Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Judge delays action to hear from Wal-Mart, union



By Chuck Bartels
The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK - A judge who banned union organizers from Wal-Mart stores said Monday he is waiting for word from Wal-Mart or the union before he acts on the Arkansas Supreme Court's reversal of an injunction he issued.

On Thursday, the high court nullified Circuit Judge Jim D. Spears' order that granted a request by Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to bar the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union from entering Wal-Mart property to solicit workers for union membership.

The ruling sent the case back to circuit court but did not specify any action that Spears has to take. The judge said he would set a hearing "when somebody asks for one."

"I've been reading the opinion trying to see what they (the Supreme Court) remanded it to me for," Spears said. "I don't know what action they want me to take, exactly."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said Monday the company is still reviewing the decision to see what action needs to be taken in the lower court. She said the company reads the opinion as keeping in place Wal-Mart's policies on solicitation and distribution of materials at its stores.

A spokesman for the union said the Supreme Court ruling seems to be sufficient for the union's requirements.

"We're not concerned about the remand," UFCW spokesman Greg Denier said Monday. "The message from the Arkansas Supreme Court was strong - the rule of law, not the rule of Wal-Mart, prevails."

Spears included not only Arkansas but the other 49 states in his ban.

Denier said Spears' ruling had hurt efforts to organize. He said workers often do not understand they can freely organize.

"The problem is that, in many areas, workers are not necessarily aware of their rights and therefore can't act to organize," Denier said. "What Wal-Mart wants to do is control the flow of information to (Wal-Mart workers) in order to suppress any expression of rights on the part of the associates."

Clark said the union still does not have unlimited access to Wal-Mart stores.

"If they (union organizers) were still to come into our stores, they would still be committing civil trespass," Clark said. She said the company is focusing on a concurring opinion by three justices who said the union could still be engaging in civil trespass by coming into certain areas of the stores.

Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer, with 1.1 million workers at domestic stores. The UFCW has 1.4 million members.

After last week's ruling, Wal-Mart said the high court did not put an end to company policies that limit solicitation or distribution of materials. The company also said the ruling did not make it legal for the union to solicit inside company stores in Arkansas or elsewhere.

Wal-Mart has stridently opposed unions in its stores, arguing that the company is structured so that employees get the best conditions by working directly with the company.

Wal-Mart workers "don't want anyone to come between them and being able to communicate directly with management," Clark said.

Clark said Wal-Mart "is not anti-union. Many family members of (company workers) are in unions and many of our customers are in unions," she said.

In 1999, Wal-Mart sued the UFCW after the union sent representatives to about 300 Supercenters around the nation. Wal-Mart claimed organizers were trespassing and harassing workers. Last year, Spears granted a company request for a permanent injunction to ban union solicitations in Wal-Mart, Sam's Clubs and Neighborhood Market grocery stores in Fort Smith and across the United States.

The high court overturned the injunction in a 6-1 ruling.




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