JONQUIERE, Quebec - The signs topping sales racks wear the same yellow smiley face, but promise ‘‘Chute de Prix,’’ instead of price rollbacks. The boxes of Tide lining the shelves in housewares come packed with a bonus CD, just for Canadian stores, inviting shoppers to experience ‘‘la passion du Hockey.’’
But except for a few tweaks, the low-slung gray and blue Wal-Mart store off highway 70 could be almost any one of the retail Goliath’s nearly 5,000 discount emporiums in the United States and eight other countries. And that’s what worries executives at the Arkansas headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores.
While still not a certainty, the 165 retirees, single moms, students and other hourly workers at this store more than 2 hours north of Quebec City could soon become the first anywhere to extract what the world’s largest private employer insists its 1.5 million ‘‘associates’’ around the world neither want nor need — a union contract. A government agency has certified the workers as a union and told the two sides to negotiate.
‘‘One person against Wal-Mart cannot change anything,’’ said Gaetan Plourde, a fiery 49-year-old sales clerk in the store’s home electronics department, explaining simmering frustration over the store’s pay, scheduling and other practices. ‘‘Wal-Mart wants to be rich, but it won’t share.’’
Wal-Mart responds that it does share its cost savings with consumers through lower prices and that it treats its workers fairly. The company has redefined retailing by squeezing its suppliers and keeping a tight lid on other costs, including labor, allowing it to undercut competing stores. That translated last fiscal year into profits of more than $9 billion on sales of $256.3 billion.
It would be easy to overlook events in northern Quebec — a region separated from the nearest big city by more than 100 miles of thickly wooded mountains seemingly planted with more moose crossing signs than houses, in a province known for its idiosyncratic labor laws — as purely local.
But it’s not. There has been angry name-calling by workers riven into pro-union and anti-union factions and accusations of intimidation by managers and threats of a lawsuit by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
And on Wednesday, Wal-Mart, referring to the strife, said the store was losing money and might have to close.
‘‘If we are not able to reach a collective agreement that is reasonable and that allows the store to function efficiently and ultimately profitable, it is possible that the store will close,’’ Andrew Pelletier, a spokesman at Wal-Mart Canada, said in an interview.
The buzz at the Jonquiere store is no accident. It is just the current focus in a larger chess game, waged by labor organizers in stores scattered across Canada — including two other Wal-Marts in Quebec, where union spokesman Michael Forman said employees have also applied to the provincial labor board for union certification.
The public jockeying over Jonquiere is also also geared to capture the attention of workers in the United States.
Hourly wages are Wal-Mart’s biggest single operating cost, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the bill to run its stores. Benefits are second. Those costs have been rising, pushed higher by factors including health care bills and the retailer’s entry into more expensive cities.
Wal-Mart says the average hourly wage of its workers is $9.96 an hour — just below the $10 an hour average pay for U.S. discount department store workers and short of the $10.87 an hour earned by the average supermarket employee.
But pay and benefits are substantially better at some unionized food stores. A strike by Southern California supermarket workers — most making $12 to $15 an hour — early this year came after grocers sought to cut pay for entrylevel workers and shift healthcare costs. The concessions were essential, grocers said, if they were to compete with Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart defends its pay as very competitive, and says its chief concern with unions is that they would get in the way of doing business.
Even if a union gains entry, it will come slowly and make only an incremental difference in Wal-Mart’s costs and profits, said Emme Kozloff, an analyst who tracks the retailer for Bernstein Research in New York.
But it’s the perception among employees and shareholders, as much as the bottom line impact, that concerns Wal-Mart, she said.
‘‘I do think the union thing would be a symbolic blow externally and internally, but they’re probably gearing up to handle something like this,’’ she said. ‘‘For a retailer, the biggest component of your cost structure is labor and so you’re going to be darn sure you do everything in your power to make sure you avoid an increase.’’
Wal-Mart, whose sweeping reach and zealous pursuit of lower prices has made it a potent economic force, does little to disguise its distaste for unions. It has built such a high wall against organized labor that it’s not clear what would happen if a single brick was yanked loose.
Maybe, as has been the case often before, Wal-Mart’s bankroll, tenaciousness and skill at buying time will win out and the union effort here will fizzle. Maybe nothing more will come of it than a few extra cents an hour for a handful of workers — a financial non-event for a company whose annual sales are larger than the economies of all but 20 countries.
Or just maybe, something else happens — a prospect the union savors —something with an impact beyond Jonquiere.
‘‘It’s a little bit like watching a hurricane form,’’ says Robert Hebdon, a professor of labor relations at McGill University in Montreal. ‘‘You don’t know whether it’s going to be just be a little bit of wind . . . or whether it’s going to be a storm, a full blown storm.’’
While union membership levels have declined in the United States to about 13 percent of the labor force, about a third of all Canadian workers are unionized. Quebec is even higher, with about 41 percent of its workers in unions.
‘‘You can’t live in Jonquiere ... and not have a friend or a relative, a wife or a husband or a father who is unionized,’’ says Serge Lemelin, a reporter for regional newspaper Le Quotidien. ‘‘It’s a chateau-fort — a kind of fortress for the unions here.’’
Even so, the talk about a union did not win universal support in the new Wal-Mart, with some workers worried it might cost them their jobs, others rejecting the idea of paying union dues.