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Wal-Mart Leaves Bitter Chill

Those who did not want a union say organizers harassed them to join. "People signed the cards just to get some peace" from the union organizers, said Noella Langlois, 53, who works in the clothing department. "They thought they would vote against it in a secret vote."

In fact, there was a vote last April that rejected the union. But under Quebec labor laws, the organizers could try again. When they collected signed union cards from 51 percent of the employees, the law declared the Jonquiere Wal-Mart a union shop.

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)

Pelletier, the Wal-Mart spokesman, says the Quebec laws are unfair, and only a secret ballot would show the true feelings of the workers.

"Signing a union card, when there's someone on your doorstep at night saying, 'Sign this card,' should not be the last word," he said. "A democratic, secret vote is the only way to avoid intimidation by either the union or an employer."

But it became moot in February, when Wal-Mart announced it would close the store. Company officials said it was losing money, and the demands of the union would have made it even less tenable.

"You can't take a store that is a struggling store anyway and add a bunch of people and a bunch of work rules," Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. told The Washington Post after the announcement.

Some here in Jonquiere don't believe the company's claim that the store was losing money. They say the chain sacrificed the store to make a point to its employees across Canada and the United States, where union organizers are involved in dozens of organizing drives and court battles.

"They closed it to be a threat to other unions," said Tremblay, the mayor. "We know that for Wal-Mart, Jonquiere is nothing. They wanted to close it to make a lesson to other Wal-Marts."

The move sharpened apprehensions in the community over the loss of high-paying union jobs to lower-paying retail jobs. Mayor Tremblay said new, smaller manufacturing and retail concerns will provide new work. But he acknowledged that they are not likely to be at the union wages of $21 to $35 an hour found in the paper and aluminum plants.

"A reasonable union is good. Workers have to live. They have rights," the mayor said. "But maybe our wages were too high."

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