Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail chain, is largely union-free; you got a problem with that? Take out your wallet

On Aug. 3, the Quebec Labour Board certified a union at a Wal-Mart store in Jonquière, which is set to be the first organized Wal-Mart store on the continent. In light of this news, you’d think that a reporter could go out and write a gotcha story about Wal-Mart in honour of Labour Day.

I’ve never been a member of a union and I haven’t worked retail since I was 16, but I’m leftish in my politics and I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed; I’ve sat on an editorial board that tried to impress upon unions the importance of taking up “The Wal-Mart challenge” (editorial, Aug. 5). Surely I could come up with 1,000 words on big, bad Wal-Mart — the world’s largest private-sector employer — raising up the worker in honour of the long weekend?

You’d think so. And yet — not so much.

I spent over an hour on the phone with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union spokesman, Michael Forman, a man prone to philosophizing and very concerned with the ownership structure of this newspaper. I spent the better part of an hour talking to Wal-Mart’s labour honcho, Andrew Pelletier, who earns every penny of his corporate-flak salary with his talent for smugly talking in complete paragraphs for minutes at a time without ever telling you anything you want to know. I and my colleagues spoke to Wal-Mart workers in four Ontario cities (though they mostly didn’t want to speak to us) about their jobs. I read hundreds of pages of news coverage, good, bad and ugly, about Wal-Mart, and its effects on employees, suppliers and the American economy (about the last, just believe me when I say: Wal-Mart could change its slogan to “Everyday low inflation” without being accused of exaggeration).

And after all that, I can’t completely paint Wal-Mart as the bad guy.

For example: when Pelletier points out that, “To date, any time our associates in Canada have been given the chance to vote in a democratic secret-ballot vote, they have voted against union representation,” he’s telling the truth. This has, in fact, happened three times in the past 14 months, including this past April in Jonquière.”Instead,” he says of the Quebec case, “the union has been automatically certified without a vote” after the union got the required number of signed union cards (Pelletier points out that such a process is open to abuse and is illegal in Ontario). “We respect the legal process in Quebec, but we’re very disturbed…. We’re an advocate of workplace democracy, we believe it’s important to have a democratic, secret-ballot, legally supervised vote. In Canada, there’s a reason why we conduct our general elections that way.” Sounds good.

And then Pelletier goes on to describe how Wal-Mart does not, in fact, oppose unions for its associates (which is what Wal-Mart calls clerks): “I don’t accept that blanket statement — because we believe in workplace democracy, we believe that the associates have the chance to vote. With respect to the claim that we’re anti-union, I challenge that claim as well….”

But would it be fair to say, I ask, that if Wal-Mart is not anti-union, that it prefers to remain union-free?

“I think it’s safe to say that we believe that the best scenario is open communication between employer and employee, we believe that the decision is up to our associates….”

When he further denies that Wal-Mart prefers to remain union-free, I read him a letter that was enclosed with the pay stubs of every associate in Ontario on July 26 that reads: “Make no mistake about it. Wal-Mart prefers to remain union-free.” (boldface and underlining care of Wal-Mart). And then he’s off and spinning again. Of course the truth, obvious from the letter and believed by all the Wal-Mart associates I spoke with, is that the company does oppose unions — but then, what company doesn’t.

And then there’s the other side: the UFCW organized the union in Jonquière. It runs several websites dedicated to unionizing Wal-Mart. It’s recently filed to have a dormant Woolco union recognized in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. They’ve been fighting Wal-Mart in Las Vegas and California. If someone has the goods on Wal-Mart, it’s them, right?

But as Forman tells me, “At some point, everyone tries to vilify Wal-Mart. It’s gone beyond the point where you should vilify Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is a retail phenomenon that’s not about to disappear.” OK.

“Let them be the word’s largest employer, if that’s who they’re going to be, but then let them be the world’s largest fair employer.”

Remarkably cordial for a representative of the union that routinely demonizes Wal-Mart, Forman tells me money is not the biggest concern for employees looking to unionize. Respect from managers and security of schedule is, he says.

And indeed, when I speak to two different employees in very different parts of Ontario — one who’s been there less than two years, earning about $10 an hour, one who’s been there since the chain came to Canada and earns about $13.50 — about their jobs, both of whom reluctantly think a union might not be a bad idea, they don’t complain about money. They complain about favouritism. Both use that same word. Changing schedules at the last minute; someone who’s been there three months getting priority over someone who’s been there three years. They say the “open-door” complaints policy — much vaunted by Pelletier — is as open to abuse and neglect as any union-card drive. (Both, independently, mention that employees injured on the job sometimes get in trouble, since “injuries can be prevented.”)

They don’t really mention wages as a big concern. I’m the one asking the first employee: “You take home $1,172 per month — my rent is $1,000 per month. How do you live?” And she explains that she lives with her parents, that’s how she affords it. But a friend who works full-time at her store is a single mother who just got her phone and cable cut off. And I ask the second, higher-paid employee the same question. He explains that his wife earns good money (“I earn enough, but not enough to live on without someone else,” he tells co-workers, since he’s not allowed to talk about the specifics of how much he makes with them), but complains that his hours were arbitrarily modified during the last manager change.

Yet how can money not be the big issue here? How can a full-grown adult afford to live on less than $20,000 a year? Isn’t that what these union drives should be all about?

When I bring the subject of the disparity between my rent and a Wal-Mart salary up to Forman and Pelletier, both corporate lackey and union flak tell me that my problem is I live in Toronto (at Bloor and Dufferin, three minutes on foot from a Wal-Mart) and Wal-Mart is mostly a smaller-town phenomenon.

And Pelletier says that Wal-Mart’s wages are “very competitive” in the retail industry. And when Forman talks to me about wages at Loblaw’s, and I look into wages at competitors like Zeller’s and Canadian Tire, it turns out he’s right, even though some of those are unionized.

Neither really seems to embrace my concern with wages: it seems I just don’t understand the way the retail world works. And so the tiger I started out hunting turns out not to be Wal-Mart, but the entire retail industry. Both unions and corporations agree that $12 or $13 an hour (or about $25,000 per year) is a princely sum. This is the fastest-growing industry in Canada, currently employing 1,980,000 Canadians — most of them, contrary to apparent industry belief, not 14 and living with their parents; and it’s grown by more than 33 per cent in the past 18 years (and half of that growth has been in the past four years). Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the world, and it has a largely low-wage workforce but it isn’t lying when it says its wages are competetive in the industry, when it points out that they get 10 applications for every job opening they have, that they’ve been ranked among the best employers in Canada (and the best retail employer) by Hewitt Associates and Report on Business magazine. By my standards, it’s a shit place to work, certainly, but its defence that it simply follows the standards of its industry is credible. What’s needed, and unionizing may be a first step towards this, is a change in the industry. And that means we need to change our approach to shopping.

It will almost certainly mean higher prices. Maybe it’ll even mean a return to the sort of enthusiastic and necessarily controversial sort of union activity that got things on the right track in the steel and auto industries over the last century. The unionizing of those industries made it possible for a generation of unskilled labourers to enter the middle class. Now those jobs are disappearing, and the retail floor is the new factory. However change occurs, it should mean that a full-time employee with years of experience can hold up their end of a family’s finances. Otherwise, what’s the point of working? But the union, the corporation and the employees seem to see my concerns as beside the point.

And that, I’ll suggest on this Labour Day, is a big problem.

Originally published September 2, 2004 in Eye Weekly