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Business leaders call on Gov. Lamont to veto “employer gag order”

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) and more than 50 businesses and organizations are calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to veto a bill that has been pushed by Connecticut’s labor unions for over a decade, likening it to a “gag order” on businesses and saying it’s an “unconstitutional attempt to restrict workplace communications.”

An Act Protecting Employee Freedom of Speech and Conscience – or the Captive Audience bill, as it has become to be known – would restrict employers’ ability to hold mandatory employee meetings on religious or political issues, including efforts to form a union at the business.

Labor leaders have long pushed for the bill saying employers use the meetings to intimidate employees away from joining a union. Employers, on the other hand, say the legislation is pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act, something former Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen laid out in his 2018 formal opinion.

“Not only is this bill preempted by federal law, it shows a complete lack of focus by policymakers on the key challenges facing the state’s economy and its job creators,” said Chris DiPentima, president of the CBIA, in a press statement. “This bill does not say Connecticut is open for business.”

“If Connecticut becomes a state where employers can’t have open conversations with employees, we no longer attract businesses, talent, or new residents,” said Brian Montanari, president and CEO of HABCO Industries in Glastonbury.

Throwing an added wrinkle into the mix, are questions being raised by employers whether or not mandatory meetings regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will be considered “political” under the broad definition of the term.

Jocelyn Feder, vice president of human resources and talent engagement at AI Engineers in Middletown, said the bill could “stymie” DEI efforts in the business community.

“Many Connecticut businesses are making strides in changing the environment to be more inclusive and the way this bill is written will potentially stymie business DEI efforts, which in turn lessens opportunities for women, minorities, and LGBT employees to have a voice in the workplace,” Feder said.

Prior attempts to pass similar legislation were often shot down because the National Labor Relations Act already prohibits employers from engaging in coercive threats and intimidation regarding unionization efforts but also protects their ability to hold mandatory meetings regarding issues that affect the workplace.

Attorney General William Tong issued a formal opinion in 2019 essentially saying the law could be challenged but that he would defend it in court, giving it a green light, of sorts, to move forward. The bill received a last-minute bump when the National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memorandum calling for the Board to reverse its long-standing position on mandatory meetings.

Following passage of the bill in the House of Representatives, President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO Ed Hawthorne praised the legislation, saying it would protect employees from “employer intimidation and harassment during union organizing campaigns.”

“No employer should be able to force a worker to attend a meeting to coerce their opinions on religion, politics, or union organizing,” Hawthorne said. “And no one should be fearful at work for exercising their right to join a union.”

According to CBIA’s letter to Gov. Lamont, “Nearly identical laws were overturned in three other states following litigation brought by employer organizations,” adding that a similar law in Oregon is not being enforced because it conflicts with federal law.

“Your veto will prevent Connecticut from becoming embroiled in a costly legal battle over protections already granted employees under federal law,” the letter reads.

“This bill was pushed by groups representing less than 10 percent of Connecticut’s population and 18 percent of the workforce,” DiPentima said in CBIA’s press statement. “It does nothing to address the state’s 109,000 job openings, the declining labor force… soaring inflation, or supply chain bottlenecks.”

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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