Saturday, February 12, 2005

Wal-Mart's Union Woes

Wal-Mart announced the closure of one of its stores in Quebec this past week. I'm not sure how often the company closes stores, but it's not something you hear about too often. So one less Wal-Mart should be a cause for celebration, right?

Except that this Wal-Mart was the first in the history of North America to unionize. Ever.

And now they're shutting it down.

I've got to admit, I'm not a huge fan of unions these days. I understand the impact they made on the workplace in the past, but most days it seems like they did the job they set out to do. There are child labor laws and five-day work weeks and 8-hour work days and sick leave and anti-discrimination laws. These days we don't really need more laws, we just need tougher enforcement of the laws that already exist.

But there are other days when I look across the vast landscape of hourly employees in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and see how a union could help some of these people to get off Food Stamps and find themselves affordable health care. But Wal-Mart is famously opposed to the idea of unions within its stores.

A few years ago, the meatpacking department of a Texas store voted for union representation. Instead of bargaining collectively with the new union workers, Wal-Mart closed down the meatpacking department and switched to carrying prepackaged meats. Then, just for kicks, Wal-Mart Inc. closed down every meatpacking department in their 1,000 or so Supercenters. They had to make it look impartial, right?

But the Quebec store owns the first store-wide union. Its workers voted last August, and have been bargaining collectively since then. The official word from Wal-Mart is that the store was already losing money, and the threat of paying its workers even more put it under for good. The store will close in May.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has decided against calling for a boycott of Wal-Mart, because they're still working with workers in Wal-Mart stores across Canada, encouraging them to join unions. Since August, one other store in Quebec has voted to form a union (they haven't reached an agreement, either).

So will this have a positive effects for Wal-Mart's attempt to block fair union votes in its stores? The closure might be enough to scare associates in other stores from supporting a union vote. But it could also turn many of Wal-Mart's hourly associates against the company, encouraging workers to unionize where the wasn't much support beforehand.

All I know is that the whole thing stinks. And I agree with Bob Linton, the National Communications Coordinator for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, who said this past week, "It seems kind of funny that the one store that is organized in their empire is the only one not making money and they're prepared to shut it."

Wal-Mart can't afford a beachhead for union supporters, and while I know of no law which they've broken by shutting this store down, I still can't help feeling a crime has been committed. These are people's livelihoods we're talking about. And the strongest corporation in the world just got a little stronger.

Hurray for capitalism.

No comments: