retailer blamed the "precarious" condition of a
But UFCW Canada spokesman Michael Forman says there was never
any indication from Wal-Mart in its own direct communications with the
employees in Jonquiere that their store was unprofitable. The store
will be shutting its doors permanently on May 6.
Wal-Mart's announcement, Forman told IPS, was an effort "to
instill fundamental fear in every Wal-Mart employee that if they try to
mix with the union, this is what is going to happen."
"Wages are not the singular issue here," he added. "More
often, it is the quality of management when people feel like they are
being exploited, when people feel like they are being humiliated."
He says that Wal-Mart's "open-door" policy to hear employee
concerns -- the alternative to having a union -- can result in the
harassment of workers who complain.
In March, UFCW filed a complaint against Wal-Mart with the
Ontario Labour Relations Board, following allegations that the former
long-time vice chairman of the company had condoned a slush fund to
finance anti-union activities.
Canada's relatively liberal labour laws have made it fertile
ground for union organising at Wal-Mart. Recently, the UFCW
successfully applied for union certification in several Wal-Mart stores
in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
In Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, union certification can
still be achieved without a formal vote through the signing of union
membership cards by a majority of employees.
These provinces recognise that "employees are essentially
captive in the workplace and because the employer has ample opportunity
to suddenly and blatantly intimidate its employees, there is no such
thing as a free vote in a workplace," Forman said.
Internal documents that Wal-Mart is being subpoenaed to
produce by the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board during hearings into
a union certification request by the employees of a Wal-Mart store in
the town of Weyburn will demonstrate that the retail giant has a
sophisticated anti-union training process for its managers, says the
These documents may be pertinent in determining if Wal-Mart
breeched Saskatchewan's labour laws during the union organising
Forman is anticipating that the release of the anti-union
training material will confirm earlier reports on the extent to which
Wal-Mart tries to curtail union sentiment in its stores.
"Although not written in stone," he says the company
discourages after-work collegial activity on the Wal-Mart premises,
such as a company bowling competition.
Wal-Mart managers also have a "psychographics" system where
"the managers on a regular basis meet and try to determine the
vulnerability of the store and the morale of (both) of the store and on
an individual basis," Forman said.
But Andrew Pelletier, the head of corporate affairs for
Wal-Mart Canada, says that "A Manager's Toolbox to Remaining Union
Free" is an internal document for U.S. operations "that we have never
used in Canada."
"The union is well aware that in Canada we have different
laws, we have a different human resources policy, and that document has
absolutely no relevance or use to us in Canada," said Pelletier.
Although the company owns 3,600 stories in the United States,
not a single one is unionised. The closest any ever came was in Texas
in 2000, when the store eliminated its meat department after 11 meat
cutters voted to join a union.
Roy Adams does not see much difference in how the Canadian or
U.S. divisions of Wal-Mart function when they are faced with potential
"Wal-Mart has built up an expertise, like a labour relations
team, whose entire job is to delay certification, during which time the
experts can come in and basically engage in what some people call
psychological terror with employees," he said.
"They will use every trick they can -- to show employees films
of picket line violence, tell them stories of every nasty thing that
any union did."
In the "Tool Box," unions are defined as "businesses," adds
Adams, "which are coming to get your dues and it doesn't care about
you, it wants to improve its own situation."
Recent reports in the U.S. media that a former high-ranking
Wal-Mart executive may have attempted to bribe UFCW staff to provide
the names of union supporters in Wal-Mart stores have further worsened
the retail giant's battered public image, says Liza Featherstone, the
author of "Selling Women Short: the Landmark Battle for Women's Rights
Featherstone predicts that Wal-Mart may decide to settle a
gender discrimination class action suit that potentially involves about
1.6 million U.S. women.
"That's where the unions have been most successful, so far --
bringing to light some of the scandals surrounding the way that
Wal-Mart treats employees," she said.
- 184 Labor