Wal-Mart crushes union by closing store

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The Independent US

Starting the first Wal-Mart employees' union in North America seemed a good idea at the time to Sylvie Lavoie. The American retailing giant, with its $10bn £5.3bn) annual profit, had set up shop in Jonquiere, a pretty little Canadian town in northern Quebec.

Starting the first Wal-Mart employees' union in North America seemed a good idea at the time to Sylvie Lavoie. The American retailing giant, with its $10bn £5.3bn) annual profit, had set up shop in Jonquiere, a pretty little Canadian town in northern Quebec.

Ms Lavoie believed the 190 employees needed a voice because "there was injustice at the company and it did not respect its workforce". Now, after a battle which has inspired and appalled the rest of Canada, she and her colleagues are out of work, the store closed last week, union organisers said they were threatened with violence, and Wal-Mart has moved out of town for good.

The world's biggest retail behemoth, founded in the heart of America's Bible Belt, does not like unions. Founded by Sam Walton in 1962, Wal-Mart has mushroomed by driving down prices for consumers across the US. Despite becoming a multi-billionaire, he wore clothes bought at his own store and drove himself around in a pick-up. That set the cost-cutting ethos.

Another legacy of the early years is the corporate view that all union activity should be resisted as fiercely as possible. A federal grand jury in Arkansas is still investigating whether Thomas Coughlin, Wal-Mart's former vice-chairman, has been orchestrating a covert, illegal campaign against union organisers within Wal-Mart's 1.7 million workforce. Mr Coughlin, who was sacked in March, explained fake invoices put through company accounts as a "union project" fund. The "project" allegedly included paying employees to identify who the pro-union people were.

Wal-Mart says it is co-operating fully with the investigation and insists it has found no evidence of anti-union skulduggery among its senior employees. There is no evidence to suggest that anti-union tactics have been employed.

At Jonquiere, the union did not last long. But the struggle between Wal-Mart and its former employees has become a cause célèbre in Canada. The United Food and Trade Workers' Union (TUAC) has organised anti-Wal-Mart demonstrations across the country.

"In 30 years of union activism, I have never seen anything like it," said Yvon Bellemare, president of the TUAC. He believes the closure of the only store that dared to unionise, "is a Wal-Mart message addressed to the United States and elsewhere to say, 'If you want to unionise, we'll close you down'."

When Ms Lavoie and her fellow-cashier, Johanne Desbiens, proposed the union, the response from colleagues was lukewarm. Wal-Mart's anti-union stance was well known. In 2000, when 11 Texas meat-cutters voted to join a union, their department was simply eliminated. "There was always a bunch at Jonquiere who were against the union and who were intimidating," Ms Desbiens said. "There have been third parties saying we were going to be beaten up."

But, gradually, more colleagues became involved. This, after all, was not the United States, where only 12.5 per cent of workers are unionised. In Canada, the equivalent figure is 28.6 per cent. Not all employees were happy with wages starting at about US$6.20 (£3.29) an hour and rules limiting some workers to 28 hours a week.

But Wal-Mart's directors acted quickly. A meeting of all employees was called. The union organisers were publicly named. The intimidation of union activists began, although Wal-Mart strongly denies involvement in the threats made to Ms Lavoie and Ms Desbiens. "We would never, ever support the intimidation of anybody," a Wal-Mart spokes-person told The Independent. "It would be grounds for dismissal."

The union, despite the threats, continued to organise, creating links with TUAC and demanding a minimum 37-hour week for full-time employees. Then the directors announced the Jonquiere store would be closing, because, they said, it was not making money, and the union was not helping. A Wal-Mart spokesman, Andrew Pelletier, said: "The store was struggling. When you factored in the union demands, which were completely unreasonable ... the store would not be viable."

A chill wind is blowing through the 47 remaining Wal-Mart stores in Quebec, for which the lesson of Jonquiere is crystal clear.

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