Labor leaders notched a win in the Senate Thursday when lawmakers passed a bill restricting employers’ ability to hold mandatory meetings with employees regarding politics, religion or unionization efforts, often called “captive audience meetings.”
The legislation has long been debated in the General Assembly with Connecticut business associations strongly opposed, saying the law would restrict their freedom to speak with their employees regarding issues affecting their employment.
Critics have also argued the bill, if passed, would be pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act.
Former Attorney General George Jepsen in 2018 agreed the bill at the time would not hold up under federal law, but Attorney General William Tong essentially gave the go-ahead in 2019 with a formal opinion saying he could effectively argue the state’s case in court.
Senate approval comes on the heels of National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memorandum urging the board to overturn its past precedent of allowing employers to hold mandatory meetings.
Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the bill will protect the rights of employees to organize into unions without fearing for their jobs through mandatory meetings.
“I think the State of Connecticut, here, is saying we should be prohibiting employers from forcing you into a meeting to speak on very specific things and that is completely in line with not only the National Labor Relations Act – that it’s always been in line with – but now the opinion offered by the National Labor Relation Board through its general counsel,” Winfield said.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and ranking member of the Labor and Public Employees Committee said the bill restricts employees from hearing both sides of an issue, particularly unionization of a workforce, and that it will be detrimental to businesses in Connecticut.
“This bill is a manifestation of the progressive wing of the party to use the legislature as a mechanism for collective bargaining,” Sampson said. “Instead of creating a playing field so collective bargaining can exist and proceed naturally on a level playing field, we are passing more and more legislation that essentially takes the side of labor in our laws and un-levels that playing field.”
Ranking member on the Judiciary Committee John Kissel, R-Enfield, supported the bill acknowledging it was a difficult decision but said it was time to put the issue to rest with the support of the Attorney General’s Office.
“We’ve had this proposal before us for many, many years,” Kissel said. “I would like to think this is the year this bill could get passed so we can put this matter to rest here in the State of Connecticut. I think that would be best for all involved.”
Republicans proffered a number of amendments to the bill, drawing out the debate time but ultimately the bill passed in a 23-11 vote.
Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the legislation will not allow employers to have a voice if their employees want to organize. “We get better results when everybody has an opportunity to participate and provide input,” Kelly said. “This bill doesn’t do that.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said employers are still able to communicate with their employees but rather it is about “losing an opportunity for coercion, intimidation and retaliation.”