Wal-Mart's anti-labor woes

Published February 16, 2005 12:00AM (EST)

The world's largest retailer suffered a wave of bad publicity last week when it announced the closure of a Wal-Mart store in Saguenay, Quebec, that was on the cusp of negotiating a union contract. Had the effort, which was led by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, succeeded, the store world have been the first in North America to force the corporate giant to honor a store's legal right to unionize.

Wal-Mart's chief executive, H. Lee Scott, told the Washington Post that the closure, which will put 160 people out of a job, was because of the store's lack of profitability, but Canadian lawmakers weren't buying it. Hamilton, Ontario MP David Christopherson stood up in the House of Commons and accused Wal-Mart of "economic terrorism."

"What is the government going to do to protect Canadian workers from corporate bullies like Wal-Mart?" he asked.

This comes after news that the retailer has agreed to settle dozens of violations of child labor laws at its Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire stores. Wal-Mart had been employing children under age 14, and letting minors operate heavy machinery.

Wal-Mart has launched an expensive ad campaign in U.S. and Canadian newspapers defending its business practices, and has created a new Web site, Walmartfacts.com, with pictures of cheerful-looking employees.

"[Unions] may be right for some companies but there is simply no need for a third party to come between our associates and their managers," the site explains.

Meanwhile, fortified by Canadian labor laws, several other Wal-Mart stores in Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have either voted or are about to vote on whether to become certified as a union, the first step towards contract negotiations. In the U.S., Tire & Lube department workers at a Colorado Wal-Mart (a subset, not all of its workers) will vote to unionize on February 25. Wal-Mart is expected to fight the decision.

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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