mark pazniokas /

From Starbucks to Amazon to the service plazas on I-95, workers are joining together and organizing themselves into unions so they can finally have a voice on the job.

Since the Great Resignation, thousands of workers have been standing up against corporate greed while working people have faced years of wage stagnation. In the past year, billionaires have accumulated an additional $5 trillion – growing their wealth at a rate unprecedented in human history – while frontline essential workers have sometimes struggled to put food on the table.

Working people have had enough. Many have realized the only way to improve their wages, lower health care costs, and secure retirement benefits is to join together in union.

Yet working people still struggle to form unions. Our labor laws are badly broken. Workers seeking to form a union are frequently subjected to coercive captive audience meetings. These are mandatory, closed-door meetings during work hours where workers are often threatened and harassed about their union support. Workers can be disciplined or fired if they don’t attend.

Legislation currently pending before the Connecticut General Assembly would change that. Senate Bill 163 would allow an employee the right to leave a meeting and return to work when the subject of the meeting is about the about the employers’ position on politics, religion, or union organizing.

Captive audience meetings are held in the vast majority of union organizing campaigns and management frequently threatens workers in these meetings.

Six workers at Dollar General in Barkhamsted were reportedly harassed by five anti-union consultants and three out-of-state executives in one-on-one and group captive audience meetings when they attempted to organize. Management fired one union supporter and threatened to permanently close the store if the workers voted for a union. Workers were unable to overcome the wave of employer intimidation and harassment and were unable to form a union.

A nurse at Backus Hospital in Norwich told state legislators he was put into a supply closet by a manager with their back to the door and berated about their union support. Workers at McDonald’s on I-95 have been forced to attend captive audience meetings since 2019. Their employer even illegally fired union supporters (although an administrative law judge recently ordered them rehired). There are countless other stories including at Glanbia Nutritionals in West Haven and Orange, nurses at a rehab facility in Waterbury, bus drivers in Newington, environmental service workers at Foxwoods, hotel service workers, and on and on.

This is a fundamental freedom-of-speech issue for workers. The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that it is a form of coercion to make people listen to another’s speech and that no one has the right to press even ‘good’ ideas on an unwilling recipient.

SB 163 protects workers’ constitutional rights of freedom of speech and conscience by establishing a minimum state labor standard that allows employees to refuse to attend captive audience meetings and refuse to listen to speech communicating the employer’s opinion concerning religious or political matters. It is a necessary remedy to protect employees’ freedom of speech.

Surely, no one would seriously argue that the First Amendment gives an employer the right to order employees to leave their work to be told why they should be Protestants instead of Catholics or Democrats instead of Republicans. No employer should have the right to fire or discipline an employee who declines to attend such a meeting.

Corporate CEOs hate this legislation. Their “sky is falling” arguments are simply baseless and meant to stoke fear just like the captive audience meetings they hold with their employees. This bill is merely an attempt to help level the playing field for workers.

What’s more, their assertion that this bill would be preempted by federal law is unfounded. Attorney General William Tong issued an opinion on a substantively identical bill in 2019 that found the proposed state law would not be preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. In fact, Attorney General Tong even submitted testimony in favor of SB 163.

Even with this legislation, employers can hold meetings on any topic they want. Nothing in this bill bars an employer from holding a mandatory meeting about wages, pensions, safety policies or other work-related issues.

This bill simply creates a clear and narrow prohibition barring employers from disciplining or terminating employees who wish to leave captive meetings about an employer’s position on political or religious matters unrelated to their job performance.

It’s past time we fix our outdated and broken labor laws. Workers seeking to organize, like anyone else, deserve protection from intimidation and harassment. We can’t miss this opportunity to help level the playing field for working people in Connecticut.

Ed Hawthorne is the President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which represents over 200,000 workers in the private sector, public sector, and building trades.