One of organized labor’s two legislative priorities in 2022 — a ban on “captive audience” meetings that unions say are used to thwart organizing — won final passage late Friday night in the Connecticut House of Representatives.
The second, a fair-scheduling bill, is destined to die without a vote in the House before the session reaches its constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight Wednesday.
Passage of Senate Bill 163, which expands state protections of free-speech rights of employees in the workplace, prompted celebration Friday by the state’s largest labor group and condemnation Saturday by its largest trade association.
Battles between the Connecticut AFL-CIO and Connecticut Business and Industry Association are at their most fraught when Connecticut’s labor-friendly legislature is weighing bills that break new ground or reinforce a tenuous beach head.
Oregon is the only other state with a captive audience law, a concept viewed by the AFL-CIO as a protection against intimidation and denounced by CBIA and other industry groups as illegally intrusive in employer-employee relations.
The measure passed on a vote of 88-56, with eight Democrats joining 48 Republicans in opposition. One Republican, Rep. Tom Delnicki of South Windsor, voted in favor. The Senate voted 23-11 for passage last week.
Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign the bill.
“The labor movement is incredibly grateful to the representatives that voted to protect workers from employer intimidation and harassment during union organizing campaigns,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the state AFL-CIO. “No employer should be able to force a worker to attend a meeting to coerce their opinions on religion, politics, or union organizing. And no one should be fearful at work for exercising their right to join a union.”
Chris DiPentima, the president of CBIA, said the passage by the Democratic controlled legislature betrayed a tone-deafness, given Connecticut’s reputation as a difficult and expensive place to do business.
“I’m embarrassed for Connecticut, our amazing residents, and businesses that the legislature approved this unconstitutional, anti-employer bill as confirmed by our former attorney general twice, and three separate court decisions,” he said.
The legal questions turn on whether the state legislation is in conflict with the National Labor Relations Act, which preempts the ability of states to regulate labor-management relations.
An earlier version was deemed by former CT Attorney General George Jepsen to be preempted by the federal law.
William Tong, who succeeded him in 2019, opined then that Jepsen was correct in his view that the 2018 proposal conflicted with federal law, but a revised version could pass legal muster.
DiPentima complained that the General Assembly is too deferential to labor.
“At a time when struggling small businesses desperately need support, the General Assembly decided to make it even more difficult to do business in Connecticut and continues to weaken the employer-employee relationship,” DiPentima said. “That relationship is critical for driving innovation and makes Connecticut businesses some of the safest and most productive in the world.”
On Friday night, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the 2022 bill was narrowly drawn to only bar employers from mandating attendance at meetings called to discuss matters of religion or politics.
Political matters include a decision to join or support a political party or labor organization.
“SB 163 makes clear that certain employer activities are not prohibited as well,” Stafstrom said. “Those include communications required by law, communications necessary for employees to perform their duties, and certain communications at institutions of higher education and casual communications.”
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, called the bill “a tool to level the playing field.”
“It’s not all employers, but there are some bad actors out there, and this is a way to address that,” she said.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, conceded that lawmakers heard stories of abuse at the committee’s public hearing on the bill, but none that required a new law.
Every abuse mentioned already was actionable under state or federal law, he said.
“And I said to them, ‘When you filed your action, what happened?’ And they said they didn’t do anything. They just wanted this legislation, this Band-Aid,” Fishbein said.
“We heard about policy. This policy is trouble, this bill troubling. If the governor signs it, it becomes law. The trouble becomes worse. Ultimately, the messages to our businesses will be don’t come to Connecticut. You’ll just get in trouble.”
Wisconsin passed a captive audience bill in 2009 before rescinding it. Oregon’s bill has been the subject of a court fight, with the National Labor Relations Board arguing it is in conflict with federal labor law.
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.