What is Union Handbilling?

Have you ever been to Las Vegas, walked down the sidewalk, and had a hoards advertisements shoved in your face? You know what I’m talking about – the guys lining the sidewalk who don’t interfere with your walking path, don’t touch you, but are relentless about putting an advertisement to a phone sex hotline or strip club in your hand? That’s kind of what handbilling is like.

Handbilling is when unions pass out pieces of paper with a message on it. The paper is usually distributed outside the company where the union has a labor dispute. For example, if a union is protesting something about Wal Mart, union members will stand as close to Wal Mart as possible (usually on the sidewalk near the entrance of the parking lot) and try to physically pass a piece of paper to each person or car entering the parking lot. The paper – called leaflets – contains information about why the union is protesting Wal Mart.

Unlike picketing (Part 1Part 2), handbillers are not permitted to impede the ingress or egress to the location that they are protesting. The primary purpose of handbilling is to inform the readers about the union’s viewpoint. Therefore, handbilling is generally less persuasive than picketing. Unions that picket an employer use their conduct – walking in front of the door or driveway – to intimidate patrons to stop shopping at Wal Mart.

Handbilling is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution – it’s considered free speech and thus very difficult to stop. However, handbillers are not allowed to trespass on private property to convey their message. So, any union members who do not remain on the sidewalk (or roughly 3-5 feet from the street if there is no sidewalk) can be considered trespassers and reported to the police. Likewise, if handbilling morphs into disruptively coercive activity, the handbiller could lose his First Amendment free speech protection.

Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio labor lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Matt can be reached by email at
Matt.Austin@Austin-Legal.com or by phone at 614.285.5342.