HARTFORD, Conn. — With a union seeking to organize cleaners at the Foxwoods Resort Casino and state elections looming, business and labor are battling over legislation that would forbid companies from forcing workers to attend meetings concerning the employees’ views on politics or religion.
The so-called “captive audience” legislation, which would allow workers to refuse to participate in company meetings, passed the judiciary committee earlier this month. A similar measure failed in the General Assembly in 2011.
Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, linked the issue to campaign finance rules easing corporate involvement in political races. She cited the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as “Citizens United” that cleared the way for companies and unions to donate to political campaigns.
“Part of it is, since Citizens United, employers feel more empowered to use captive audience meetings, not just for [union] elections, but for bringing in candidates,” she said.
Ryan O’Donnell, a Hartford lawyer who represents employers, called the legislation a “Trojan horse for big labor” intended to strip employers of their rights under federal labor law.
“Unions for a long time have wanted to get rid of this because it’s easier to bring in a union if only one side is heard,” he said.
Eric Gjede, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s largest business organization, said managers and owners see the legislation as interfering in their business.
“What infuriates our membership are the severe restrictions on their ability to communicate with their own employees,” he said.
The Senate’s top Democrat backs the legislation. Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and the Senate’s president pro tem, said in testimony to the judiciary committee that the bill protects freedoms of speech and assembly.
“These freedoms include the right not to assemble and the right not to listen to coercive speeches,” he said.
“It should be the policy of our state as expressed in legislation to prevent employer coercion as to political matters and we need to include speech about joining a union as well because unionization is a political topic,” Looney said.
Leon Morrison, a janitor at Foxwoods who supports an organizing campaign by Unite HERE, a union that represents workers in the hotel, gambling, food service and other industries, said he was called in to a meeting with his manager and was initially anxious. The union is trying to organize 300 workers who clean the casino’s public areas.
Morrison, a 24-year employee, recalled the manager saying the union would hurt efforts by the tribal operators of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun to jointly run a new casino to compete with the MGM resort casino in Springfield.
“I was not intimidated,” said Morrison, 63. “There’s nobody that can intimidate me.”
The Mashantucket Pequot tribe that operates Foxwoods said tribal labor relations law protects the rights of its employees to be “represented or not by any union and we accept the outcomes of union elections under tribal law.”
“Likewise, Foxwoods exercises its free speech rights under tribal law, which includes meeting with employees to answer questions and provide facts,” the tribe said.
A union election at Foxwoods is set for Friday.
Attorney General Jepsen, who weighed in on the 2011 legislation by telling state Senate leaders that the federal National Labor Relations Act would “in all likelihood” preempt the state legislation, has not been asked by legislators for his opinion on this year’s bill, a spokeswoman said.
Tribune News Service