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Workers Urge Legislature to Protect Workers Organizing into Unions From Captive Audience Meetings

David C. Dal Zin
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Workers seeking to form a union at McDonald’s, Glanbia Nutritionals, and other employers across Connecticut urged legislators to pass a bill that would protect them from anti-union captive audience meetings held by their employers.

When working people attempt to organize a union at their workplace, they are frequently subjected to captive audience meetings.

“These are mandatory, closed-door meetings during work hours where workers are often threatened and harassed about joining a union,” said Ed Hawthorne, President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “Employers can discipline or even fire workers if they don’t attend.”

John Brady, a former Registered Nurse at Backus Hospital, explained how coercive these meetings are for workers.

“You know, captive audience meetings are well named,” said Brady. “You’re captive.”

When Brady was helping organize his union at Backus, management forced healthcare workers into one-on-one meetings.

“We stepped into a supply closet,” explained Brady. “The door closed behind and they stood with their back to the door. So they were like, there was no other way out.”

Workers who refuse to attend captive audience meetings are at risk of being terminated if they do not comply. Even speaking up during these meetings put the worker at risk of being disciplined.

Under current law, in addition to meetings about union organizing, an employer can force workers to attend meetings about their religious views, urge them to support a political candidate, and even tell them to switch political affiliations.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 163, would give a worker the right – when the subject of an employer-sponsored meeting is about the employer’s position on politics, union organizing, or religion – to stop listening and return to work without fear of being disciplined or terminated.

For Attorney General William Tong, who supports the proposed bill, the issue is personal.

“It was so important to me that I speak on this issue as I have for many years,” said Tong. “My very first introduction to this issue was when I showed up in eastern Connecticut when we were trying to help workers organize at Foxwoods.”

Over twelve years ago, the dealers at Foxwoods joined the UAW to negotiate better pay, benefits and working conditions. But before they secured their first contract in 2010, management ran a vicious anti-union campaign.

“I heard stories about people at that time who were trying to stop workers from organizing,” continued Tong. “I heard managers say, ‘Get me all the yellow-skinned dealers in a room.’ That was really offensive to me, and my family, and frankly, members of my family who worked at Foxwoods at that time. That they would try to gather everybody who looks like me in a room, force them to sit there, and try to bust their union and their efforts to organize.”

Roger Weldon, a 5-year employee at Glanbia Nutritionals, is working with UFCW Local 371 to organize a union.

“Glanbia had been eroding our benefits and work schedules, with no regard for my co-workers or I,” said Weldon. “Upon being notified of our [union election] petition, Glanbia immediately engaged the services of both an anti-union attorney in South Carolina and a company in Nevada that specializes in union busting. They were hired to do Glanbia’s bidding and dirty work to stop our efforts to form a union.”

Instead of recognizing the workers desire to join together in union, Glanbia began paying the anti-union consultants a rate of $3,500 per day where they held mandatory captive audience meetings.

Weldon explained that the meetings “were rife with half-truths, and information taken out of context, deliberately intending to both confuse and intimidate.”

Hawthorne made clear that this legislation would not prevent employers from talking with employees about any matters related to their work.

“While employers are paying workers to be on the job, it doesn’t mean they should be able to force workers to listen to comments that have nothing to do with their work assignments,” said Hawthorne. “This bill simply creates a clear and narrow prohibition barring employers from requiring employees to attend meetings or listen to speech concerning political and religious matters unrelated to their job performance.”

Top leaders in the Connecticut General Assembly joined the workers and the Connecticut AFL-CIO to show their support.

“Senate Bill 163 is a critically important bill to enable people to organize without feeling threatened or intimidated,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney.

The co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, which held a public hearing on the bill on Friday, also spoke in favor of the legislation.

“To me, this is a simple bill – actually, not as complicated as people make it – that will do a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Senate Judiciary Co-Chair Gary Winfield. “And if you believe in the First Amendment… you should believe that this bill is an important bill.”

“I think it is past time that we pass this bill,” added House Judiciary Co-Chair Steve Stafstrom. “If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s just how much we appreciate so many front facing employees in our communities, be that hospitality workers, be that grocery store clerks or the like. And oftentimes those are the types of employees who are subject to these types of captive audience meetings.”

Sen. Julie Kushner and House Vice Chair Matt Blumenthal also attended the press conference to demonstrate their support for this bill.

“Nobody has a right to force workers to sit down and listen to speech about religious or political issues to which they object,” concluded Tong. “And no employer has a right to threaten or intimidate or bully their workers.”

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Click here to view the video of workers sharing their experiences about captive audience meetings.

Click here to read Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne’s written testimony on Senate Bill 163.

Click here to read Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Shellye Davis’s written testimony on Senate Bill 163.

Click here to read Attorney General William Tong’s 2019 opinion that the captive audience proposal is not preempted under the NLRA. The current proposal is substantially identical to the proposal in 2019.

Click here to view Attorney General William Tong’s remarks at the press conference.