Quebec Wal-Mart Workers Unionize

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

A small group of employees at a Wal-Mart store in Canada secured yesterday the only union contract with the company in North America, a victory for labor groups that have campaigned for years to organize the world's largest retailer.

The three-year contract covers eight workers in the tire and lube department of a Wal-Mart in Gatineau, Quebec, and increases starting wages from $8.40 to $10.89 an hour. The contract was imposed by the Quebec Labor Relations Board after negotiations between the company and employees fell apart. In its decision, the board called the contract "reasonable, realistic and equitable."

"I think the employees at that particular location should be congratulated," said Michael Forman, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, which organized the employees. "I think no doubt what's happening at Gatineau will be encouraging."

Wal-Mart spokesman Andrew Pelletier said yesterday that the company was still reviewing the contract and its implications for employees.

"Our priority is to continue to run an efficient operation to ensure that we can fulfill our commitment to provide customers the everyday low prices they expect from Wal-Mart," he said.

The contract is a significant step in the ongoing battle between Wal-Mart and labor groups, which say that the retailer pays low wages and is stingy with health benefits. Earlier this week, the AFL-CIO and other unions filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over reports in the Wall Street Journal that Wal-Mart managers were discouraging workers from organizing and advocating against electing Democrats, who they say are likely to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

That proposal would allow unions to organize through signature drives or by signing authorization cards, similar to Canadian labor laws, Forman said. Companies can request that workers vote by secret ballot. The UFCW and the Service Employees International Union have tried for years to organize Wal-Mart employees and have met staunch resistance from the company.

In 2000, 11 meat cutters at a Texas store won union recognition, the first in the United States. Soon after, Wal-Mart eliminated such positions at 180 stores in six states. It said the two events were not related. In 2005, Wal-Mart shuttered a store in Jonquière, Quebec, after workers voted to unionize. At the time, the company said the employees' demands would have made it impossible to sustain business.

"U.S. workers continue to wait to get the same respect from Wal-Mart," said David Nassar, executive director of the union-funded Wal-Mart Watch. "If higher wages, better benefits and fair treatment are incompatible with Wal-Mart's way of doing business, it's time for the company to change -- which is what Wal-Mart Watch has been saying all along."

The UFCW began conducting organizing drives in Canada six years ago, winning union certification of tire and lube workers at the Gatineau store in 2005. A contract is also expected soon for workers in the tire and lube departments and main store of a Wal-Mart in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. In addition, Wal-Mart began allowing the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to set up outlets in its stores in China in 2006.

In the 1990s, employees at a Wal-Mart in Ontario joined the United Steelworkers union and negotiated a collective agreement with the company. That contract no longer exists, Wal-Mart said.

Staff writer Binyamin Appelbaum contributed to this report.

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