Almost a decade after it began, the battle to unionize a Saskatchewan Walmart store is over — workers voted to decertify in a landslide 51-5 vote.
In Weyburn, Sask., a city of 10,000 located southeast of Regina, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have been embroiled in a fight to unionize the workers and win concessions from the retail giant at the bargaining table.
After organizing efforts began in 2004, the UFCW was approved by the labour relations board. However, the company and workers could never come to a consensus at the bargaining table. Shortly after, a decertification vote was put forward.
The UFCW objected to the vote, eventually taking the case to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled it would not hear the case. The votes were revealed — and the only union to ever exist at a Walmart in Canada was no more.
Convoluted labour negotiations and steely resistance from the company could have turned the Walmart workers off, according to Norm Neault, president of Local 1400 of the UFCW in Saskatoon. The bargaining process, at times, felt like a race to the bottom.
“The process has been really, totally frustrated. Nine years battling this out in the courts, that’s not very consistent of how you would see labour relations go on between a union and an employer,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe workers wanted to be union-free because they had such good working conditions, benefits — and that a union couldn’t improve on that, I find that difficult to accept.”
The potential for a store closure was the likely culprit, said Neault, which is sometimes a more viable option for larger retailers such as Walmart than pouring resources into settling a labour dispute.
On the bargaining table for the UFCW were equal wages and benefits, shift premiums, seniority rights and work-life balance, among others.
“We came up with what I believe were consistent proposals with many, if not all, of our contracts that we have, and Walmart was just not willing to accept any of that,” he said.
The Supreme Court decision, which upheld the provincial labour relations board’s ruling to defer the case, was the breaking point.
“It was difficult to negotiate with the employer and get the first contract legislation. We were hoping for assistance from the board to not only give us some guidance but make sure that we’re kept on track,” said Neault. “Rather than take a look at it, they dismissed the whole application. That’s frustrating… it almost leads us in the direction that we have to call strikes every time. That’s not what we’re about.”
From Walmart’s perspective, employees had the last word.
“We are pleased their voice has finally been heard because they have waited more than two-and-a-half years for their votes to be counted,” said Andrew Pelletier, Walmart Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability.
This case has been watched closely by key players in the labour relations field. According to Lorenzo Lisi, an employment lawyer at Aird & Berlis in Toronto, both parties effectively used just about every legal option available to settle the matter.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision is significant because it signifies that in many scenarios, the courts will tend not to interfere and let the workers speak for themselves.
“From an employer’s perspective, I was very happy to hear that the court was not going to interfere and it was going to allow the (labour board’s) decision to stand, and have the true wishes of the employees taken into account,” he said.
For a company as big as Walmart, unionizing at the Weyburn location could cause unique complications, said Lisi. It would have to worry about problems such as competing wages and benefits between union and non-union staff, meaning it would have to manage its business differently at different locations if the union drive snowballed to other stores.
While both Walmart and UFCW used just about every legal option available to them, unions tend to lean on labour laws, especially in matters involving decertification, he said. But this time, it backfired.
“I always chuckle a bit when I see unions rely on the law all the time to get certified (and then) get upset when the same law says employees should have free choice,” said Lisi. “It’s a long fight. They got to a point where there was an application for decertification, the union didn’t want to have those votes counted for obvious reasons — unions rarely do. And unions, just like they accused Walmart in this case, are just as obstructionist in using the law to have those votes not counted, in many cases, but not always. So both sides used the process, and Walmart was successful.”
But for Neault, the war is far from over.
“I’d even say it’s a chapter — it’s a page — that’s turned. There’s a big book here,” he said. “At what lengths at any given time are workers willing to do to achieve it? Certainly what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
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