Once again the workers of Quebec are pointing the way forward for the rest of Canada. From over 100 000 taking to the streets of Montreal on May Day to the occupation of an Alcan smelting plant north of Montreal, now Quebec has become the first place in North America in which a Wal-Mart store has unionized. On February 9th, Wal-Mart announced that it is to shut down the store that the workers had fought so hard to win union recognition in. The reason? The store, Wal-Mart Canada claims, is already not profitable – and so naturally the demands of the union would only drive it out of business! Wal-Mart is the 4th largest retailer in the world, and is renowned for its anti-union policies. Without the correct tactics, the fate of almost 200 organized Wal-Mart employees and the fate of another store that has won union recognition, hang in the balance.
The small community of 54,000 that is Jonquière, north of Quebec City, has recently become the front line in Wal-Mart’s battle to keep the United Food and Commercial Workers out. Wal-Mart has decided to close down the store in an effort to quash the union aspirations of “associates” in other stores all over the world. Having come under criticism in the mass media, even by federal Liberal MPs, Wal-Mart has taken up an energetic campaign in the media and in the work place to defend its ruthless punishment of its employees. Ads have been taken out in 4 major papers in Quebec in order to provide “the facts” for its “associates” and the community at large.
In an interview on The Morning News website, George Whalin, the president of Retail Management Consultants in California stated, “This union situation in Canada is not new. They knew they were going to face this. They should have started to work on this two years ago.” For him, closing the store is a good thing. In a company that places such strong emphasis on “teamwork” with its “associates” a successful union drive in one store would act as a catalyst for a further series of unionizations which would bite into profits as the workforce seeks better conditions. The trade union struggle is a struggle over precisely how the profit is divided.
So just how big is Wal-Mart? According to Wal-Mart’s recently launched website – www.walmartfacts.com, they employ 1.6 million workers world wide in thousands of “facilities.” Globally, sales rose 16.6% over the 2003 fiscal year to $47.5 billion US, with operating profits rising to $2.3 billion US. This certainly isn’t a task lacking ambition on the part of the leadership of the UFCW.
Up against a company with as vicious an anti-union reputation as Wal-Mart, the question of correct tactics, slogans and policies becomes essential. Clearly the company understands the threat that unions pose to its interests. Wal-Mart has demonstrated its willingness to take on UFCW in the past. In 2000 eleven meatpacking workers at a store in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join the union. Wal-Mart’s reply was to switch to pre-packaged meat, to eliminate the jobs of these meatpackers. In Quebec, workers have for the time being won the battle of certification. But even with the victory of recognition, one store is scheduled to close in May, and at the time of writing, appeals are being made by Wal-Mart to the Ministry of Labour to block the certification of the other. Waging a successful union drive at places like Wal-Mart requires a return to the traditions of militancy that characterized the early labour movement in Canada. If the company refuses to negotiate with its workers and opts to close down the unionized store and open up another one in the not so distant future, then more militant action is needed.
The Alcan workers at a smelting plant north of Montreal were faced with closure and the loss of a major source of employment for a small community. Their answer wasn’t simply to roll over and allow the company to run away with their jobs. Instead they chose to occupy and run the smelter themselves. And some fantastic results were achieved. The facility had never before recorded such low levels of waste, or such high levels of productivity. The brave fight of the Alcan workers failed precisely because it was isolated. It is only a matter of time before the tide flows over an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism. Because the workers had no direct control over the shipments of raw materials to continue production, eventually the operation ground to a halt. Here is the answer to Wal-Mart’s claim that the store wasn’t as productive as they wish! If the store is cutting a loss, then it is because of a lack of workers’ control over the whole process. This is a period of explosive growth for Wal-Mart, precisely because of an increasing numbers of people who have less to spend.
