The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday that Wal-Mart Canada Corp. was within its rights when it shut down a store in Jonquière, Que., that had been unionized seven months earlier.
"As of now, the highest court in the land has looked at this, as have other courts, and have said that as unfortunate as the situation was, Wal-Mart was not in the wrong to do what it did," said Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada.
In two related decisions, the country's top court split 6-3 both times in favour of the company.
In September 2004, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 503, was certified to represent employees of the Wal-Mart store in Jonquière. However, attempts to reach a collective agreement failed.
On Feb, 9, 2005, the contract issue was sent to arbitration, but that same day, Wal-Mart told the workers it was closing the store. The store eventually closed on April 29, 2005, putting approximately 190 employees out of work.
The company said the store wasn't profitable, but appellants said the employer shut it down in response to the labour dispute.
In the case of Gaétan Plourde against the company, he had argued that he lost his job at the store because of his union activities. However, the Supreme Court concurred with earlier decisions by Quebec's Commission des relations du travail (CRT), the Quebec Superior Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal in ruling in favour of the company.
In the case of Johanne Desbiens, Ingrid Ratté and Claudine Beaumont against the company, the majority of the Supreme Court justices found that the Quebec Court of Appeal erred when it overturned a decision of the Commission des relations du travail.
However, as Justice William Binnie wrote in the majority Supreme Court opinion, as a practical matter it would be a waste of the parties’ time and money to send the case back to the CRT.
"The outcome would not be in doubt," Binnie wrote. "The Jonquière store is closed and there is no possibility of reinstatement of the employees."
Bernard Philion, a Montreal lawyer who pled the case for some former Wal-Mart employees, said the court's ruling is disappointing for his clients. But he said some employees do plan on arguing their case under other provisions in the labour law in Quebec's Superior Court.
"They have other recourses pending and I think that this decision gives them great possibilities," he said.
Louis Bolduc of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union also said the top court's decision opened a door because a labour 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 in a Montreal interview.