Employers in California must, at times, balance the needs of their business with their employees’ rights under local, state, and federal laws. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., protects workers’ rights to engage in union-related activities, as well as the rights of workers who do not want to engage in such activities. The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over disputes of this nature, meaning that the NLRA preempts state law claims. A California appellate court recently held, however, that preemption does not necessarily extend to business tort claims against a labor union, upholding an injunction in a trespass lawsuit. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. United Food and Commercial Workers Int’l Union, 16 C.D.O.S. 7079 (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2016).
Section 8 of the NLRA, codified at 29 U.S.C. § 158, prohibits “unfair labor practices” by both employers and labor organizations. Labor organizations may not, for example, “picket or cause to be picketed, or threaten to picket or cause to be picketed,” an employer when it is not the employees’ authorized representative, and the employer has either already recognized a different union as the authorized representative or is in the process of doing so. 29 U.S.C. § 158(b)(7).
Employers can bring a complaint against a union under § 8 to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is authorized by the NLRA to adjudicate disputes. The NLRB has exclusive jurisdiction over unfair labor practice claims, meaning that any dispute involving a practice addressed in § 8 of the NLRA must first go before the NLRB. This applies to both state and federal claims and is known as “preemption.” The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “state jurisdiction must yield” when a matter falls under the purview of the NLRA. Wal-Mart, slip op. at 6, quoting San Diego Bldg. Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 244 (1959).
According to the court’s opinion in Wal-Mart, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) began conducting a series of demonstrations at Wal-Mart retail locations in California and elsewhere around the country in 2011. The purpose was “to induce Walmart to provide its employees better working conditions and pay.” Wal-Mart at 2. Wal-Mart employees are not unionized, and the UFCW reportedly stated that it was not seeking to become their authorized representative under the NLRA. Demonstrations often involved dozens—occasionally hundreds—of people assembling inside and outside stores. They allegedly often refused to leave immediately when asked to do so by store managers.
Wal-Mart filed a complaint against the UFCW with the NLRB in March 2013, alleging that it had “restrain[ed] or coerce[d] employees in the exercise of [their] rights” in violation of § 8(b)(1)(a) of the NLRA. That May, Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court for trespass, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. It reportedly withdrew its NLRB complaint at around the same time.
In response to Wal-Mart’s request for a preliminary injunction, the UFCW argued that the NLRA preempted Wal-Mart’s trespass claim. It did not claim that the demonstrations were protected by the NLRA, but instead it claimed that the NLRB was the correct forum for the dispute. The superior court disagreed and granted the injunction, finding that “the public had a limited invitation” to enter Wal-Mart’s property for commercial purposes, that this “did not transform the stores into a public forum,” and that the UFCW’s demonstrations constituted trespass. Wal-Mart at 5. The appellate court affirmed this ruling.
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