Unions are hoping that a pair of bills under consideration in Connecticut will notch another win in their effort to outlaw captive audience meetings, which they say employers use to prevent labor organizing.
“Captive audience” meetings are workplace gatherings that employers require their workers to attend and at which companies communicate their opinions on a variety of matters, including politics, religion, and labor organizing.
Alex Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor in international and public affairs at Columbia University, told Connecticut legislators that captive audience meetings can be political rallies or gatherings to push a particular political candidate or bill. He testified in March in favor of legislation that would allow employees to opt out.
Connecticut AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano told legislators that captive audience meetings “usually take place in response to union organizing drives” and that they are “designed to discourage workers from joining the union by instilling fear.”
Connecticut is the only state in the nation considering captive audience legislation, according to the Connecticut AFL-CIO. Its fate is uncertain, despite Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has stayed on the sidelines of the debate. A handful of other state legislatures have tried to ban captive audience meetings, with limited success. Connecticut’s measure, if passed, is almost certain to be challenged by businesses and trade groups, who consider the measure an unfair impingement on the ability of employers to communicate with their workers.
Only Oregon currently prohibits them, according to the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
Up for a vote before the state Senate, S.B. 64 would prohibit employers from disciplining or firing workers who refuse to attend captive audience meetings, or who leave early, and would allow employees to sue their employers if they are disciplined or fired. Another bill (S.B. 440) still in committee would make employers liable for damages caused to a worker if they fired or disciplined an employee for refusing to attend a captive audience meeting.
Joe Hutchinson, a front desk clerk at the Sheraton Stamford Hotel, said in an interview that mandatory employee meetings were a key part of a union-breaking strategy employed by the hotel in late 2018. He said he and 125 of his fellow hotel workers were forced to attend dozens of mandatory workplace meetings at which the only topic discussed by managers and hired consultants was why employees shouldn’t join a union.
“It was just a nonstop barrage of anti-union stories,” said Hutchinson, adding that the meetings were from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. for four weeks. “It was very intimidating, and exhausting.” Davidson Hotels of Atlanta, owner of the Sheraton Stamford Hotel, declined to comment.
“With all the ways they can pass on information,” why do companies need “to herd them into a room and feed them anti-union propaganda?” asked Looney, who sponsored both Connecticut bills.
While unions decry captive audience meetings as coercive, employers and trade groups say the bills that would allow employees to opt out of mandatory workplace meetings amount to “gag orders” that would infringe on employer free speech rights.
“These bills would stifle communication between employers and their employees,” said Louise DiCocco, counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, a trade group representing the state’s largest employers. Allowing employees to avoid otherwise-mandatory workplace meetings would be problematic, she said.
The bills are opposed by the Connecticut Airport Authority, the Connecticut Hospital Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Heating and Cooling Contractors Association.
A 2018 bill in the Connecticut General Assembly that sought to ban captive audience meetings outright stalled in the face of a legal opinion by then-Attorney General
“We’ve been through this several times, and we keep telling the legislature, it’s pre-empted, it’s pre-empted,” DiCocco said. “Yet here we are again.”
At the CBIA’s request, Washington-based attorney
But Dan Livingston, labor attorney with the Hartford firm Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn, and Kelly PC, said letting employees opt out of captive audience meetings without fear of reprisal is not pre-empted by the NLRA.
“We are very confident that this bill fits squarely within the case law established by a unanimous United States Supreme Court in Metropolitan Life v. Massachusetts that leaves to the states the right to set minimum standards for all workplaces, and that Connecticut’s right to grant its workers this fundamental American right will be upheld by the courts,” he said.
New Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D) indicated he is keeping an open mind, giving captive audience legislation new life in the state.
“The Attorney General strongly believes that state law must protect workers from threats, intimidation and abuse by their employers,” Tong’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Benton, said by email. “As a legislator and over many years, the Attorney General has worked hard to protect workers when their rights to organize have been under attack, and he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with working people and their families across Connecticut. There are various proposals under discussion by the legislature and the Office of the Attorney General is monitoring and will provide guidance as appropriate.”
“It’s worth testing it,” said Looney, the Senate president.
Little Success in Other States
Legislative efforts to ban or regulate captive audience meetings in regards to union organizing have stumbled in other states. New Jersey banned them in a 2006 law but ended up dropping labor organizations from its definition of what constitutes political matters. Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 that prohibited employers from disciplining employees who refused to attend captive audience meetings—similar to what is proposed in Connecticut bill S.B. 64. But that portion of the law was overturned by a federal court judge, who ruled the state law was pre-empted by the NLRA.
In 2009, Oregon passed its law barring employers from holding captive audience meetings to discuss politics or religion. The measure was challenged by state business groups, but that lawsuit was tossed by a federal judge, who ruled the issue hadn’t become ripe for review.
Although the Oregon law is still in effect, employees aren’t challenging employers that continue to hold captive audience meetings, said Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.
“It’s not being used,” Chamberlain said. “It may chill some folks from trying to hold captive audience meetings, but nobody’s filing any lawsuits.”