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Wal-Mart Leaves Bitter Chill

Quebec Store Closes After Vote to Unionize

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page E01

JONQUIERE, Quebec -- The baby buggies are all gone. In electronics, only "Le Gros Albert" and a few other leftover DVDs remain. A few pairs of pink boots are left in the shoe department. Over in household goods, red and yellow liquidation tags dangle beside thin skillets as Wal-Mart prepares to close.

The retailing behemoth, whose $10 billion annual profits are based on low prices, low expenses and its relentless pace of store openings, announced it will shut the doors here May 6 after workers voted to make this the first unionized Wal-Mart in North America.

Rejan Lavoie is among those who blame union efforts for the store's closing. The single father says he worries he won't find another job with workable hours. (Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

The closure will leave 190 bitter employees out of work, the town uneasy over the future of unions, and the mayor angry at the company. Supporters of organized labor also say it serves as a warning for workers at other Wal-Mart stores who might contemplate defying founder Sam Walton's sharp distaste for unions.

"It's like we are digging our own grave," said store employee Nathalie Dubois, 38, a single mother with no other job to go to, as she helped pack up the store.

The world's largest retail chain has fiercely and successfully resisted unionization attempts at its 3,600 stores in the United States. Its closest call ended in Texas in 2000 when the store eliminated its meat department after 11 meat cutters voted to join a union. United Food and Commercial Workers is mounting a fresh campaign to organize Wal-Mart workers in the United States, a push it says has been given impetus by recent legal action and a former company vice president's contention that he surreptitiously organized anti-union activities.

In Canada, the battle has been pitched, pitting the country's still-healthy union movement against what is now its largest retailer. While union membership in the United States dropped to 12.5 percent of workers in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it was 28.6 percent in Canada. Since entering the country 11 years ago by buying the failing Woolco chain, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. now takes 52 percent of the retail market share in Canada, and is opening around 30 stores a year. It earns three times as much revenue per square foot of store space as Zellers Inc., its nearest competitor.

Quebec, where nearly 40 percent of the workforce carries a union card, has been a focal point. Jonquiere was the first store to be unionized. One other, in Saint Hyacinthe, east of Montreal, has followed. The company says it is bargaining "in good faith" toward a contract at that store but expects the negotiations to "go on for some time."

On April 1, in Brossard, in southern Montreal, employees voted against joining a union.

"They got the message from Jonquiere. People were afraid if they voted for the union the store will be closed," said Louis Bolduc, an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Quebec.

The company reads it differently.

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