I’ve never been to Little Rock, but I’ll bet the weather’s nicer than here in the snow bowl. Besides being home to the Clintons, Arkansas is also the birthplace of our friend, Wal-Mart. Therefore, they are interested there in Wal-Mart’s activities around the world. I was contacted last week by Steve Painter, a reported for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who was interested in Wal-Mart’s labour law problems in Canada. The paper still charges to read on-line articles (!), so I can’t link to it, But I have cut and pasted the article, which appeared in this weekends’ edition below:
Canada justices to hear union vs. Wal-Mart: Retailer shut Quebec store after employees organized
BY STEVE PAINTER ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Labor union leaders in Canada and elsewhere are closely watching a case
involving Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to be taken up by Canada’s highest court this
month. The Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 21 on
whether Wal-Mart violated Canadian law when it closed a store in Jonquiere,
Quebec, in April 2005 rather than go to arbitration with a union representing the store’s 190 workers.
Nine groups of Wal-Mart Canada Corp. workers have been organized by the
United Food and Commercial Workers Canada over the past several years, but
none has yet obtained a contract. Wal-Mart also closed a union-represented Tire and Lube Express shop at its Gatineau, Quebec, store in October when an arbitrator was about to
impose a contract as allowed under Canadian law when negotiating efforts
In Wal-Mart’s North America operations, only bakery and restaurant
employees in Mexico are represented by a union, spokesman Kevin Gardner
said. Those workers belong to Mexico’s largest union, a relationship
established by Cifra, the company in which Wal-Mart bought a majority
interest in 1997 as it expanded in Mexico, he said.
Quebec is the main battleground between the Food an Commercial Workers
union and Wal-Mart in Canada because the province’s laws are most favorable
to unions, said David Doorey, a professor of labor law at Toronto’s York
University. “Wal-Mart has been the target by the UFCW and the United Steel Workers
as well,” he said. Although Canada has a national labor law, he said, each province adopts
its own laws governing union representation.
Wal-Mart has been expanding its operations in Canada, replacing its
general-merchandise discount stores with Supercenters that stock groceries,
much as it has in the United States. The Food and Commercial Workers union has contracts with Loblaw Companies Limited, Canada’s largest grocer, and some other large
supermarkets, but most Canadian retail workers are not union members, Doorey
Wal-Mart Canada spokesman Kevin Groh said the company would not comment
on pending court cases. “As far as our expansion plan, we don’t anticipate it would have any
bearing,” he said. The company is pursuing 25 to 30 projects a year in Canada, which
include new and relocated stores. “Supercenters are our growth vehicle going
forward,” Groh said.
As of Nov. 30, Wal-Mart Canada had 263 discount stores, 41 Supercenters and
six Sam’s Club stores, collectively employing about 77,500 people, according
to the company’s Web site.
Under Canadian law, Doorey said, companies cannot retaliate against
workers for joining or seeking to join a union. However, he said another law
in Quebec allows a business to close to avoid a collective bargaining
The most recent stores to be organized by the union, in December, were
in Hull, Quebec, and Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And in October, the Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board said Wal-Mart’s closing of the Jonquiere store could be viewed as an act of intimidation against Saskatchewan workers, rejecting Wal-Mart’s claim that the board had
no jurisdiction over an action that occurred in another province.
Derek Johnstone, a spokesman for the union in Toronto, said negotiations
with retailers are always adversarial, but Wal-Mart’s status as the world’s
largest “makes them an exceptional kind of case.” Currently, he said, Wal-Mart has only about 6 percent of the fresh food market in Canada, but added, “two years ago, they were a nonplayer.”
“We’re hoping they will bargain in good faith, but their actions make
that questionable,” he said. “Wal-Mart has made it perfectly clear that it’s
more interested in keeping its prices down than it is in treating workers
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of
Santa Barbara in California who has studied Wal-Mart extensively, said the
company is unlikely to abandon its expansion plans in Canada or change its
approach as a result of union activity. “Even if they lose this case, while it would be a shot in the arm to unions in Canada and would encourage union efforts, I don’t think Wal-Mart
will rethink its general strategy on unions,” he said.
A court decision against Wal-Mart, Lichtenstein said, would have to be
so far-reaching that it would cover all the company’s stores there before it
likely would make any difference. “I do not think they’ll walk away from Canada,” he said.
The case before the Supreme Court of Canada is No. 32342,
Gaetan Plourde v. Wal-Mart Canada Corporation.
Actually, I wasn’t so equivocal in my description of the Quebec law. I said the issue in the Supreme Court case is whether an employer can close a store to avoid a union and a collective agreement. I have described the pending Supreme Court case in an earlier post. The Supreme Court cases are scheduled for argument on January 21st. We will review the decision of course as soon as it is released.