October 12, 2004
BY OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
It's a curious legislative proposal, an idea so vague and obvious -- that is, if it weren't so specific.
The Hartford city council will consider a proposed ordinance tonight that declares the city's belief in free speech. So much so, that the council is mandating that "large retail stores'' in the city allow all manners of speech -- voter registration, union drives, protests -- on or near their property.
The ordinance, proposed by Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, says that citizens should be able to invoke their First Amendment rights outside all retail stores of 75,000 square feet or more.
Critics and supporters of the proposal agree that its target is more specific: Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, is planning to open a store in Hartford in early 2005, in the shopping plaza rising on the site of the razed Charter Oak housing project.
For as long as the plans for the Wal-Mart have been public, local critics of the retailer -- mainly labor activists -- have been decrying it for what they say are its woeful employment practices.
Complaining about Wal-Mart's nonunionized workforce and its comparatively low entry-level wages, the labor groups have spent the last two years trying to coerce the retailer into making concessions -- or to derail its arrival.
Neither has happened, despite lawsuits and legal machinations.
So critics took their case to city hall, meeting the mayor's staff last spring, they said.
The result is the proposed ordinance, which comes just as Wal-Mart, and the shopping center that will anchor it, is nearing completion.
"The idea was developed with Wal-Mart in mind,'' said Jon Green, the director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, and a frequent critic of the store's labor practices.
"It probably came mostly out of a desire to enable folks from labor unions and folks from advocacy organizations to provide information to workers about their rights -- like the right to be paid overtime,'' he said.
He and other advocacy groups have, in recent years, tried to get their point across in other ways: demanding that the retailer be subject to the city's living wage ordinance; filing a fair housing complaint with the federal government on the grounds that a retail development should not be used to replace housing; and an environmental lawsuit that claims that rare clams and damsel flies can be found where the shopping center is being built.
Now comes the ordinance.
It proposes that any member of the public can have access to the outskirts of large commercial establishments "to engage in non-commercial speech with customers and employees related to religion, politics, business practices, or workplace rights.''
The ordinance would make the rule mandatory for retail stores on "city-affiliated'' property -- a category that would apply to Wal-Mart. The shopping center is being built on land owned by the Hartford Housing Authority, which is leasing it to a Boston-area developer, CBL & Associates Properties Inc. The premise of the proposed ordinance is that retail stores "are now among the most widely frequented areas in the city.'' On those grounds, it says, those establishments are "the most effective and low-cost forums'' for speech to reach an "intended audience.''
Wal-Mart and CBL have opposed the proposed ordinance, saying it amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to unionize Wal-Mart workers or disrupt the retailer's ability to do business in the city.
"How would you feel if there was a law that says people can come and hang out on your front lawn?'' asked Mia Masten, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "That's essentially what this is.''
CBL has hired a Hartford law firm to protest the ordinance, citing multiple civil rights violations.
Targeting the ordinance at retailers over 75,000 square feet disadvantages Wal-Mart, they say. At 149,551 square feet, the Wal-Mart at the Charter Oak Marketplace is the only store in the shopping plaza to meet the threshold, said Bill McCabe, the plaza project manager for CBL Associates.
"This is specifically attacking Wal-Mart,'' he said.
CBL's lawyers also cite a recent state Supreme Court ruling that upheld a private mall operator's right to ban political and other free speech activities from its premises.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff, whose health and human services committee was studying the proposal, said it benefits retailers more than it does the public -- since it forces any protesters to take out an insurance policy to cover any damages caused to the property.
Brian A. Petronella, president of Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said that while the proposed ordinance was drafted with Wal-Mart in mind, it has broader implications for free speech. He said that the law, if passed, would mean an equal forum for Girl Scouts selling cookies, the Salvation Army collecting Christmas donations and, yes, for unions seeking to recruit workers.
"It doesn't force workers to join a union. It doesn't stop consumers from still shopping at the Wal-Mart,'' he said. "It just gives us access at a level playing field.
The fact that the plaza is on public property should remove any debate, Petronella said.
"How can somebody say that this shouldn't be allowed to happen? It would be different if it was private property,'' he said.
Horton Sheff said it is unlikely the council will approve the ordinance tonight, given that questions about its legality have not yet been answered.
The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at city hall.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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