NEW YORK - 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.
Wal-Mart said it was shuttering the store in Jonquiere, Quebec, in response to unreasonable demands from union negotiators that would make it impossible for the store to sustain itself.
"We were hoping it wouldn't come to this," Andrew Pelletier, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Canada, said Wednesday. "Despite nine days of meetings over three months, we've been unable to reach an agreement with the union that in our view will allow the store to operate efficiently and profitably."
Pelletier said the store will close in May. The retailer had first discussed closing the Jonquiere store last October, saying the store was losing money.
The United Food & Commercial Workers Canada asked Quebec labor officials to appoint a mediator last week, saying negotiations with Wal-Mart had reached an impasse.
Union leaders dismissed Wal-Mart's reasons for closing the store and promised to fight the move.
"Wal-Mart has fired these workers not because the store was losing money but because the workers exercised their right to join a union," Michael J. Fraser, national director of UFCW Canada, said in a written statement. "Once again, Wal-Mart has decided it is above the law and that the only rules that count are their rules."
Wal-Mart's decision to close the store reflects the retailer's deeply rooted aversion to unions, and its worries that organized labor had nearly established a beachhead, said Burt Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group, a consulting firm specializing in retailing and consumer goods.
But he said the move could backfire for Wal-Mart, which has worked hard to counter a wave of bad publicity and portray itself as a generous employer.
"The store closing may potentially catalyze the combination of the government (officials in Canada), organized labor and consumers working together against Wal-Mart," Flickinger said.
Claudia Tremblay, a cashier at the store, said many employees burst into tears when managers told them the news Wednesday morning.
"Many people cried, including myself," Tremblay said. "I'm a mother of two children and I'm separated from my husband. It's very difficult."
Tremblay said she abstained from the unionization vote. She said she was upset her noncommittal stance won't save her job.
The store in Jonquiere, about 240 miles northeast of Montreal, became the first unionized Wal-Mart store in North America last September, after the bargaining unit was certified by provincial labor officials. Since then, workers at a second Quebec store have also been granted union status. Neither has reached a contract.
The union efforts at both stores are part of a larger chess game labor organizers are waging with Wal-Mart at stores across Canada. The campaign, financed by UFCW money from both Canada and the United States, is also geared toward capturing workers' attention in Wal-Mart's home country.
The closest a U.S. union has ever come to winning a battle with Bentonville, Ark.-based company occurred in 2000 at a store in Jacksonville, Texas, where 11 workers in the store's meatpacking department voted to join and be represented by the UFCW.
That effort failed when Wal-Mart eliminated the job of meatcutter companywide, and shifted from in-store meatcutting to stocking only pre-wrapped meat.