TORONTO -- The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada here has been making some inroads in its effort to unionize Wal-Mart stores in that country, where the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer operates more than 230 discount stores (but no supercenters yet). Local regulators have granted union status to two Quebec locations and have directed the company to negotiate a contract with the union. At one of those locations, in Jonquiere, the union has requested the intervention of the Quebec Labour Board because the unions said no progress had been made after several weeks of discussions. In addition to the two Quebec stores, UFCW Canada has submitted applications for the union certification of seven Wal-Mart tire and lube shops in British Columbia, and has a filed a handful of other applications with labor boards around the country where it said employees have requested union representation. SN recently spoke with Michael J. Fraser, national director, UFCW Canada, about his group's efforts to gain a union toehold at the giant retailer, which has no unionized stores in the United States.
SN: Why has the union been more successful in its effort to organize Wal-Mart in Canada than it has in the United States?
MF: In Canada, the legislation generally is governed provincially, and the laws in Canada are more favorable than the laws in the U.S. When we are able to sign up a group of employees, [the provincial labor boards] deal with it in a much more expedited manner. So a lot of the tactics that Wal-Mart can use in the U.S., they are not able to use in Canada. They have tried every tactic that they can. They have stalled, taken things to court -- they take everything to court. But the fact is that it is well entrenched in Canada that people have certain rights and freedoms, and people have the freedom of association, which includes joining a trade union.
SN: Is it feasible to have a goal of organizing Wal-Mart wall-to-wall in Canada?
MF: Whether or not that ever happens, only time will tell. We didn't organize Loblaws and Safeway and employers like that overnight, and I'm sure the same will be true of Wal-Mart. Once we establish one collective agreement, hopefully we'll be able to establish another and another, and hopefully others will follow suit. But by no means do we think of this as a short-term project. We certainly don't have any illusions that Wal-Mart is going to say, "Now that you've got these two stores, go ahead and organize wherever you want." I'm sure we'll still be working on it after I'm retired.
SN: Wal-Mart has hinted that it may close the store in Jonquiere by saying it is not profitable. What recourse do you have if Wal-Mart does close that store?
MF: We would file charges at the Labour Board in Quebec, and if we have to go to the courts, we will do that as well. It is interesting that the parking lot is full of cars, and they never said anything about it being unprofitable until after the stores were certified. The premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, stated publicly that he expected Wal-Mart to follow the same laws as all other companies as they apply to labor relations. And it's not very often that you have a premier in any province to be that vocal about telling a company that they are expected to follow the rules. Also, if Wal-Mart starts closing stores because people have exercised their democratic right to join a union, they may be very, very surprised at the public outcry they will receive. Quebec has the highest union density of any area in North America: 50% of the labor force is unionized. When Quebec labor leaders speak, the politicians and business leaders listen to what they have to say because they do have a great deal of support from the rank-and-file membership.
SN: You have been critical of Wal-Mart's wages and benefits and of the volume of products it imports from China. Has creating awareness of these practices been part of your campaign to organize the stores?
MF: Absolutely. There are more and more groups that are approaching us asking us for help concerning Wal-Mart. A group of university students last year went on a trek across the country explaining the conditions that Wal-Mart employees work under and their procurement practices from developing countries where workers are producing goods in sweatshop conditions. Certainly, other groups are seeing this is a situation that is not just affecting retail -- it is affecting manufacturing jobs as well. It just seems ironic that an American company is taking jobs away from Americans and shipping them to places like China. Philosophically, we as a society -- not just the labor movement -- have to decide if that's where we want to go. I think there's a concern not only in the U.S., and not only in Canada, but in other parts of the world as well. We are talking about the Wal-Mart-ization of the world. We have a company that espouses the benefits of capitalism and the free enterprise system, and one of its major suppliers is China.
SN: How much support do you get from Canadian supermarket retailers in your efforts?
MF: We get encouragement. Certainly, all the major retail operators that we represent in Canada have a concern about Wal-Mart and to what extent they are going to enter the Canadian market. If Wal-Mart is going to start opening superstores in Canada, then they are going to have a strong competitive advantage.