The Supreme Court of Canada said Friday that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was entitled to close a store in Quebec in 2005, seven months after workers voted to become the first Walmart store in North America to unionize.
The highest court in Canada ruled in a 6-3 margin that the multinational had the right to shut down the outlet in Jonquiere, Quebec, and lay off 190 employees.
Justice Ian Binnie wrote for the majority, saying that the court had "endorsed the view that no legislation obliges an employer to remain in business." And that, "the closure did not constitute an unfair labor practice aimed at hindering the union or the employees from exercising rights under the labor code."
A Wal-Mart Canada spokesman said the ruling is consistent with previous decisions from a Quebec labor commission and the Quebec Superior Court and Quebec Court of Appeal.
"The situation in Jonquiere was an unfortunate situation," said Andrew Pelletier, the vice president of corporate affairs. "I think most people know that Wal-Mart tried to keep the store open."
Louis Bolduc of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said the top court's decision has opened a door for the appellants because a labor board will now be able to investigate the reasons for store closures.
"If we can prove the reasons are anti-union then we can sue for damages," he said.
The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Ark., opened its Jonquiere, Quebec, store in 2001. In September 2004, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was certified to represent employees of the Walmart store, becoming the retailer's first employees in North America to form a union.
Wal-Mart closed the store in April 2005, just before an arbitrator was to impose a collective agreement for the 190 recently unionized employees.
During the Supreme Court hearings early this year, the company denied it fired its employees because they had just formed a union.
The company said they were let go simply because the store was not profitable and was shutting down.
Pelletier said the company tried to reach a collective agreement but could not persuade the union to agree to a contract "to allow this struggling store to continue. And that's what led to the ultimate closure."
But unionized workers sued, saying that the employer shut it down in response to the organized labor dispute. Several employees alleged their firings violated Canada's constitution, which guarantees freedom of association.
Pelletier noted the company has a collective agreement with workers at its outlet in St-Hyacinthe and negotiations are going on in other locations.
Pelletier said the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has applied to unionize stores in the Saskatchewan communities of Weyburn and North Battleford.
"Those are all either before the courts or the labor board in Saskatchewan and are being reviewed," he said.
Wal-Mart employs 77,500 people in Canada. Among its North American operations, only bakery and restaurant employees in Mexico are represented by a union. Unions operate in Walmart stores in Brazil, China, Japan and the United Kingdom.