Walmart Has Everything—Except Unions

Employees at a Quebec Walmart made history by unionizing their store. Six months later, management shut it down

The closed Jonquiere Walmart. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The closed Jonquière Walmart. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the 2005 Associated Press photo, Patrice Bergeron is a dashing young man, his face confident. Far off in the background stands a newly built store. The article sets the scene: “Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it will close one of its Canadian stores just as some 200 workers at the location are near winning the first-ever union contract from the world’s largest retailer.”

The unionization of the store in Jonquière, in 2004, caused a veritable earthquake in the world of Walmart. The event was important enough to figure in a Quebec history textbook, where it shares the limelight with René Lévesque, founder of the Parti Québécois.

Bergeron, who led the struggle against the retail giant more than ten years ago, is now sitting at the kitchen table in his apartment on des Chutes Boulevard in Beauport, about 200 kilometres from the store we saw in his photo. He has gained a little weight and seems more serious but appears to be just as sure of himself. Beside him is his partner, Alexandra Genest. She will soon give birth to their first child. The couple formed during the union struggle. In her way, Genest played a role in the story. “I handed him the lighter to burn his Walmart uniform in our protests!” she recalls. The anecdote makes Bergeron smile.

He had just turned twenty-one when he landed a job with the new Walmart store opening in Jonquière. His hourly wage was $7.70, about twenty-five cents more than minimum at the time. Because he was hired full time, he was promised at least twenty-eight hours of work per week. He got a night shift in the warehouse. His role was to unload goods from the trailers to stock the store, which was under construction and due to open in October 2001.

Bergeron quickly discovered that some things in his new job were not right. For example, a manager strongly recommended that he not discuss working conditions, and especially not wages, with other employees. No one seemed to have the same salary, not even those who did exactly the same work. A detail, you may say, but the message is clear: employees should associate with Walmart, not with each other.

Bergeron began to discuss unionization with a night worker who had contacts at the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (Confederation of National Unions, or CSN). He had been working at Walmart for several months by that point. To avoid trouble, the two men gave the union a code name: Sun. There was instant malaise when they broached the issue with other collègues. Worse, the code didn’t fool the bosses for very long. As soon as they heard of the night worker’s ideas, they summoned him to a meeting to call him to order. He immediately quit.

His departure was like a slap on the face to Bergeron. “In the end, he passed the torch on to me,” which, Bergeron stressed, was no small matter. Alone, rather unprepared, the young man sought help. He got in touch with a regional union adviser of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (Federation of Workers of Quebec, or FTQ).

“We are a small group who would like to unionize,” Bergeron told the union adviser.

“Which store?”

“The Jonquière Walmart.”

“Seriously?!”

It was a worthy cause, but the FTQ adviser knew from experience that it wouldn’t be easy. How on earth could a union be established in one of the most anti-union companies in the world? At Walmart, the slightest mention of the word union immediately triggers defence mechanisms. The company even makes a telephone line available to managers twenty-four hours a day, to be used at the first sign of any attempt at organizing. Patrice Bergeron, barely out of his teens, a lightweight from Saguenay, had undertaken mission impossible.

The Jonquière employees had several advantages. Canadian laws were not unfavourable to them. In the United States, individuals are more or less left to themselves in their dealings with big companies. This is no longer the case in Canada, where the law upholds the free association of workers. This explains why the only attempts to unionize Walmart stores—four in total—all happened in Canada. To get union certification in the country, 50 percent plus one of the employees must have initialled a membership card. In the Jonquière store, this corresponded to 100 people.

The FTQ explained to Bergeron that he had to establish a balance of power in order to be heard. He must rally employees to his cause. Two other associates felt the union tension building in the aisles. They were glad and plunged into the fray. The three men carried the union message to the different departments of the Jonquière Walmart. “We had to start taking action and see if people were interested,” Bergeron explained.

Even as he discreetly carried out his union activities, Bergeron applied for and got a position displaying dairy products. That was when his troubles started. One week after his transfer to food, two bosses called him into an office. “Sit down,” one of them ordered, while the other remained standing in front of the door with his arms crossed.

“Pat, it seems you are harassing the employees, talking about unions, I’ve had complaints. I no longer want you to talk about that here, or things will not go well,” warned the manager, according to Bergeron.

The scenario played out again three days later. Same choreography. Two bosses, one sitting and the other standing with crossed arms in front of the door. But, this time, the tone was cranked up a notch.

“If you talk about the union again, you are halfway out of here.”

Caught by surprise, Bergeron claimed that he already had enough membership cards to get union certification. It was a lie. In reality, not a single card had been signed, not even his own. The blow struck the managers dumb. One of the bosses went pale. A wave of panic overwhelmed the small administrative team, which allowed Bergeron to return to work in his section as though nothing had happened. The managers followed him out of the office, their ears glued to their cell phones.

