Ex-Wal-Mart workers win battle

Toronto Globe and Mail


Quebec - The Quebec Labour Board has ruled that the closing of a Wal-Mart store this year amounted to a reprisal against unionized workers and has ordered the company to compensate former employees.

The labour board concluded that Wal-Mart Canada, Inc., failed to prove that the closing of its store in Jonquière in April was "real, genuine and definitive" as required under the Quebec Labour Code.

The board will determine the "appropriate remedies" for the former employees later. As many as 79 of the store's 190 former employees filed for compensation under the labour code.

During hearings, the board was told that the retail giant has yet to rescind a 20-year lease on the store building and has made no effort to sublet it.

This led the labour board to conclude that the store could reopen and that, under the province's labour code, it was closed as a sanction against employees who were exercising their right to unionize and negotiate their first collective agreement.

"The company is still the tenant [of the building]...it is an indication that the company owners were leaving the door open to undertake the same business [at the location]," Quebec Labour Board vice-president Pierre Flageole stated in his ruling. "Wal-Mart failed to meet the burden of proof and convince the board that the store closure had a real, genuine and definitive character..."

Closing the Jonquière store hurt the company's corporate image in Quebec, where consumers were urged to boycott Wal-Mart stores. The company admitted yesterday that the negative coverage hurt sales in the weeks after the closing, but they have rebounded.

The company announced four new stores in the province this year.

A spokesman for Wal-Mart Canada said the company was surprised by and disappointed with yesterday's ruling, and that an earlier labour board decision had recognized that the closing was final.

"It's unfortunate, but the company has no intentions of reopening the store...The store had been losing money for years," said Yanik Deschênes, manager for Wal-Mart corporate communications in Quebec. "It takes time to find someone who will lease or buy a location with so much floor space, especially in Jonquière, where it can't be done overnight."

The United Food and Commercial Workers union says the ruling will help its drive to represent employees in other Wal-Mart stores across Quebec.

The union, which represented the former Jonquière employees, is seeking certification in eight Wal-Mart stores in Quebec.

"The closing of the Jonquière store had a negative impact in other Wal-Mart stores where we are attempting to unionize employees. This ruling will help reassure Wal-Mart employees that the company can't go around doing whatever it wants and deny them their legal right to be represented by a union," said union executive Louis Bolduc.

In a separate ruling, the labour board rejected Wal-Mart's request to have access to the names of all employees who signed up to unionize in some of their stores.

The company said it needed the list to defend itself against the union's claim that the Jonquière store closing was an anti-union practice because it substantially reduced the number of employees who supported the unionization drive in Quebec.

The board ruled that, under the province's labour code, the names of persons who sign to become part of a labour organization during union certification proceedings must be kept secret to prevent reprisals.