Canada's Pro-Union Ruling Fires Up Wal-Mart Labor Dispute

By Roch Hammond | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - The decision by a Canadian labor board to grant Wal-Mart employees in Jonquiere, Quebec, the right to unionize even after the workers themselves rejected the idea, has spurred another debate in the U.S. over the giant retailer's employment policies.

Greg Denier, communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said, "Any company the size and scale of Wal-Mart needs an organized voice to be heard."

The Quebec Labour Relations Board (QLRC) agreed this week when it granted Wal-Mart workers in Jonquiere certification with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).

This might be expected to produce the first unionized Wal-Mart in North America, if the employees had not already made up their minds earlier this year.

"It's important to note that this automatic certification comes just four months after the employees voted against this union in a democratic, secret-ballot vote," Andrew Pelletier, spokesman for Wal-Mart Canada, said.

Under Quebec law, unions can be certified without an affirmative vote from the pertinent workers, if they file enough union cards to claim they "represent a majority" of workers.

"To date, anytime the employees have been given the opportunity to vote on the issue, they have always voted against the union," Pelletier said.

In Thompson, Manitoba, Wal-Mart workers also rejected union representation, according to Pelletier.

Twice in the past three years, Wal-Mart has been ranked the best retailer to work for in Canada. In the survey conducted by Hewitt Associates, it also rated second in offering the "best career opportunities," third in allowing its employees "work-life balance" and fifth in terms of "best managers."

Ryerson University, based in Toronto, Ontario, also found in a study two years ago that the retail giant's presence in communities helps the small businesses in the area grow faster.

Christie Gallager, spokeswoman for United States Wal-Mart, added that "many retailers welcome having Wal-Mart in the area because of the increased customer traffic that we generate."

But Denier alleges that Wal-Mart is really just dedicated to stopping workers from unionizing. "In the United States, Wal-Mart depends on their ability to coerce, intimidate, threaten and fire people in order to stop workers from having a voice," he asserted.

He also decried the "Wal-Martization" of the world.

Wal-Mart is, according to Denier, "systematically lowering living standards for workers around the world, stepping on the rights of other businesses and bulldozing whole communities."

Denier also referred to the World War II era in explaining why he thought a corporation would be opposed to its employees forming a union. "I think you would have to be a Nazi" to believe workers don't have the right to organize, he said.

Dan Swinney, executive director of the Center for Labor and Community Research, accused Wal-Mart of being the "poster child" for "low road" business practices.

Wal-Mart uses "predatory, destructive business practices in the pursuit of securing high returns in a very short period of time," Swinney alleged.

He also disagreed with the study conducted by Ryerson University. "Typically communities are worse off after a few years than they were before Wal-Mart came in," he said.

Swinney stated that a "very high percentage" of workers qualify for food stamps and that many have to turn to "public health agencies" such as Medicaid for their health care coverage.

"Wal-Mart has a well-documented history ... both domestically and internationally of really driving down and destroying communities," said Swinney, who wants all Wal-Mart stores unionized.

Gallager said Wal-Mart employees in the U.S. have rejected unions "time and time again" because they "value the relationship" they have with management.

Gallager said the unions are trying to advance "misinformation."

The average Wal-Mart associate makes $9.96 an hour, three-fourths of the jobs are full-time -- more than most union stores -- and the company contributes 4 percent of an associate's wages to "profit-sharing and 401(k) accounts" every year, regardless of whether the associate makes his or her own contribution.

Gallager added that Wal-Mart offers medical coverage to 100 percent of its associates, even if they only work part-time and said it is the "exact same medical plan our CEO is on." That coverage, she said, is extended to family members if the associate is a full-time worker.

The fact that Wal-Mart is America's and the world's top retailer makes it a huge target for criticism by special interest groups, Gallagher said, "And they will say things to confuse [and] concern our associates."

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