“There was total panic,” Bergeron said, smiling. The bluff undoubtedly changed the course of things. From that moment on, no one took Operation Sun lightly, which was a victory in itself—achieved without having had a single membership card signed.

Being taken seriously brought its own difficulties, however. The atmosphere deteriorated. “I was scared stiff. The bosses didn’t give me an inch, they spied on me,” recalled Bergeron.

Only a minority of employees spontaneously joined ranks with the three union activists. Above all, employees feared the newly opened store would close. The managers happily fuelled this fear. The psychological warfare was brutal. One of the three activists, Pierre Martineau, cracked. He was booed at every morning meeting; even on his birthday, he was treated to this humiliation. He sometimes fled to the washrooms to cry. Bergeron did not escape harassment. A deathly silence greeted him every time he set foot in the store. His colleagues almost feared breathing the same air, as though they would be found guilty by association if they were openly friendly towards him. He became a pariah.

It was obviously impossible to recruit members while in the store, where associates were shackled by fear. With FTQ advisers, Bergeron decided to go meet his colleagues at their own homes. But he had to find out where his colleagues lived. With the means available to him, Bergeron started making a list of all Jonquière Walmart employees.

“I saw people in the breaks and subtly asked them their last names and their husbands’ names. At night, I used the phone book to call them. When I got the right address, I hung up.”

He used another strategy, effective but unorthodox: tailing employees by car after their shift. “My brother helped me, as well as my cousin, which helped me get membership cards signed, notably by a skirt chaser who was very anti-union at first but didn’t know how to say no to such a pretty girl.”

The end justified the means, or almost do.

Nine months later, Bergeron had an exhaustive list of employees and their addresses. A real feat, given staff turnover. For the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW), whose local came on board to lend Bergeron a hand, the time was ripe. A membership drive should be launched.

It was too good to be true. Exhausted by months of preparation, Bergeron’s crew announced it was abandoning the struggle. Misfortune never comes singly, and UFCW also threw in the towel when these defections were announced. Once again, Bergeron found himself alone.

But Bergeron wasn’t going to let himself be defeated. If he had to cross a desert to get to his goal, he would. He soon reconstituted a small union cell. Johanne Desbiens and her best friend, both cashiers, threw themselves into the fray. They gathered the missing addresses, and the little team began to sign up members to the union. Signatures came in, slowly but surely. First friends from the warehouse, then some cashiers, and then lips began to loosen: associates complained about some aspects of their work, the precarity of their conditions, the difficult schedules—and the number of signatories soared. Many were afraid. At night, they called Bergeron at home for reassurance.

In December 2003, a first union application was filed. There was a secret vote. It failed. The blitz had brought in seventy signatures, but this was insufficient. Thirty more were needed to form a union. According to Bergeron, the threat of closure triumphed over the desire to unite. Discouragement prevailed, and Bergeron and his friends decided to take a break and allow the dust to settle. Membership cards were valid for a year. That gave them a little time.

Fortunately, news is not always bad. A new employee soon decided to step up. The troops respected him. Enter Gaétan Plourde.

When Plourde came onto the scene, the union movement had run out of steam. He gave it new life and carried it with force through to the end. Nothing predestined this man for unionism, however.

Plourde’s adventure began in the summer of 2001 with an advertisement in the Chicoutimi Le Quotidien. Employees were sought for a future Walmart in Jonquière. This former manager of a European framing company, which had moved its offices overseas, decided to apply.

Because of his previous position, Plourde had no difficulty getting hired at Walmart and began work the following month, along with other new associates, to help set up the new store. Plourde, a team player, went along with the flow. His only request, which was granted, was to be assigned to the electronics department, because he had some knowledge in this area. Well liked by the management, he quickly became permanent.

Time passed, and two years after being hired, Plourde learned that the young Patrice Bergeron was discreetly orchestrating a campaign to form a union. The night workers were talking about it openly. Plourde, a loyal employee, didn’t want to get his hands dirty; moreover, the management had always seemed to him to be open to suggestions. A meeting had even been organized the previous year with the goal of improving work and quality of life at the store. Plourde had submitted a list of grievances, nothing very serious.

But then, a short time later, a similar meeting was organized, and Plourde realized that there had been no follow-up on suggestions made the previous year. Another meeting, just as sterile, took place, and the electronics associate had to face the facts: the bosses were merely executives—they had no real decision-making power. It was impossible to improve things for the employees by appealing to local management. In this way, he came to see a union as the logical choice.

