Organizing Change at Walmart


One large, red sphere weighs one end of a gray balance beam down
Mark Carrel/Shutterstock

Walmart is a well-known discount retailer with stores across Canada and around the world.

Walmart is also well known for its long history of opposition to unionization within its employee population. There have been a few attempts to unionize Walmart stores in Canada, most notably in Quebec and Saskatchewan. These attempts have not been successful to date, and have resulted in a continued commitment by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW Canada) to try to have Walmart employees represented by their union.

UFCW Canada is affiliated with UFCW International, which is one of North America’s largest private sector unions with over 1.3 million members. Even with these significant numbers, the union has not been able to breach the Walmart fortress of resistance to unionization in Canada, across North America, or at an international level.

Does the absence of unionization mean that the employee workforce is content?

Apparently not.

Continued media reports chronicle the dissatisfaction of Walmart workers in relation to their wages and working conditions. In the absence of a formal union, some employees have formed an ‘association’ called OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect) at Walmart in an attempt to continue the fight for changes to working conditions.  However, this association, while backed by the UFCW, is not a formal union, and as such, does not have the ability to represent the workers through the power of a collective bargaining process. It does, however, provide the opportunity to exercise more power for employees by expanding these associations across the global Walmart chain.

Recently, the American component of OUR Walmart was able to join with its Chinese counterpart in an attempt to increase its power base. The American and Chinese workers wanted to impose a coordinated ‘strike’ action at an international level on the retailer in order to stop a scheduling system change.

Click here to see a clip on OUR Walmart’s progress at an international level.

As we note in this clip, the expansion of the collective voice through the power of association is a critical element in an attempt to force the employer to change its practices. However, the clip also identifies the key weaknesses of a non-unionized employee association. This weakness is the lack of real, legal status and power.

Without the protection of a formal union, employees at Walmart have no legitimate power that is provided by the legal parameters of the right to association and to bargain collectively. Walmart, as an employer, is under no legal obligation to recognize any informal employee association. It can choose to listen to employee concerns or it can choose not to. If employees decide to leave their work for a day, the employer can decide not to have them back at work the next day. In Canada, in the absence of a collective agreement, the employer is bound by the provisions of common law and legislated employment standards and has the power to run the workplace as it sees fit.

Until there is a shift in power through the establishment of legitimate union authority, it seems that the status quo between employer and worker relations at Walmart will continue to be maintained.

For an extensive exploration of the labour-management struggles between Walmart, UFCW and OUR Walmart, click here.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What benefit does Walmart gain from having non-unionized workers?
  2. Identify how an employee group could gain power through unionization.
  3. As an HR practitioner, identify five key steps that you would recommend to an employer who was facing the possibility of unionization within its workforce.

The Positive Effects of Unionization

Human Resources Professionals are very familiar with the negative stereotypes directed towards unions and their members.  Some common utterances heard frequently, are that; Union members are lazy; Unions are no longer needed, as we have better employment laws now; Unions are only in it for themselves; Unions are inflexible and only add expenses to the employer’s costs, etc.

Like any sweeping stereotypical statements, there may be some truth to the above, but it is not always the absolute truth.

Unionization helps at the individual level, the organizational level, and the national level. The following article highlights the many benefits of unions.

Click here to read the article.

Research shows that:

  • Countries that have unions have better economic, social, and environmental policies.
  • The collective bargaining process contributes to higher productivity at a national level
  • There is less income inequality in countries that are unionized

The next time someone is spouting the negative aspects of unionization, add some positive statements into the discussion and remember what unions have accomplished for the worker, organizations, and the countries in which they operate.  You don’t have to like unions, but you have to respect them for what they do and what they have done.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify 5 ways unions can have a positive effect on organizations
  2. Identify 5 ways unions can have a positive effect on society
  3. Identify 5 ways unions can have a negative effect on organizations
  4. Identify 5 ways unions can have a positive effect on society




The Impact of Unions

All HR professionals working in union and non-union sectors should be aware of what is going on in the working world around them – Being aware is always an asset!

Take a look at the unionization rates in Canada for the past 16 years.  The trend line is constantly dropping and the number of unionized jobs is dropping with it; with the exception of slight increases in 2010 and 2013.

Click here to read Labour Canada’s Statistics on Unionization.

An increase of 1.5 %  in 2013 may not be much, but if Unifor, Canada’s largest union has its way, the trend of decreasing unionization rates is going to change and begin increasing.

What is Unifor planning to do?  Unifor is committing 10% of its revenues or $10 million dollars to organization drives.  In marketing terms, $10 million for growing their business.

Click here to read an article on Unifor’s Organizational Marketing Drive. 

$10 million is a big number!  Are Canadian employers ready for that kind of union marketing push?  Only time will tell if Unifor can reverse the trend and increase union membership by significant levels in Canada.  Unifor already has the organization skills, the process, and the knowledge on how to organize workplaces and now that they have committed the economic resources to the vision as well.

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, HR professionals need to be aware and alert of this possible change.

Discussion Questions

  1. What type of industries do you think Unifor will  try to organize?
  2. What types of  methods do you think they will enlist to engage new members?
  3. How do you think Canadian employers will respond to this type of union marketing?