Wal-Mart Canada Corp. broke Quebec’s labour laws when it shut a store in Jonquière almost a decade ago, just after its employees organized a union, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.
In a 5-2 decision authored by Mr. Justice Louis LeBel, a former Quebec labour lawyer, the court said Wal-Mart violated a section of the Quebec labour code that says an employer can’t change its workers’ conditions of employment, without the union’s consent, while a first collective agreement is being negotiated. Closing the store and cancelling contracts amounted to an illegal change of working conditions, it said.
The ruling upheld an initial decision made years ago by an arbitrator in the case. The arbitrator’s view was endorsed by Quebec’s Superior Court, but then overturned by the province’s court of appeal. The Supreme Court has now sent the case back to the arbitrator to “determine the appropriate remedy.”
Wal-Mart had argued that the closing was made for business reasons, not because it was trying to break the union. But the Supreme Court said the the arbitrator was right that a reasonable employer would not close this establishment, which was performing well and was even promising to pay bonuses to employees.
Wal-Mart opened its Jonquière store in 2001, and three years later the workers formed a local of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The company and the union negotiated for months but could not reach a collective agreement. In February, 2005, just as the first contract was going to arbitration, Wal-Mart announced its decision to close the store. In April, 2005, it shut its doors and about 200 employees were out of work.
Workers brought several legal actions against Wal-Mart, but the company won most of them, including a 2009 decision of the Supreme Court that said the employees had used the wrong labour law provisions to fight the company’s actions.
In a statement Friday, Wal-Mart Canada said it was disappointed by the latest decision. “This was an appeal of a unanimous decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal to reject the UFCW’s claim, which in our view was a legally correct decision. We will review the decision carefully in order to determine what our next steps will be,” the company said.
The UFCW described the decision as an “historic and positive milestone in protecting workers’ rights, and will likely compel employers to justify their actions if they decide to close a store.”
Paul Meinema, national president of the union, said in a statement that “year after year Wal-Mart uses dirty tricks to stop its associates from exercising their democratic right to join a union, and that is 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.”
David Doorey, a professor of labour and employment law at York University in Toronto, said the Supreme Court made it very clear that that Wal-Mart’s mass termination of employees and closing of the store was not “normal” business operations, and this could have broader implications across the country.
Still, Prof Doorey said, the decision won’t likely have a substantial impact on labour organizing, because “our laws have long prohibited an employer from closing and firing its work force to avoid a union.” At the end of the day, “the Quebec employees have still lost their jobs for exercising their legal rights to join a union. [The Supreme Court decision] is a victory for those workers, but a small one,” he said.
Steven Barrett, a labour lawyer with Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP in Toronto, said the decision shows the Supreme Court “will take seriously the legislative protections that say once you are unionized ... the employer can’t, for reasons that aren’t normal, change your terms of original employment.”