Up to that point, Plourde had only listened to conversations about the union with half an ear; now he added his two cents. He signed a membership card, given to him by the two cashiers. These two had quietly continued recruiting after Bergeron had pulled back to play a less visible role. The fierce struggle against the management had singled him out. Caution demanded that he take a back seat so as not to harm the movement. He continued behind the scenes, especially by getting membership cards signed.

The cashiers recruited Plourde into the union nucleus. Hostilities resumed, more virulent than ever, dividing the store into two camps. On one side, discontented workers wanting to organize, and on the other, ardent opponents of the union, led by several department managers. The associates of the first group hoped to obtain the right to speak for themselves by associating in a union; the second group feared store closure and unemployment, a fear fed by the managers. This polarization lasted throughout the conflict.

The bosses were dismayed to learn that Plourde was involved in the union. He was summoned to their office to clarify. The same scenario played out: a boss standing in front of the door with his arms crossed, and the other leading the discussion, seated before the employee. “You are prohibited to speak about unions during working hours. This is your first warning.”

But the damage was done. The bosses had lost confidence in their model employee.

The application for union certification and the vote took place six months later. Again, the employees rejected the union. It was a bitter disappointment for the activists, who had poured their heart and soul into the cause. The night of the defeat, UFCW organized a press conference in its offices. The turmoil at the Jonquière Walmart was beginning to attract attention. The president delivered a rousing, inspiring speech, and by a strange twist, the defeat took on the aspect of victory.

Plourde and his team redoubled their efforts and went back to the vote. The third time proved successful: 160 out of 200 employees had signed membership cards. In August 2004, the employees of a Walmart in Jonquière obtained union certification. A first in the history of the multinational in North America.

There was euphoria. The drama, which had been local up to then, instantly made world news. How would Walmart react?

The exhilaration of victory gave way to difficult days. The administration was disorganized, overwhelmed by events, but the managers were incensed. “The harassment intensified. We criticized the management for not calming things down, but it must have suited them,” Plourde said he now believes.

After the union was certified, a manager had a flyer distributed to employees. The title speaks for itself: “How union organisers create problems at Walmart.” This twenty-line text described the union organizer as a parasite worse than mosquitos. The flyer warned associates that “once they manage to infiltrate a store,” organizers only seek to get membership cards signed. But this carried a risk because, “these people can be dangerous for Walmart. Not only because of their union activities, but because they generally believe themselves to be ‘above’ company policies.” It would not be surprising, continued the text, to see an organizer goad the management with the sole purpose of provoking disciplinary measures and thus being able to “file a complaint for unfair practices against the store.”

From all appearances, the contents of this flyer were pulled from a highly confidential internal document called “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free.” This document was designed to provide executives with the tools to guard against attempts to unionize at Walmart. The company always officially denied the use of this document on Canadian soil. I nevertheless got my hands on this twenty-four-page information kit.

The kit begins by reminding the management team of its strategic importance because it constitutes “our first line of defence against unionization.” Also included for the first line of defence is list of resource people to contact in Bentonville, Arkansas, company headquarters, as soon as union activity occurs. “DO NOT GIVE THESE PHONE NUMBERS TO A UNION REPRESENTATIVE OR ANYONE OUTSIDE WAL-MART!” it says in capital letters, with the word “not” underlined. Walmart maintains that it is not anti-union but simply pro-associate.

This is the crux of the matter. Walmart believes that it is harmful for an associate’s loyalty to be divided between a union and the company. Within this mindset, unionization creates a business within the business—a worm within the apple. The information kit doesn’t mince words: “Unions are not a club, sorority, fraternity or social organization. They are a business, a big business, that needs to make money.” The kit explains that, to avoid such internal competition, it is important to take care of the troops’ morale. An unhappy associate “will tend to be seduced by the beautiful promises of the organiser.”

The kit sets out a list of distinguishing signs of the union organizer (called “early warning signs”). These are divided into two categories. First, there are suspect behaviours that should sound the alarm: abnormally high absenteeism, confrontations with managers, slowdown of productivity at work, growing curiosity about social benefits, and misuse of the toilets. The second category includes much less equivocal actions: open discussions about unions, strangers coming and spending an abnormal amount of time with associates in the parking lot, associates who have never been seen together starting to talk and “forming strange alliances.”

The rest of the document describes in detail the kinds of union actions that may be organized if the threat materializes, from pickets to flyering and negative publicity. Managers are told how they should act when a union is at their door: “Do tell associates the law permits the company to permanently replace them if there is a Strike. Do tell associates if a union is voted in, everything (their wages, benefits and working conditions) would go on the bargaining table. It is much like the game show LET’S MAKE A DEAL! They could get more, they could get the same, or they could get less.”

