When supporters of a group calling itself OUR Walmart entered a Walmart store in Auburn last November, and as they “sang, and kept rhythm on pots and pans,” they were doing so to bring attention to the retailer’s employment policies.
Or else they were there to disrupt business.
Take your pick.
Such is one part of a case now meandering through Pierce County Superior Court.
The case, filed by Walmart Stores Inc., asks for a permanent injunction against OUR Walmart and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The suit contends that the union and the supporters often block access to parking lots, parking spaces, vehicular traffic and store entrances.
The company contends that supporters “scream through bullhorns, carry signs on sticks, conduct in-store ‘flash mobs,’ and divert management and local police from their normal job functions.”
A hearing in the case scheduled for last Friday in the courtroom of Judge Jack Nevin has been continued. Another hearing scheduled for Friday has been canceled.
“We’re seeking a permanent injunction,” said Walmart spokesman Dan Fogelman, speaking from Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
“The lawsuit filed against the UFCW is to help protect our customers and our associates from further disruption with the union’s continued trespassing. Many of our associates have raised concerns about the ongoing demonstrations staged by the union and their activists. No reasonable person thinks it’s OK to walk into a store or any business and try to disrupt.”
Similar suits have been filed in “Florida, Arkansas and perhaps a few others,” he said.
In June, an Arkansas judge issued a preliminary injunction that restrains the union and its supporters from entering Walmart property for the purpose of picketing, patrolling, parading, joining flash mobs, distributing handbills or otherwise disrupting business or doing anything but shopping or buying merchandise.
No spokesman for the union or OUR Walmart would speak on the record for this report, but Derrick Plummer of the UFCW did issue a statement.
“This lawsuit looks to be another meritless attempt by Walmart to silence workers and the community rather than hear our concerns about the company’s treatment of workers. Rather than creating good jobs with steady hours and affordable health care, Walmart’s pattern is to focus its energies on infringing on our freedom of speech and illegally firing workers,” Plummer stated. He went on to write that Walmart managers “have reacted in an extreme manner — even calling the police and harassing associates.”
One associate, 17-year Walmart veteran Jennie Williams, was working at the Auburn store when a group of protesters arrived. “I asked if I could assist them,” she said. “They said they were just fine. They had the shirts, ‘OUR Walmart.’ I knew to step back.”
“When they got to the front of the store I knew that our shift manager was asking them to leave,” she said. “All of a sudden they started banging on pots and pans with spoons. They started saying something about respect. One (customer) said she couldn’t understand why we were doing this, and I had to tell her that OUR Walmart is not affiliated with Walmart. They eventually left their shopping carts with merchandise in it or they put the merchandise on the floor.”
She said the pots and pans were taken from the shelves and had not been purchased.
“Watching them take our utensils, to sing a song or chant about respect, really, it irritates me,” Williams said. “How can you ask for respect when you’re destroying other people’s shopping? This is my home when I am here. I feel my home was invaded. Everybody has a right to speak what they believe and feel, but not inside a business and with destroying pots and pans.”
In a recent court filing, union attorneys said the defendants are engaged “in a public debate.” They said that Walmart cannot make a case of trespass and should not be granted legal relief.
Yes, according to another filing, “OUR Walmart supporters were at the Auburn, Washington Walmart store on November 3, 2012, went into the store, sang, and kept rhythm on pots and pans.”
Yes, supporters have handed out balloons, held signs, spoken through megaphones, chanted, handed out handbills and taken other actions.
Although free speech and assembly are protected, whether Walmart has the right to control what goes on inside its stores will be a matter for a jury to decide.
A trial has been scheduled to begin in Pierce County in August 2014.C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 firstname.lastname@example.org