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article imageSupreme Court finds Wal-Mart violated Quebec Labor Code

By Ken Hanly     Jun 27, 2014 in Business
Ottawa - In United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 503 v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. 2014 SCC 45, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with workers who had claimed that Wal-Mart had violated Quebec labor law when it closed a store in Saguenay Que. in 2005.
The store was closed during an attempt to unionize it. Earlier in 2009 the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Wal-Mart and had said that Wal-Mart had the right to close the store in the circumstances. At the time Andrew Pelettier, vice-president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada said: "As of now, the highest court in the land has looked at this, as have other courts, and have said that as unfortunate as the situation was, Wal-Mart was not in the wrong to do what it did," However, a new charge was filed under a different section of the Quebec Labor Code.
The Quebec Labor Code forbids a company from changing conditions of employment, once a petition to certify a union has been filed. An arbitrator concluded that ending employment — by closing the store — was changing the conditions of employment. The Supreme Court sent the case to the arbitrator again to decide on the appropriate remedies. The court agreed with the arbitrator that Article 59 of the Quebec Labour Code had been violated when Wal-Mart closed the store during contract talks. Nearly 200 workers lost their jobs at the time.
Wal-Mart claims the store was closed because it was unprofitable. However, the union claimed the store was closed because of their union activities. In September 2004 the union had won certification but was unable to reach a contract. The union wanted to have the contract issue to be arbitrated. However, Wal-Mart simply closed the store.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada(UFCW) expressed pleasure with the Supreme Court decision: Following a legal saga that lasted nine years, the nation's highest court has confirmed that Walmart acted illegally when it laid off all 190 employees at its Jonquière store in February 2005. Walmart announced that it was closing the store just as the Quebec Minister of Labour was preparing to appoint an arbitrator to impose a first collective agreement at the store.
The president of the UFCW, Paul Meinema was even more caustic in describing Wal-Mart's actions: "Year after year, Walmart uses dirty tricks to stop its associates from exercising their democratic right to join a union, and that's exactly what happened with the employees at the Jonquière store. By clarifying that employers must respect the law and the rights of their employees when making business decisions, this ruling serves as a major positive landmark."
The president of the Local 503 Louise Lefebvre said that the 190 former Wal-Mart "associates" thought that they would eventually obtain justice: "I commend the courage of these men and women, who stood up for their rights for many years. Their tenacity has been a major source of inspiration to our union, and they have certainly made a difference in advancing labour rights in this country,"
The Supreme Court decision saw a five to two split. Alex Roberton, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada said the company was "disappointed" by the decision and added: "We will review the decision carefully in order to determine what our next steps will be,"
The province of Quebec was the site of the first ever collective agreement between Wal-Mart and a union. A tire and oil change garage in Gatineau Que achieved that milestone in 2008 but the company closed the garage only a few months later. In 2010 another store in Gatineau also won a collective agreement, but within a year the workers requested that the union be decertified.
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