by Aaron Donny-Clark / March 2005
MONTREAL—Wal-Mart will close, on May 6, its store in Jonquiere, Quebec, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal, one of only two unionized Wal-Mart stores in North America. One hundred and ninety employees will lose their jobs.
According to Wal-Mart, the store is being closed because it is not profitable. However, many workers in Quebec have reason to believe that the store is being closed as a warning to its employees everywhere not to unionize.
On Aug. 2, 2004, the Jonquiere store became the first unionized Wal-Mart in North America. Since then another, in Sainte-Hyacinthe (Quebec), has also unionized. Management at neither store has reached a collective agreement with the union. Local 503 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is still seeking a contract, and exploring its options for recourse.
The provincial government has recently named a labour arbitrator. The Federation des Travailleurs du Quebec (FTQ), has opted not to call for a boycott of Wal-Mart because there is currently a campaign to unionize a dozen more locations across Quebec. Currently, there is no plan of action against the closure save for activity in the courts.
The announcement of this closure has sparked a wave of controversy across Quebec and beyond. The newspapers have been filled with letters and op-eds condemning Wal-Mart for its "economic terrorism". Many have made the case that Wal-Mart represents at its core an attack on workers.
Wal-Mart has also come under fire from the Quebec Commission des Normes du Travail (Labor Standards Commission) for intimidation of workers at its location in Sainte-Foy, Quebec. Wal-Mart has been ordered to post signs about this decision in the workplace in question.
Wal-Mart has a long history of being anti-union. Shortly after the butchers in Texas Wal-Marts unionized, their jobs were cut. Wal-Mart is facing legal action for breaking child-labor laws, forcing workers to work off the clock, and intimidating workers seeking unionization.
Wal-Mart has also been charged with discrimination against women by three public interest groups—Equal Rights Advocates, the Impact Fund, and the Public Justice Center—in what has the potential to become the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind in the U.S.
Plans to build a new Wal-Mart in Queens, N.Y., were recently cancelled by the promoter of the project because of pressure from residents and unions. Union leaders opposed the project because of Wal-Mart's labor violations and because of the closing of the store in Jonquiere.
The future of Wal-Mart in Quebec will be determined by its ability to adjust to a unionized workforce. The announcement of the closure of the Jonquiere store has left the owners with very little room to manoeuvre. If the store continues to try to block all union activity, it will undoubtedly find itself the subject of a popular resistance.
Already the provincial sovereigntist Parti Québécois has come out in favor of a boycott against Wal-Mart if the unions launch one. The Quebec working class is proud of its union-friendly environment. It will not sit idly and watch this multi-national attack its interests.