UNION GAINS IN WAL-MART CANADA

TORONTO -- While organized labor has found Wal-Mart Stores nearly impenetrable in the United States, a different picture is emerging in Canada.The Labour Board of Quebec last week granted certification to a United Food and Commercial Workers unit seeking to organize a Wal-Mart discount store in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. The decision marked the UFCW's second successful organization attempt in the last

TORONTO -- While organized labor has found Wal-Mart Stores nearly impenetrable in the United States, a different picture is emerging in Canada.

The Labour Board of Quebec last week granted certification to a United Food and Commercial Workers unit seeking to organize a Wal-Mart discount store in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. The decision marked the UFCW's second successful organization attempt in the last six months in Canada, where a Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec, became the first union-certified Wal-Mart in North America in August.

And according to UFCW Canada here, attempts to organize all or parts of at least 10 other Wal-Mart locations in four provinces are under way, including seven Wal-Mart car-service departments in British Columbia that a provincial labor board is expected to rule on this week.

Wal-Mart Canada, based in Mississaugua, Ontario, said it is considering a legal challenge to the Saint-Hyacinthe certification, which like Jonquiere was granted on the basis of signed union cards from a majority of the store's 200 employees, rather than in a vote as required in other provinces.

Andrew Pelletier, a Wal-Mart spokesman, in an interview with SN last week called that process "outdated and undemocratic," although he granted it was interpreted as legal under the letter of the law. "We hope these situations playing out in Quebec will ultimately lead to labor law change in the province," he said.

In the meantime, the union and some observers said the certification of a second store signals some momentum for organized labor in Canada, where Wal-Mart operates 248 stores.

"While two stores being organized may not seem all that significant, the fact is that employees of Wal-Mart across Canada are becoming aware that if they want a union in the workplace, they can have one," UFCW spokesman Michael Forman told SN.

"I would have to think that the pressure will stay on Wal-Mart to become unionized," added Bill Chisholm, an equity analyst following retailers for Dundee Securities, Toronto. "It will be a long, slow process, but there's momentum toward that now."

As Wal-Mart and the UFCW tangle across the provinces, each side claims to have the will of the workers and accuses the other of underhanded tactics.

Pelletier told SN that Wal-Mart's associates have complained of "unwanted and coercive" contact at their homes from UFCW representatives in places like Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where provincial labor board hearings are set to resume next month over a controversial union drive at a Wal-Mart store there. In that case, Wal-Mart successfully challenged a labor board subpoena to turn over certain documents the UFCW characterized as anti-union; however, the union appealed to a higher court, which overturned that ruling in November.

"We know the union is targeting us very aggressively nationwide, just from the amount of complaints we get from our people," Pelletier said. He added that in all cases where the question of organizing was put to employees of an entire store by secret ballot, unions have been rejected.

Forman told SN that Wal-Mart employees "are becoming aware they're dealing with a company that's shown to be not all that concerned about their image with employees. The employees may have concluded, what choice do they have but to get organized?"

Wal-Mart in recent years has prevailed against UFCW organizing drives at stores in Quesnel and Terrace, British Columbia, and in Thompson, Manitoba, where worker votes fell short of the required majority. Still to be decided are drives in Weyburn, as well as North Battlefield and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which applied for certification last year. In British Columbia, UFCW Local 1518 in November applied to represent Wal-Mart's tire and lube center employees at seven stores, a campaign Wal-Mart objects to on the basis that the employees represent only a small portion of each location's workers.

In Jonquiere, the UFCW presented Wal-Mart with an initial contract proposal in November and bargaining sessions are scheduled through March with a labor-board appointed conciliator. There remains a possibility that Wal-Mart could close the Jonquiere store, which it said was losing money. Barring any potential appeals from Wal-Mart, contract negotiations in Saint-Hyacinthe could begin within months.