Saskatchewan judge critical of labour board in Wal-Mart unionization drive

Court says board too union-friendly, opens the door for retail giant to use Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strike down labour laws that restrict communications with employees during unionization drives

A Saskatchewan judge said Wal-Mart’s constitutional challenge of a provincial law restricting a company’s ability to communicate with its employees during a union drive “has considerable merit” and he suggested it could be brought before the courts once a labour board hearing into a union certification attempt at a store in Weyburn, Sask., is over.

While not ruling on the constitutional challenge, Justice George Baynton of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench appeared to clear the way for the retailer to use the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the near future to argue labour laws that restrict a company’s right to talk with employees about unionization are unconstitutional.

Justice Baynton made the remarks while ruling on whether Wal-Mart has to hand over information requested by the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) at the labour board hearing, Justice George Baynton rejected a move by the union to force Wal-Mart to release company information the retailer said has nothing to do with the union certification drive. UFCW and Wal-Mart are currently battling it out before the Saskatchewan Labour Board, and the ruling is a small victory for Wal-Mart in that battle.

The UFCW was seeking to have a large number of internal documents handed over, including one titled “Wal-Mart: A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free,” according to a report in the Globe and Mail.

Wal-Mart had maintained the information the union was seeking was “broad-based company material” that was “completely irrelevant” to the labour board hearing into the UFCW’s unionization bid in Weyburn.

According to Wal-Mart, Justice Baynton said the union demands for information was a “fishing expedition” and that the retailer had no “option considering the direction in which the labour board hearing was progressing but to bring its application before the court.”

Wal-Mart also said the court was critical of the way the labour board was handling the case involving the store in Weyburn.

“In the case before me, a dispassionate observer could well conclude that the impartiality of the board has been compromised by the manner in which it has permitted the UFCW to conduct and direct the hearing process,” said Justice Baynton in his decision. “It appears that the role of the board was often restricted to enforcing the demands made by the UFCW and that it, rather than the board, was controlling the course the hearing took. Seldom, as in the case before me, is a dispute or issue so one-sided that one party is successful in all of its applications while the other is successful in none.”

In a press release Andrew Pelletier, Wal-Mart Canada’s director of corporate affairs, applauded the court’s ruling.

“Today’s court decision appears to be an important first step in helping ensure Canadian workers are free to make informed decisions about the consequences of joining a union, including facts about union dues, strike action and seniority rights,” said Pelletier.

Pelletier also told the Globe and Mail that Wal-Mart will likely push ahead with a constitutional challenge regardless of the outcome of the labour board’s decision in regards to the store in Weyburn.

“This is going to be the beginning of the germination of a wider issue that will play out across the country over time, with respect to the rights of a worker to be able to get all of the information and the whole story before they are expected to make a decision about joining a union," he said.

Established in 1994, Wal-Mart Canada is headquartered in Mississauga, Ont. It employs more than 65,000 workers in Canada.

The UFCW said it disagrees with the court’s decision and plans to appeal. The UFCW has tried numerous times to win certification at a Wal-Mart store. In 1997 a store in Windsor, Ont., briefly received union certification but it didn’t last long. Attempts at stores in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec have also failed.

Latest stories