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January 06, 2005

Hartford Passes Wal-Mart Public Access Law

Consumers and workers challenging abuses by Wal-Mart will have a new weapon when the company opens a store in Hartford: those activists will be able to enter company property and tell customers and workers about those abuses:

For the first time in Connecticut, among the first times in the nation, a local ordinance gives union organizers - and any other groups - the right to do their thing on Wal-Mart property, peacefully and within reason, without fear of the boot or handcuffs.

They can rouse rabble right up to the front door of the 155,000-square-foot store. This is a big deal at Wal-Mart, which has so far remained 100 percent non-union in its North American stores in part by keeping labor organizers as far as possible from its "associates."

Since I helped pass this law as part of my day job, this legal change is near and dear to my heart.

A basic problem in modern urban developments is that we are losing the public space to protest the loss of that public space. Workers are abused, but union organizers are barred from the parking lots where they could explain to workers their rights to organize to change those conditions.

Activists in Hartford already have creative ideas on how to use this new found power:

"The fight to ensure that living wages and benefits are paid to workers is a battle we plan to engage," said Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families, a political party as well as a coalition of labor and community groups.

Among the organizers' ideas: a bake sale, right on the site, to raise money for Wal-Mart workers to buy health coverage.

Back in 1992, the US Supreme Court declared that federal labor law did not give union organizers any right to access employer property during a union election campaign. That meant that employers, who have daily access to employees, can propagandize against unionization with little chance for unions to respond.

But just because federal law gives unions and other consumer activists no right to free speech on company property doesn't mean that state and lcoal governments can't take action to create that right. And given the unlikelihood of federal labor law changes in the immediate future, state and local initiatives like Hartford are where the action will be in coming years.

Posted by Nathan at January 6, 2005 07:43 AM