Legislative update: Senate passes ban on workplace ‘captive audiences’

HARTFORD — The Senate used the entirety of its nearly six-hour session Thursday to debate and pass legislation that would outlaws compulsory workplace meetings held by employers intent on squashing unionization drives.

So-called “captive audience” meetings have long been the target of Democrats and union leaders who say that aggressive tactics by employers have helped drive union memberships to historic lows despite a recent uptick in support for collective bargaining.

Republicans and business leaders argue that the meetings simply allow employers to give workers engaged in unionization efforts an opportunity to hear a different perspective.

Despite their heavy majorities in the Connecticut legislature, however, Democrats say their efforts to prohibit captive audience meetings have been hampered by conflicting opinions from state attorneys general over the legality of such a ban in light of long-standing precedent from the National Labor Relations Board that has generally allowed such meetings as long as they do not employ explicit threats of retaliation against workers.

A shift in attitudes by President Joe Biden’s new general counsel for the NLRB, Jennifer Abruzzo, as well as a more favorable legal opinion by Democratic Attorney General William Tong, has led Democrats to renew their focus on captive audience meetings. Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D- New Haven, told a labor audience in March that he believed this is the year to “get it across the finish line,” according to the CT Mirror.

Under the bill passed by the Senate, employers would still be allowed to hold workplace meetings to oppose unionization efforts, but workers could not be compelled to attend the meetings or face disciplinary action for skipping them.

“It’s all about — and nothing else — the prevention of coercion, intimidation and retaliation in the workplace,” Looney said near the end of a marathon debate on the Senate floor Thursday.

Republicans continued to express skepticism on Thursday, arguing that the legislation would tip the balance of power in favor of unions to influence organization drives.

“I think what we are creating here is a barrier or divisive tool between an employer and an employee,” said state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R- Canton.

Republicans also noted that only one other state, Oregon, currently prohibits captive audience meetings, a decision that prompted a failed lawsuit by the NLRB. They argued that any effort to ban the meetings is preempted by federal labor law.

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R- Fairfield, was one of two Republicans to join Democrats voting in favor of the bill, though he continued to express similar reservations as his GOP colleagues.

“If we want as a state to test the waters and ignore the warning signs and heed the judgment and opinions of respected jurists, then I want to be on the record to say I think we need to be cautious,” Hwang said.

After the Senate passed the legislation by a vote 23-11, local union leaders cheered the vote and highlighted recent unionization efforts in Connecticut.

“Today, the Connecticut State Senate took an important bipartisan step forward to protect workers from employer intimidation and harassment during union organizing campaigns,” Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne said in a statement.

The bill now heads to the House for consideration.


Underneath the gorgeous stone carving of the iconic Charter Oak above the east entrance of the Capitol, a group of a couple dozen activists from groups including Common Cause in Connecticut on Thursday morning rallied to push for a bill that would codify into state law portions of the 1965 federal law banning discrimination in voting and elections.

The bill would prohibit people from intimidating, deceiving or obstructing others from voting. The legislation, sitting on the Senate calendar as the May 4 adjournment deadline looms. It would expand the power of the State Elections Enforcement Commission to file civil actions in state Superior Court to seek damages.

The activists were joined by lawmakers including Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who aspires to become the next secretary of the state and Rep. Anne Hughes, of Easton.

“The reason this bill is so important, is that 50 years after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, a bill that people fought and died for, Congress has not been able to restore it after it has been gutted by the United States Supreme Court,” Lesser said. “The filibuster in Congress, in the U.S. Senate, is preventing the right to vote from being protected on a federal level. The states can’t wait.”

But for Capitol watchers, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly and Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, the co-chairmen of the Government Administration & Elections Committee, were not at the event.