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October 13, 2010

Union victory at Wal-Mart in Hull, Quebec

Reuel S. Amdur

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Now there are two. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has landed a first contract for workers at the Wal-Mart at their store in the Hull, Quebec, Plateau location. There are now two unionized Wal-Mart stores in Quebec, the other being in St.-Hyacinthe. They also happen to be the only two in North America. There is a reason.

In Quebec, if the parties cannot agree on a first contract, the government appoints an arbitrator who imposes one.  That step thwarts Wal-Mart’s anti-union tactics, at least to a certain extent. 

Wal-Mart has a handbook for store managers entitled “You and Your Labor Relations” which instructs managers on the need to remain “union-free” and describing the kinds of employees to watch for signs of pro-union activism. 

As founder Sam Walton put it, “I have always believed that we don’t need unions at Wal-Mart.”

The company fights organizing efforts at every step of the way, challenging who should be in the bargaining unit, appealing all adverse labor board decisions in court, and appealing court decisions up the line.

In dragging the organizing effort out as long as possible, the effort costs the union sizeable sums in court costs, while Wal-Mart has deep pockets. 

In some cases, when their efforts fail, they simply close the store. 

That is what they did in Jonquière, Quebec, and that is what they did in the automobile service center at the Maloney Boulevard store in Gatineau, Quebec. 

In the United States, when ten butchers in a store in Jacksonville, Texas, signed up with the union, Wal-Mart simply switched to packaged meats–throughout the country! 

That will teach those butchers.

In Windsor, Ontario, the Ministry of Labor recognized the union without a vote because management had engaged in illegal anti-union practices. 

However, the union failed to win a first contract and the union collapsed. 

Wal-Mart’s labor strategy is to drag things out as long as possible.  The Hull case took nearly five years. 

With an employee turnover rate of close to 30% a year, many who sign up are long gone by the time the matter is finally settled, and the new hires may not have the same commitment as the original signers.

Regarding the automotive center in Gatineau, the 2008 arbitration’s award was $11.54 an hour. 

Wal-Mart found that award too high and closed the operation.  If they stopped pouring millions upon millions on lawyers’ fees and court costs to keep unions out, they might be able to pay a handful of employees $11.54 an hour. 

But just how hard-pressed are the owners?

The major shareholders, the Waltons, are worth some $80 billion.  Wal-Mart grosses over $400 billion a year. 

As the web financial blob Morning Star put it, “Unmatched scale relative to most vendors leads to favorable terms on everything from products on its shelves to store leases and distribution agreements.  These competitive advantages generate positive economic returns and a wide economic moat, a rarity in retail.”  They can’t afford to pay $11.54 an hour?

It is because of the difference in labor laws between Ontario and Quebec that the organizing drive in Hull was successful while that in Windsor failed. 

It is that first contract arbitration that makes the difference. 

But will the Hull local survive?  It is an open question. 

The long drawn-out process has left the Hull Plateau location with a different crew.  When Le Droit interviewed a few, they were not particularly enthusiastic about the union. 

So Wal-Mart may still end up successful in again making the Plateau location “union-free”. 

At some point, someone in Wal-Mart’s executive suite should take a look at its union policy.  Not only is it costing them millions on lawyers’ fees and court costs.

It is also resulting in expensive store closings.  The resulting publicity is not doing them any good either.  Yes, they are the biggest, but with more intelligent labor relations they could be even more successful.

By the way, if you are looking for low prices, you won’t necessarily find them at Wal-Mart. 

A couple years ago, I accompanied a client of mine who was on welfare in Ottawa to spend a Wal-Mart voucher for start-up supplies for a new residence.  He was looking for basic but adequate kitchen supplies, but Wal-Mart did not have that kind of low-cost stock.  He would have done better if the voucher had been for Zellers.

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