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Taking on the Wal-Mart giant Unions are fighting an uphill battle in trying to organize the store's employees

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear an appeal from Quebecers whose jobs vanished nearly four years ago - just before they were to become the first workers in North America to sign a collective agreement with Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.

U.S.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has never pretended to be anything other than fiercely anti-union, has said it closed its store in Jonquière in 2005 because of falling profitability.

But the timing of its decision - right before an arbitrator was to impose a collective agreement covering 190 recently unionized workers - was seen as more than coincidental by employees.

When the Supreme Court rules later this year, its decision should clarify issues around whether an employer can close shop in response to a union drive and what, if any, mitigating circumstances can come into play.

United Food and Commercial Workers spokesperson Louis Bolduc told Canadian Press, "We don't think the Supreme Court will order the store to reopen but we think the Supreme Court will confirm that the closure, be it partial or total when a (labour) group organizes, must be viewed as a reprisal and should not be allowed."

Despite the immediate outcome of the highly publicized battle in Jonquière - the store closed and everyone lost their job - it isn't the only Quebec town where Wal-Mart workers have tried to unionize.

In Gatineau, there have been two union drives, one of which met the same fate as in Jonquière. In the first instance, Wal-Mart closed down a tire-and-lubrication shop that had won certification in 2005. The tire shop briefly enjoyed a moment in the spotlight as the one Wal-Mart outlet in North America to operate with a union contract. Wal-Mart said the terms of the contract made the tire operation unprofitable.

In the second Gatineau case, in December about 150 workers at another Wal-Mart store won the right to bargain. Wal-Mart has appealed, asking Superior Court to order a secret ballot by current employees of the store. According to published reports, Wal-Mart contends that with only 63 employees still at the store out of the original 194 who signed union cards in 2005, the situation has changed.

How employees decide to vote for or against certification matters, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Card-signing campaigns generally lead to a higher rate of unionization, since union organizers can lobby workers off-site without a company knowing that a unionization drive is going on.

In data cited in the Wall Street Journal, about 300,000 U.S. workers joined a union in 2007 through signing cards, compared to 60,000 who joined after a secret ballot. Only 7.5 per cent of American private-sector workers are unionized.

A proposed U.S. law - the Employee Free Choice Act - would give unions the right to choose which method to use. Experts quoted in the Wall Street Journal said they doubted the legislation would lead to big increases either in unionized workers or in their wage packages.

Although higher rates of unionization have been accused of causing a host of ills, including employee unwillingness to upgrade skills and excessive bureaucracy, in 2003 the World Bank came out in favour of labour unions, saying they are good for the economy.

The famously conservative institution said that based on more than 1,000 studies of the effects of collective bargaining on economic performance, it found that a high rate of unionization led to a "more stable and productive economy." High unionization rates were associated with less inequality among workers and greater productivity.

Quebec's rate of unionization in 2007 was 39.7 per cent. From Wal-Mart's perspective, it might seem that Quebec is a hotbed of union activity, and that a lot of that energy is directed against it. But Wal-Mart's problems are not confined to this province.

As recently as 2007, Wal-Mart faced dozens of lawsuits across the U.S., in which employees alleged gender discrimination, child labour law violations, unpaid wages, compulsory work without compensation and the refusal to allow lunch and rest breaks. Shortly before Christmas, the New York Times reported, Wal-Mart agreed to pay between $352 million and $640 million to settle 63 of the lawsuits relating to wage violations.

If Quebec workers are helping put an end to that kind of unfair practice, good for us.


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