Any UFCW worker who has attended one of their union meetings knows that if they are in a large local, the wages and benefits of their union representatives are quite out of tune with their own. The domination of the bureaucracy over the life of the union is reflective of this, as is the type of campaigns they wage. Petitions and boycotts against Wal-Mart do not help to organize the employees, unless they are the initiative of the workers themselves. Although the unions in Quebec are campaigning for it, a boycott of Wal-Mart isn’t a solution to the problems the workers of the company face. The direction of such a campaign, if it were to succeed in hindering Wal-Mart’s operations, would only impact negatively upon the millions of people who work for the company. It would give the company an excuse to crack down on its employees to “save costs,” with many being laid off. This hardly seems a goal worthy of the endorsement of the labour movement. And of course, in the larger picture, increased unemployment means more customers for places like Walmart: where else can the working class get the most bang for its dwindling buck? It’s not a coincidence that McDonalds, Ikea, and Wal-Mart are staying afloat and even doing well while their higher-priced competition goes under. With such low wages in the service sector, for many working people shopping anywhere else is an unattainable luxury. The problem of “evil corporations” that destroy our livelihoods and environment lies not with this or that company, but is the result of the capitalist system itself. Capitalism depends on ever-increasing profits, and when times are tough, corporations must attack the working class to boost profits. For such highly paid union officials, these concepts are completely foreign.
What’s more, these kinds of campaigns limit the activity and involvement of the union’s rank and file. Even a half-day general strike with solidarity actions throughout other UFCW bargaining units would have a most powerful effect on the Wal-Mart organizing drive. But the leadership of the union opposes such militant actions as these. And for good reason, as the current leadership (both nationally and internationally) represent a bulwark of the right wing in the trade union movement in North America. The power of the right wing in the labour movement depends ultimately on the inactivity of its membership. Any petition and boycott campaign would be waged without the active support of the rank and file. Many of the members don’t make enough to be able to shop at places other than those such as Wal-Mart. Winning genuine support of the union rank and file for such a campaign depends on actually offering solutions to the problems workers face – fighting for better contracts. But a mobilized membership that is active in the life of the union would no doubt raise some opposition to the contracts and conduct of their leaders at union meetings.
The shear size and profitability of Wal-Mart represent a potentially huge membership dues base upon which to increase union funds. This is no doubt a factor in the union leaders’ calculations of a high profile campaign against Wal-Mart. The majority of growth within UFCW in Canada has arisen through mergers between Locals. Marxists support the idea of organizing large unions as a means to strengthen the movement, but on a basis that the initiative comes from below, not from above. When growth in membership isn’t the result of organizing (with even a loss in members), the leaders are uniting in order to preserve the membership dues base.
The trend of companies like Wal-Mart – discount outlets – to expand in this period is symptomatic of the general crisis that capitalism finds itself in today. Workers everywhere in the service sector are coming under attack as competition on the market intensifies. The fact that Wal-Marts are being certified under the banner of the UFCW is a sign of things to come.
In 2004 in California, we witnessed the four and a half month strike of 70 000 grocery store workers with an impressive 97% strike mandate – the first grocery store strike since 1978 in the state. “They are trying to take so much away from us, especially our health benefits. We are willing to give some things but not everything like they are asking. We can’t do it, our families count on the benefits. The companies have been talking to us about how badly Wal-Mart treats its employees but then they turn around and try to cut what we have,” said Glenn Rodriguez, a UFCW member, in a statement on the UFCW website. They talk about how bad Wal-Mart treats its workers not in a sense of contempt, but of envy. It is further evidence of the general onslaught against the conditions of the working class. As always, the workers are prepared to work hard and sacrifice, but there is a point where enough becomes enough. This is a period where the masses in the unions will be drawn into struggle, and draw the necessary conclusions about the quality of their union’s leadership while new layers become organized.
The stage is being set for a confrontation within the ranks of UFCW between the old dominating right wing and a newer generation of militant trade union activists that are being born out of the class struggle. It is ironic that the bureaucracy will have its own position undermined in the event that these organizing drives are successful. As events unfold, the mass organizations of the working class will be transformed as workers flood into them looking for a solution to their problems.
It is in this fire that the working class will forge a leadership capable of challenging not only the corrupt policies of many leaders of today’s labour movement, but also of challenging the existing “New World Order”. Whether it be an urban guerrilla war in the slums of Baghdad or the destruction of a community caused by unemployment and debt when companies like Wal-Mart and Alcan decide things aren’t profitable anymore and close up shop. The choice before us is clear – either socialism or the perpetual race to the bottom, where “the lowest price is the law”.
No to Wal-Mart closing its store in Jonquière!
For workers rights to organize a union without intimidation and fear of unemployment!
For Militant Democratic Unionism as the only way forward!