UFCW Wins Right to Keep Wal-Mart Website

Copyright concern not sufficient to shut down organizing tool
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 01/19/2011

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has won an 18-month battle with Wal-Mart Canada over the union-sponsored website www.walmartworkerscanada.ca.

Wal-Mart sought an injunction to stop the union from using the company’s name, colour schemes, a variation of its logo, a parody of its slogan and images of people in blue vests on the website. The site provides information on labour rights and organizing a union, as well as a forum for discussion.

“Fundamentally, the company wanted to pull the plug on the site and stop it from operating,” said Michael Forman, a national representative with UFCW Canada.

Last month, Wal-Mart and the union reached a confidential settlement that allows the union to continue to operate the site. However, although details cannot be released, several of Wal-Mart’s key concerns have been addressed since the injunction was first filed.

Previously, the site featured a variation of Wal-Mart’s yellow “spark” logo in which a circle of stick people holding hands replaced the yellow ring of sticks. Next to the photograph of people in blue vests was the slogan “Get Respect. Live Better!,” a play on Wal-Mart’s “Save Money. Live Better.” Neither exists on the site today.

Wal-Mart also accused the UFCW of using other language on the website to insinuate a connection between the two, such as the headlines “Walmart News” and “Walmart Workers Canada” and the spark logo.

“The use of Wal-Mart’s intellectual property on the UFCW’s website has created the sort of ambiguity which is the very essence of confusion and passing off,” the company claimed in its motion. Wal-Mart also said the site infringed on its trademark.

In court, Wal-Mart officials said the company demands exclusive use of its logo because its use by others exposes the company to “lack of control and risk of extensive damage.”

UFCW president Wayne Hanley called the proposed injunction an “an over-the-top assault on freedom of speech” and suggested the legal action had less to do with confusion or trademarks, and more to do with limiting freedom of expression and association. The site has been in operation since 2003 but it wasn’t until June 2009 that Wal-Mart filed the injunction.

“This is a huge victory for Walmart workers and their ability to freely communicate on the internet,” said Hanley.

Forman added that in a technological age, companies cannot stop employees from speaking out online.

“Not only is it a constitutional right,” he said, “but when you look at the current media and see how websites have become social networks, you see they’re an important tool.”

Forman said the website was initially launched to provide a resource for Wal-Mart “associates” looking for information about their rights and organizing. Since then, though five locations have been certified, only three remain.

In Quebec, a store in Hull and another in St-Hyacinthe are unionized, as is the store in Weyburn, Sask. The Saskatchewan local was officially certified last month after six years of legal wrangling. However, another Wal-Mart store and a company-operated oil-and-lube shop in Quebec were both closed after unions got in.

According to the UFCW’s website, since 2002 more than 20 different groups of Walmart workers, in several different provinces, have applied to become UFCW Canada members.

Forman said despite the setbacks, the website has still proven successful.

“Social networks, like this website, are important. They help workers understand their rights and what they are,” he said. “And workers can communicate and receive information without fear of reprisal.”

The UFCW has a similar website aimed at organizing workers at Sobey’s grocery stores. However, unlike the Wal-Mart site, the site does not use the logos, colours or other branding related to Sobey’s.

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