Walmart Files Trespass Lawsuits Against Protesters

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Walmart trespassing This week, Walmart filed a lawsuit against a labor union in Fort Worth, Texas, accusing members of trespassing on its property, disrupting its business, and even becoming abusive. It's just the latest in a string of similar lawsuits that Walmart has filed in several states. The union claims that the lawsuits are part of a new strategy to halt the protests that have swept through its stores. Walmart says that it's suing to protect its customers.

As OUR Walmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and activists have been helping Walmart workers organize and stage walkouts and protests around the country, Walmart has fought back. The country's largest private employer has filed five trespass lawsuits against unions and labor activists (like Denise Diaz, pictured above with her daughter) -- in Florida, Arkansas, California, Washington, and now Texas -- asking for injunctions that would ban protesters, excluding current employees, from entering Walmart stores for any reason other than shopping. An Arkansas judge, in fact, granted Walmart a temporary restraining order against protesters earlier this month, a few days before the retailer's annual shareholders' meeting.

Labor groups responded by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, calling Walmart's move an illegal attempt to silence speech. That just added to the pile of over 30 allegations of unfair labor practices that OUR Walmart has made against the store in the past month, and is the latest in an ongoing tug-of-war between Walmart and labor groups and activists.

By law, worker groups are not allowed to engage in more than 30 days of picketing aimed at getting union recognition, and Walmart filed a complaint with the NLRB accusing the UFCW of doing just that in November 2012. In January, the UFCW pledged not to try to unionize workers, and the union claims that it only seeks to improve the lot of Walmart's 1.4 million U.S. associates. But Walmart is clearly still ruffled by the ongoing rallies, and is now using the courts to physically ban union organizers from its stores.

"This kind of overreach I haven't seen before," says Erin Johansson, the research director of the advocacy group American Rights at Work, "and for me it's very disconcerting."

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In an interview, Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman said that the lawsuits are "to help protect our customers and their agents from further disruption from the union's illegal trespassing." Fogelman said that Walmart had received numerous complaints from employees and customers alike about the ongoing protests.

But organizers see it as straight-up intimidation. Denise Diaz, executive director of a workers-rights coalition, Central Florida Jobs With Justice, says that she was eating breakfast at home with her 4-year-old child when Walmart served her with a lawsuit, accusing her of trespassing. On one occasion last year, she entered an Orlando Walmart with a group of other advocates to deliver a letter to its manager, requesting that he hire back a worker that Diaz believes was unjustly fired.

"We were really just rational concerned community folks," she says, "having a conversation with the manager."

"What [Walmart is] really concerned about is not where [OUR Walmart or the UFCW] are supposed to be, which is the essence of trespass," says George Wiszynski, a senior attorney at the UFCW. "They're concerned what we're saying when we're there."

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Walmart has taken this legal tack before, over a decade ago, after the UFCW handed out union literature in a national "blitz." In 2002, an Arkansas circuit judge granted Walmart a trespassing injunction, banning UFCW members from "soliciting" in Walmart stores anywhere in the country. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the decision the following year, saying Walmart had offered no evidence that the union's actions had harmed customers or employees. Now, though, activists are being more persistent and creative, and Walmart insists that real harm is left in their wake.

Walmart customer service manager Derek Flout recounted an incident that he said happened in October 2012. In an interview with Flout (while Walmart spokesman Fogelman listened on the line), Flout said that protesters conducted a "register dump" at his store in Rogers, Ark., checking out merchandise, and then deciding that they didn't want it, forcing him and his co-workers to put it all back. "It's kind of ironic," he said, "that they're making it harder for associates."

Two protesters who said that they were present that day flatly denied Flout's account. "We used a couple of buckets for percussions," says Eddie Iny, a UFCW campaigner. "And I saw people putting buckets back. People really wanted to get their message across and be respectful at the same time."

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