This week, labor activists from around the country are converging on Bentonville, Ark. in an attempt to disrupt Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting and draw attention to the plight of striking Walmart employees.
But if those protesters decide to enter any Walmarts in Arkansas, they’d better be planning on buying something; thanks to a ruling by the state’s Benton County Circuit Court, members of the labor group OUR Walmart and the labor union UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) are forbidden from doing anything on Walmart property other than shopping.
Striking Walmart employees will still be allowed to picket under the terms of the restraining order [PDF] approved by Judge John Scott on Monday. But OUR Walmart, UFCW, and “all other persons or entities who act in concert with them” are prohibited from joining the workers. While the order doesn’t get more specific than that, such a broad classification could include national coalition partners such as American Rights At Work (ARAW), local grassroots organizations, laid-off Walmart employees, and employees of Walmart contractors.
“It’s very disconcerting that they’re tacking this tack,” said ARAW research director Erin Johansson. “We’ve covered a lot of companies who have tried to silence their employees when standing up, and I’ve never seen them go after community leaders this way.”
Johansson is the author of an ARAW report, issued last month, which claims that Walmart has attempted to “curb freedom of speech and assembly” through the systematic use of trespass lawsuits against protesters. Groups like UFCW, OUR Walmart and state-level affiliates of the Jobs with Justice coalition have been the target of such lawsuits, while former employees have received written trespassing warnings and been handcuffed.
Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said that the company filed a restraining order because employees were concerned about possible disruptions to their work.
“We did this as a way to stand up for the rights of our associates and customers, and our very own property rights,” he said. Stressing Walmart’s position that OUR Walmart and UFCW had illegally trespassed in the past, he added, “No reasonable person would say it’s okay to walk into a business and frighten customers.”
Even if every group in the anti-Walmart campaign fully complies with the restraining order, they company’s shareholders’ meeting is unlikely to pass by without any disruption. The main event will occur this Friday at the University of Arkansas, which is not covered by the ruling. Johansson confirmed that ARAW executive director Sarita Gupta was in Arkansas for the event, and that the group was “going to proceed with something, some kind of public demonstration.”
UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign even raised money to fly two Bangladeshi factory workers into Arkansas, where they will protest conditions at the manufacturing plants which make Walmart products. While they are expected to join demonstrations at the shareholders’ meeting, they are barred from protesting on Walmart property due to their status as contract workers not directly employed by the company.