Canadian union intensifies online campaign against Walmart court filing

UFCW Canada, one of Canada’s largest unions whose membership spans over many sectors, has beefed up an online campaign against a Walmart court filing targeting the union’s Web site walmartworkerscanada.ca.

Walmart filed a request for a court injunction July 28 claiming the Web site, infringes on its trademarks and asking that it be shut down.

Instead, UFCW Canada has launched a new section on the site and a social media campaign with Facebook and YouTube to bring attention to what it calls an “over the top assault on effective freedom of speech.”

An “under the threat of censorship” banner adorns the main graphics on the home page.

The online campaign has a satirical edge and challenges Walmart to show respect for free speech by dropping its injunction request, says Derek Johnstone, national representative at UFCW Canada.

Yet, from the union’s perspective, it’s had the pleasant side effect of exposing UFCW’s cause to a wider audience.

“Traffic on the site has gone up ten fold,” Johnstone says. “Our appeal has really broadened from the people we normally attract. We’re suddenly getting interest because there’s a free speech component that people are interested in.”

Interest indeed. The campaign has caught the eye of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and popular blog The Huffington Post. A network of bloggers has covered the story and the Facebook group has attracted more than 660 members and continues to grow.

“Here you have the largest corporation in the world trying to edit and remove a Web site that speaks to collective labour rights,” Johnstone says. “It sets a scary precedent.”

In its court filing, Walmart demands the union not use the phrase “Walmart Workers Canada” or the expression “Get Respect. Live Better” which is a parody of Walmart’s slogan, “Save Money. Live Better.” It also requests that no photos of Walmart employees wearing blue vests, or “oval, circular or semi-circular” designs similar to Wal-Mart’s logo be used.

It also asks that the Web site be taken down entirely.

Montreal-based legal firm Lapointe Rosenstein LLP filed the injunction request.

“We’re asking for the removal of these trademarks from the Web site,” says Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs at Walmart Canada. “As they go trying to solicit our workers, they need to be very clear that it’s the UFCW doing that.”

The union feels Walmart doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on and is refusing to budge. It has been using a similar look and feel on its Web site since 2003 and it’s not about to change now.

“We’ve never backed down from Walmart in any way, even though they are the biggest company in the world with a bottomless legal budget,” Johnstone says. “Going to court has never been a factor for us.”

But Walmart took issue with the site’s redesign that went live earlier this year, Pelletier says.

“If Walmart was to use the UFCW branding, I’m sure they would object to it,” he says. “If you don’t take steps to protect trademarks, they become vulnerable.”

Walmart is abusing intellectual property law in an effort to scare off the union, according to a legal expert. It is bothered by the effective Web site and doesn’t like the notion that it can’t control what its employees are doing online. But there’s no trademark violation.

“It’s frivolous, it’s specious. It’s an instance of Walmart using its muscle in order to get a union to back down,” says Sam Trosaw, associate professor of law at the University of Western Ontario.

Trosaw has blogged about the case.

Trademark law exists to prevent customer confusion, Trosaw says. But no one is going to confuse Walmart with a union. The law is usually invoked in a case involving two competing companies.

But another lawyer says it is hard to predict how a court case could turn out.

Canadian courts haven’t allowed brand hijacking like this in the past, notes David Fewer, acting director of Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).

Courts have taken a stern view of intellectual property being used in this way, he says. In this case, he notes, a union dispute has got “morphed into an intellectual property dispute.”

The Web campaign uses satire to poke fun at Walmart’s demands. A “Save the Circle” YouTube video features a fake newscast in which Walmart bans all usage of the circle due to trademark infringement. Steering wheels are turned square, math classes are cancelled until a replacement for 0 can be found, and sports using round balls are cancelled.

The Facebook group picks up a similar theme, featuring photos of square watermelons, crop circles, and dining plate sets.

“It’s outrageous that you have a corporation trying to change a non-corporate Web site,” Johnstone says. “This says something about the future of trying to communicate on the Internet.”

But Walmart characterizes the fight in a different light.

“They are one of the biggest and most powerful unions in the world,” Pelletier says. “They shouldn’t be using our branding.”

Despite the humour, the campaign is serious. It asks people to send a letter to Walmart telling them to drop the injunction. The union plans to continue the fight, possibly with even more new media channels, until the case goes to court in September.

“I wouldn’t even hazard to guess what Walmart’s strategy is,” Johnstone says.

But Walmart hasn’t received a lot of letters from the campaign, Pelletier says. There are no plans to drop the injunction request.

“Our hope is they’ll end up removing pieces of the Web site that infringe on the Walmart trademark,” he says.

Walmart stores in Canada are not unionized save for a Saint Hyacinethe, Que. store with a collective bargaining agreement that is represented by UFCW.

There are a couple other stores in Quebec represented by UFCW, but with no collective bargaining agreement, Johnstone says.

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