The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a ruling Thursday that had barred a union from recruiting members inside Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores nationwide.
In a 6-1 decision, the high court threw out an injunction issued by an Arkansas state judge, saying the world's largest retailer failed to show that the union organizing caused irreparable harm.
Two of the justices also criticized the judge for reaching beyond the state and imposing a coast-to-coast ban.
"It's a clear victory for common sense and the rule of law," said Al Zack, a Food and Commercial Workers union organizer who coordinated a recruiting effort at hundreds of Wal-Mart stores across the country.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said the Bentonville, Ark., company remains "committed to protecting our stores, associates and customers from aggressive and unsolicited actions."
Wal-Mart, which has waged battles against unions across the country, sued after organizers went to about 300 Supercenters around the nation in 1999. The company said the union representatives were trespassing and harassing workers.
The permanent injunction was granted in 2002 by a judge in Fort Smith.
In its appeal, the union, which claims 1.4-million members in North America, said the injunction stifled free speech and suppressed workers' rights to organize.
Wal-Mart officials noted that in Thursday's ruling, the court did not declare that the union had a legal right to solicit inside its more than 3,400 U.S. stores. The case was sent back to a lower court for further consideration.
Wal-Mart has said union organizers could solicit in store parking lots, though the company requested advance notice.
Though concurring with the decision, Justice Robert Brown said he would have overturned the lower court ruling directly because the local judge issued a nationwide injunction, never acknowledging that state trespass laws vary.
The lower court should have considered only the Wal-Mart stores in Arkansas and limited the scope of the injunction to this state, Brown said.
Special Judge Janet Moore dissented, noting that besides Wal-Mart's posted no solicitation policy, company lawyers notified union officials in writing that continued solicitation activities in stores would be considered an act of trespass.
Wal-Mart shares fell 77 cents to close at $54.96 on the New York Stock Exchange.