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Connecticut a battleground for labor and its ‘captive audience’ bill

Shellye Davis and Ed Hawthorne outside AFL-CIO headquarters. The AFL-CIO supports a bill that would outlaw "captive audience" meetings.
Shellye Davis and Ed Hawthorne outside AFL-CIO headquarters. The AFL-CIO supports a bill that would outlaw "captive audience" meetings.

A major fight is unfolding over whether Connecticut will become the second state with a law outlawing “captive audience” meetings, one of the weapons unions say is regularly deployed to thwart organizing campaigns at a time of worker unrest and union popularity.

Hospitals, the insurance industry and other business interests are lobbying against a bill that has bubbled to the top of labor’s priority list after being eclipsed in recent years by other union initiatives, including COVID-19 protections, a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave.

“I’ve introduced this bill several times, and I believe this is the year we can get it across the finish line,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, told a labor audience Friday.

Businesses say the measure infringes on the ability of companies to freely communicate with employees and is preempted by federal law allowing them to lobby against unions as long as that “expression contains no threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.”

Unions say it only bars management from coercion by allowing employees to opt out of meetings.

“These are mandatory closed-door meetings during work hours, where workers are often threatened and harassed about joining the union,” said Ed Hawthorne, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

Two-thirds of Americans approved of unions in a Gallup poll last year, the highest point since 1965. But union membership fell to 10% of the workforce, a statistic labor leaders say is evidence of an unfair playing field produced by adverse laws, a hostile Supreme Court and sophisticated union-busting techniques.

Connecticut is a decidedly labor-friendly state, but one with a decades-long history of anemic job growth that sometimes makes lawmakers wary of putting the state at the forefront of labor fights — a concern that business is trying to exploit in fighting more than three dozen pending labor bills.

“We’ve got a serious issue in this state in terms of getting people back into the workplace,” said Eric Gjede, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “These guys keep focusing on other things, rather than this critical issue that’s really stopping our ability to recover. And the captive audience bill is just one of those things.”

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat and cable entrepreneur with a keen sensitivity as to how the state’s business climate is viewed nationally, supported passage of the $15 minimum wage and paid leave, but he has resisted labor’s calls for a more progressive tax structure.

One of his prime talking points in last month’s State of the State address was that Connecticut has jumped 11 places to a middle-of-the-pack ranking of 24th in the CNBC’s list of best places for business, and the state had the unfamiliar experience of an upgraded bond rating on Lamont’s watch.

His administration submitted no testimony on a captive-audience bill in 2019, his first year in office, or on Friday when the latest version was up for a public hearing before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Hawthorne said talks are continuing with the administration.

“We’re hopeful the governor’s office is on board,” he said.

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.

When George Jepsen, a Democrat and former union lawyer, was attorney general, he issued a legal opinion warning that a proposed captive-audience law would be preempted by federal law.

His successor, William Tong, also a Democrat, took a similar view in 2019 on one version but concluded that a narrower version could withstand a legal challenge. The bill reached the Senate floor but never came to a vote.

CBIA, the Connecticut Hospital Association and the Insurance Association of Connecticut are opposed. John D. Blair, a CBIA lawyer, told the Judiciary Committee on Friday that even the current version is intrusive.

“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,” Blair said. “For instance, an employer could not update employees regarding the law and regulations impacting their jobs, wages, benefits, FMLA, and corporate and community charitable giving and social activities.”

Craig Becker, the general counsel for the AFL-CIO, said the bill is constitutional.

“The bill in no way prevents employers or anyone else from discussing religion, politics or any other subject,” he said. “The only thing the bill prohibits is threatening to discharge or discipline or actually discharging or disciplining employees who do not wish to listen to such speech.”

Versions of the bill have been proposed in Connecticut for two decades, a period in which the influence of unions waxed and waned at the General Assembly, tracking the strength of Democrats.

Republicans slowly eclipsed Democratic power from 2010 to 2016, when the GOP won half the seats in the Senate and came within five of a majority in the House of Representatives. But Democrats, and labor, have since rebounded.

Democrats currently hold majorities of 23-13 in the Senate and 97-54 in the House.

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