Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, North America

LABOUR: Closure of First Unionised Wal-Mart Sends Chilling Signal

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Apr 15 2005 (IPS) - Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, may be violating international and Canadian laws by using covert strategies to undermine a unionising drive at its Canadian stores, say labour experts and union activists.

“The refusal to recognise and deal with representatives fairly chosen by employees, the whole notion of compelling unions to go through a whole certification procedure before having to deal with them, is actually contrary to international human rights law,” Roy Adams, a labour studies professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University, told IPS.

Adams was referring to the 1998 International Labour Organisation’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, of which Canada is a signatory. Its provisions include the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

The company’s activities are “also fairly likely contrary to the Canadian constitutional law,” he said.

In February, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing its store in the small Quebec town of Jonquiere, just six months after the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union of Canada had won the legal right to represent its 190 employees.

At the time, a spokesperson for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer blamed the “precarious” condition of a money-losing outlet.

But UFCW Canada spokesman Michael Forman says there was never any indication from Wal-Mart in its own direct communications with the employees in Jonquiere that their store was unprofitable. The store will be shutting its doors permanently on May 6.

Wal-Mart’s announcement, Forman told IPS, was an effort “to instill fundamental fear in every Wal-Mart employee that if they try to mix with the union, this is what is going to happen.”

“Wages are not the singular issue here,” he added. “More often, it is the quality of management when people feel like they are being exploited, when people feel like they are being humiliated.”

He says that Wal-Mart’s “open-door” policy to hear employee concerns – the alternative to having a union – can result in the harassment of workers who complain.

In March, UFCW filed a complaint against Wal-Mart with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, following allegations that the former long-time vice chairman of the company had condoned a slush fund to finance anti-union activities.

Canada’s relatively liberal labour laws have made it fertile ground for union organising at Wal-Mart. Recently, the UFCW successfully applied for union certification in several Wal-Mart stores in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

In Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, union certification can still be achieved without a formal vote through the signing of union membership cards by a majority of employees.

These provinces recognise that “employees are essentially captive in the workplace and because the employer has ample opportunity to suddenly and blatantly intimidate its employees, there is no such thing as a free vote in a workplace,” Forman said.

Internal documents that Wal-Mart is being subpoenaed to produce by the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board during hearings into a union certification request by the employees of a Wal-Mart store in the town of Weyburn will demonstrate that the retail giant has a sophisticated anti-union training process for its managers, says the UFCW spokesman.

These documents may be pertinent in determining if Wal-Mart breeched Saskatchewan’s labour laws during the union organising campaign.

Forman is anticipating that the release of the anti-union training material will confirm earlier reports on the extent to which Wal-Mart tries to curtail union sentiment in its stores.

“Although not written in stone,” he says the company discourages after-work collegial activity on the Wal-Mart premises, such as a company bowling competition.

Wal-Mart managers also have a “psychographics” system where “the managers on a regular basis meet and try to determine the vulnerability of the store and the morale of (both) of the store and on an individual basis,” Forman said.

But Andrew Pelletier, the head of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada, says that “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free” is an internal document for U.S. operations “that we have never used in Canada.”

“The union is well aware that in Canada we have different laws, we have a different human resources policy, and that document has absolutely no relevance or use to us in Canada,” said Pelletier.

Although the company owns 3,600 stories in the United States, not a single one is unionised. The closest any ever came was in Texas in 2000, when the store eliminated its meat department after 11 meat cutters voted to join a union.

Roy Adams does not see much difference in how the Canadian or U.S. divisions of Wal-Mart function when they are faced with potential union intrusion.

“Wal-Mart has built up an expertise, like a labour relations team, whose entire job is to delay certification, during which time the experts can come in and basically engage in what some people call psychological terror with employees,” he said.

“They will use every trick they can – to show employees films of picket line violence, tell them stories of every nasty thing that any union did.”

In the “Tool Box,” unions are defined as “businesses,” adds Adams, “which are coming to get your dues and it doesn’t care about you, it wants to improve its own situation.”

Recent reports in the U.S. media that a former high-ranking Wal-Mart executive may have attempted to bribe UFCW staff to provide the names of union supporters in Wal-Mart stores have further worsened the retail giant’s battered public image, says Liza Featherstone, the author of “Selling Women Short: the Landmark Battle for Women’s Rights At Wal-Mart”.

Featherstone predicts that Wal-Mart may decide to settle a gender discrimination class action suit that potentially involves about 1.6 million U.S. women.

“That’s where the unions have been most successful, so far – bringing to light some of the scandals surrounding the way that Wal-Mart treats employees,” she said.

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