Illinois union leaders hail passage of bill banning ‘captive audience’ meetings

Illinois Correspondent

Springfield, IL – Illinois union leaders are celebrating the passage of legislation that will stop employers from requiring employees to attend sponsored captive audience meetings on religious or political matters.

The Worker Freedom of Speech Act bars employers from penalizing employees who do not attend meetings that express the employer’s opinions on religious or political matters.

Illinois Senate Bill 3649 was backed by the Illinois AFL-CIO, Illinois Federation of Teachers and at least 30 other Illinois Labor groups. Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea said the potentially uncomfortable meetings force workers to be a “captive audience” for their employers’ beliefs.

Seven states have backed similar legislation allowing employees to opt out of these captive audience meetings, including Maine, Oregon, New York, Minnesota, Washington, New Jersey and Connecticut, with pending legislation in eight other states including California.

Current “at will” employment laws often allow employers to terminate workers for virtually any reason, including political beliefs. The landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission extended the protection of the First Amendment to corporations, which has essentially given a green light to employers to bombard their employees with political and religious speeches unrelated to the work, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

In fact, one in four U.S. workers has been contacted by their employer regarding a political issue, and 20 percent of those have received threats of job loss, business closure or reduction in wages and hours related to it.

For example, according to EPI, ConocoPhillips called 200 construction workers into a “safety stand-down” meeting to discuss its opposition to a ballot measure on tax cuts for oil companies. In 2012, an Ohio coal mine shut down and workers were required to attend a rally for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney without pay, and were pressured to donate to the mine’s political action committee.

In Oregon, a Native American worker was forced to attend weekly, hour-long Bible study and was fired when he refused. Other employees in North Carolina and Long Island were compelled to attend daily worship sessions and spiritual workshops on the threat of firing.

“Illinois workers have recounted frightful examples from gender-affirming health care being withdrawn to hotel room attendants cornered by management, and immigrant workers being told their documentation status would be revealed if they organized,” said Women Employed CEO Cherita Ellens and Brian Johnson of Equality Illinois in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times. “In Illinois, no one should have to choose between their livelihood and their values. Workers are paid to work, not to be indoctrinated.”

The trend definitely impacts union organizing. According to the National Labor Relations Board, 89 percent of all employers conduct these captive-audience meetings in response to unionization efforts, and workers are required to listen to anti-union propaganda – to the tune of more than $400 million a year spent by employers on “union avoidance” consultants. In fact, in Wisconsin, Starbucks workers were required to attend meetings where they were told they would lose women’s reproductive health benefits if they voted to unionize.

As of last week, the bill passed both chambers of the Illinois state legislature and was headed back to the state Senate for a concurrence vote before sending it to Gov. JB Pritzker. It would add a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation of the act and gives a process for employees to report violations.

The bill is opposed by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, National Federation of Independent Business and others. The bill makes exceptions for political and religious organizations whose mission involves such issues.

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