Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, outlining the captive audience bill. At right, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Connecticut is one step closer to passing a law that would outlaw “captive audience” meetings — a tool that critics say companies use to thwart labor organizing and convince their employees to vote against union drives.

The state Senate voted 23-11 on Thursday to pass the bill, which would make Connecticut the second state in the country to ban such meetings, alongside Oregon.

The bill — SB 163 — has been described by hospitals, the insurance industry and other business groups as a heavy-handed attempt to stifle the legal rights of corporations and “suppress critical workplace communications.”

“The practical impact of this bill is that employers will never be able to hold a meeting and have honest conversations with employees without the risk of people walking out,” John Blair, an attorney with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, told lawmakers in written testimony.

The state’s largest labor organizations have argued the legislation is needed to stop employers from penalizing workers if they choose to skip meetings where businesses share anti-union messaging.

“A captive audience meeting is a mandatory closed-door meeting held during work hours by the employer,” Ed Hawthorne, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, told lawmakers in written testimony. “It is designed to discourage workers from joining the union by instilling fear. They are often conducted one-on-one or in small groups.”

The union-friendly measure has been a goal for labor organizations in Connecticut for years. Versions of the legislation have been proposed in Connecticut over the past two decades.

But the bill finally gained momentum this session as labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers made it one of their top legislative priorities.

The legislation, which would affect private companies and public employers, is expected to be taken up by the Connecticut House next week.

During the Senate debate, several Republican lawmakers argued the bill would make Connecticut less attractive to businesses and unfairly restrict corporations from advocating for their interests. They also questioned whether the bill ran afoul of federal labor laws.

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, argued the bill was “anti-business,” “anti-freedom” and “anti-fairness.”

“It will discourage employers from coming here or expanding the state,” Sampson said. “I believe it undermines industry in a very significant way.”

The Democratic leadership in the Senate pushed back on claims that the bill would restrict businesses from expressing their opinions about unionization or any other political topic.

Sen. Gary Winfield, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, emphasized that the bill does not prevent an employee from agreeing to go to a meeting where their employer argues against unionization. But it does prevent an employer from disciplining or firing employees that choose not to attend that type of event.

There are also exceptions in the bill to ensure employers can communicate information that is required by law and other details that their workers need to perform their jobs duties.

Winfield, D-New Haven, also argued that captive audience meetings currently give businesses and government employers an unfair advantage during union drives by effectively requiring employees to listen to anti-union talking points.

“There is an unequal playing field as we sit here,” Winfield said.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the bill was focused on stopping businesses from using captive audience meetings to “coerce” their employees.

Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, also said the legislation was needed to help boost the rate of union representation in the workforce, which dropped nationally in recent decades.

“This bill is not going to fix all that, but it is going to restore the balance that we want,” Slap said.

Connecticut lawmakers aren’t the only officials who are reconsidering captive audience meetings at the moment.

Earlier this month, Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, announced that she would ask the federal labor board to issue a ruling banning those corporate tactics nationwide.

“In workplaces across America, employers routinely hold mandatory meetings in which employees are forced to listen to employer speech concerning the exercise of their statutory labor rights, especially during organizing campaigns,” Abruzzo wrote in a memorandum.

Abruzzo, who previously worked for the Communications Workers of America and was appointed by President Joe Biden last year, said such meetings often involve a real or perceived “threat” that workers will be disciplined if they don’t participate in such meetings.

“I believe that the NLRB case precedent, which has tolerated such meetings, is at odds with fundamental labor-law principles,” Abruzzo argued.

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Andrew BrownInvestigative Reporter

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958