One thing seems obvious: Walmart is determined to fight unionization. The American human rights organization Human Rights Watch published a damning report on Walmart, which it accuses of violating the rights of workers to freedom of association in unions. The conclusions of the report are clear: “Walmart has devised a comprehensive battery of sophisticated corporate institutions and practices aimed at frustrating union organizing activity.”

However, the company’s tone is far more conciliatory in a guide it has distributed to employees since 2003. A section entitled “Our Opinion of Unions” reads:

Walmart respects the rights of its associates, including the decision to join a union or not. Associates have the recognized right to make such a decision without intimidation, coercion or influence from ANYONE AT ALL. The company is always ready to discuss this issue or any other work-related topic with associates who wish to do so. Walmart is not against unionization. However, while a union may represent its members who work for other employers or competitors in the retail commerce industry well, Walmart believes that if its values and beliefs are applied there is no real or marked advantage to joining a union.

As there is a world of difference between the official guide, which says the company respects the will to unionize, and the confidential document, which suggests taking steps against unionization. Let’s look at the facts: in February 2005, senior management from Toronto headquarters travelled to Jonquière to announce that the store would close. It wasn’t profitable enough, one of the visitors said in broken French to justify the decision.

Patrice Bergeron and Gaétan Plourde were not fooled: they were paying the price—a big one—for their flirtation with unionism. The union organizers had previously taken the threat of closure with a grain of salt. After all, who would have imagined that a brand-new store, with many customers, where 225 employees worked hard and well, would be closed? With confidence in the future, they had set out the framework for the first collective agreement with the help of UFCW. The employment contract was modelled on agreements in effect at IGA and Metro supermarkets. The employees asked for forty-hour weeks for full-time employees, paid sick leave, pay raises, and, most of all, the ability to speak as a group. They weren’t asking for the moon, in Bergeron’s view. But it was too much for the retail giant.

News of the closure filtered out over two days to the employees, who were summoned into a room in small groups. The atmosphere was tense when Plourde was present. The human-resources director spoke: “The store is less and less profitable. It will be closed.” Some managers immediately burst into tears.

“It’s unacceptable!” protested Plourde.

The executive didn’t have time to open his mouth before the managers shot back, “It’s your fault, asshole, it’s because of the union!”

It was hell for Plourde. A hostile welcoming committee awaited him in front of the store the next morning. Night workers and several managers.

“Are you happy, Plourde? You made us lose our jobs!” colleagues called to him.

The intimidation continued every day. When Plourde was alone, they insulted him. “It really smells of shit over here!”

On top of the insults were death threats, Plourde told me. It was Bergeron who warned him, “I heard rumours. It seems some people want to take care of you.”

Whether or not there was any basis to it, the threat scared the union activist.

His ordeal ended on April 29, 2005, when the doors were officially closed. After the closure, to twist the blade in the wound, the employees—unionized or not—had to dismantle the store. Great atmosphere! To the employees, overwhelmed by the events, this final task seemed like a sadistic punishment and a warning for the future.

However, Plourde’s struggle was not over. It continued for another ten long years as he tried to have it recognized by the courts that Walmart’s closure of its Jonquière store in 2005 was illegal. Despite the length of the ordeal, he never thought of abandoning the case. “You don’t jump ship when it is sinking. I knew we had the means to defend ourselves in Quebec. I kept thinking, ‘Who do you think you are, Walmart, to come here and dictate your laws to us?’”

When the Supreme Court of Canada eventually ruled in favour of employees, in 2014, he felt as though he were emerging from a long nightmare. “The highest court in the land said I was right. I could hold my head up at last—though no higher than my five feet, five inches,” he laughed.

In his view, popular education should be carried out before there is any renewed attempt to unionize Walmart. The perpetually full parking lots at Walmart stores never fail to remind him of this. “There is a lack of solidarity from consumers. People should ask themselves questions. At one point, I began hating my own people, because they were not behind me.”

Having become about as popular as a leper in the area, Bergeron packed his bags and moved to Quebec City after the store closed. He now works as an aide to people with intellectual disabilities, and he dreams of becoming a union adviser. Before pulling his life back together, he fell into alcoholism and depression and came within a hair of dying in a car accident. A long, traumatizing descent into hell. Does he regret having gotten involved in the fight? No, he answered immediately.

“I still kicked American ass.”

Excerpted from Walmart: Diary of an Associate by Hugo Meunier, translated by Mary Foster. Copyright © 2019 Published by Fernwood Publishing. All rights reserved.

Hugo Meunier
Hugo Meunier is director of digital content for Québecor and has been a journalist at La Presse for more than ten years. He lives in Montreal.