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Wal-Mart Leaves Bitter Chill

Andrew Pelletier, head of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada Corp., said that while the union may have succeeded in organizing a store in Jonquiere, Wal-Mart workers have on five other occasions voted against unionization.

"I think that says we are a good employer," Pelletier said.

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)

Jonquiere, 120 miles north of Quebec City, is a French-speaking mill town of 60,000. Its bland neighborhoods of square clapboard homes attest to its origins a century ago as a center for the pulp and paper industry. Its boosters look past the billowing clouds from the paper mills that still operate, and the large Alcan Inc. aluminum plants that followed before World War II, to laud the beauty of the scenic -- if polluted -- Saguenay River. The homes are interspersed with retail stores in a sprawl that now melds Jonquiere with six nearby towns.

The Wal-Mart here is one of three in the area, and it was welcomed when it opened more than three years ago. The town's manufacturing legs are getting old: Both Alcan and Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. paper mills closed lines in their plants last year, costing 1,200 jobs.

"Economically, it's not a good time for us," said the mayor of the Saguenay area, Jean Tremblay. The new Wal-Mart was swamped with applications, and those who were hired thought themselves lucky.

"I never had a job as good as this before," said Lynn Morissette, 44, who tracks inventory in the store. "I worked in the daytime. I thought I had a good wage, and I was a shareholder, too, so I could save up some money. I was going to retire here."

But others were not so thrilled about Wal-Mart's pay -- starting at about $6.20 (U.S.) an hour -- its floating shifts for part-timers, or the rules that limited some full-time employees to 28 hours of work a week. In an area built on union jobs, with higher wage scales, it wasn't long before some employees tried to organize.

The starting wages are comparable to those paid to new employees by U.S. retailers. The other two stores around Jonquiere are not unionized.

Those involved in the organizing effort claim they were harassed by the company. "We were targeted fairly quickly by Wal-Mart," said Pierre Martineau, a 60-year-old maintenance man who helped organize the union. He said he was humiliated and ridiculed by managers at a storewide meeting and followed around by supervisors who made implied threats.

"I felt treated worse than an animal," he said.

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