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?
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.
- What benefit does Walmart gain from having non-unionized workers?
- Identify how an employee group could gain power through unionization.
- 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.