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Tackling The Problem Of ‘Captive Audience’ Meetings

How states are stepping up to protect workers’ rights and freedoms.

Political and religious coercion in the workplace is a growing problem affecting workers from all backgrounds and across the political spectrum. U.S. employers have tremendous power over worker conduct under current federal laws. For example, employers can require workers to attend “captive audience” meetings—and force employees to listen to political, religious, or anti-union employer views—on work time.

In the face of this growing threat, legislators in 18 states have advanced bills to protect workers from offensive or unwanted political and religious speech unrelated to job tasks or performance. These bills are designed to prohibit employers from threatening, disciplining, firing, or retaliating against workers who refuse to attend mandatory workplace meetings focused on communicating opinions on political or religious matters.

Importantly, these state laws do not limit employers’ rights to express their beliefs freely or even to continue inviting employees to attend workplace political or religious meetings. These laws simply empower workers to opt out of unwelcome political speech by protecting them from financial harm or retaliation if they choose not to attend such meetings.

A growing number of states are taking action to protect workers’ freedom of thought and association

So far, six states have enacted laws designed to protect employees’ dignity and freedom of thought and association. Table 1 summarizes these laws, additional bills currently under consideration, as well as bills that have been previously proposed.

Because most workers (in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement) are considered “at-will” employees who can be terminated at any time, employers often try to exercise vast authority over employees’ lives, including their political activities or freedom of association.

This power is routinely abused to coerce workers into attending political rallies, religious discussions, or anti-union meetings under the threat of disciplinary action. State legislators, however, are working to fill the void left by continued congressional inaction. State legislation that creates a minimum labor standard to protect workers from abusive forms of employer coercion can help workers more fully exercise their basic rights.

Current labor and employment laws allow bosses to bombard workers with politics and religion

Employers are increasingly using the workplace to advance their political interests, and the lack of legal protections for workers has created a situation ripe for coercion. Traditionally, employers have relied on donations, lobbying, and political action committees to advance their political interests. However, nearly universal “at-will” employment laws and recent legal rulings are emboldening employers to politically mobilize their own employees.

Pervasive “at-will” employment laws give employers the right to terminate workers without cause or for virtually any reason—including their political beliefs. And the 2010 landmark Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission extended First Amendment protections to corporate political spending and gave employers the green light to hold political captive audience meetings. In tandem, these laws have had dire implications for workers and the democratic process.

A 2015 study revealed how widespread political communication is in U.S. workplaces. One in four U.S. workers has been contacted by their employer regarding a political matter. Of these workers, 20% (representing 5% of all U.S. workers) received messages from their boss that included one or more threats of job loss, business closure, or changes to wages and hours. Under current federal labor and employment laws, it is perfectly legal for an employer to threaten, discipline, or terminate an employee for objecting to their boss’s political views.

Political coercion affects U.S. workers of all backgrounds and across the political spectrum. Consider the following examples in which workers were pressured to vote in specific ways or forced to donate to political campaigns or lobby other voters to support legislation.

  • In 2014 at a ConocoPhillips’ site in Alaska, some 200 construction workers were called into a “safety stand-down” meeting—typically held after serious workplace incidents. Rather than addressing a safety concern, a ConocoPhillips’ representative discussed the company’s stance on the upcoming August primaries, emphasizing its opposition to a ballot measure to repeal a significant tax cut for oil companies. The message to the workers was that their jobs relied on tax breaks, and voting against the repeal could harm their industry and livelihoods. One worker described the meeting as an abuse of safety protocol, while others reported fearing for their jobs.
  • During the 2012 election, presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke at an Ohio coal mine at the invitation of Murray Energy’s CEO, Robert Murray. Workers later said that mine operations were halted, and they were forced to attend the event without pay. Managerial staff also reported being pressured to donate to Murray Energy’s political action committee. Internal records later revealed that employee donations were monitored and that employees who failed to donate generously enough faced potential demotions and missed bonuses.
  • In 2018, D.C. voters introduced Ballot Initiative 77 that would have raised the tipped wage from $3.33 to the regular minimum wage ($12.50 an hour at the time). Restaurant industry representatives embarked on a vigorous campaign opposing the initiative called “Save Our Tips,” warning of widespread restaurant closures and job losses. Around the city, restaurants displayed “Save Our Tips” and “NO on 77” signs. Some employers distributed weekly newsletters to employees featuring anti-Initiative 77 content and provided workers with instructions on how to vote on the initiative. Other employers held captive audience meetings during work hours to tell workers that Initiative 77 would harm them. Additionally, workers were encouraged to inform customers about the perceived negative impacts of the initiative.

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act explicitly prohibits religious discrimination by employers, religious coercion is rampant in U.S. workplaces. For example:

  • In an infamous Oregon case, a formerly incarcerated worker of Native American descent attended weekly, hour-long Bible study sessions out of fear “that he wouldn’t be able to find other work” if he declined. Following six months of weekly attendance, the worker declined to attend further sessions and was subsequently fired.
  • A North Carolina-based home renovation company required employees to attend daily worship sessions that included prayer and Bible reading. A lawsuit alleged that the company owner would track attendance and reprimand employees who were absent. Additionally, when a manager asked to be excused from prayer, the owner subsequently cut his pay and then fired him.
  • Employees at a Long Island, New York, firm alleged they were compelled to pray, chant, and partake in spiritual interpersonal workshops as part of a program called “Onionhead.” Workers described the workplace as “cult-like” with religious ceremonies where incense was burned to purify the workspace and lights were dimmed to deter demons. Employees and later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asserted that employees who resisted were disciplined or terminated.

Employers use ‘captive audience’ meetings to support union-busting

Captive audience meetings have likewise become one of employers’ preferred union-busting tactics. Workers who express interest in unionizing are routinely required by employers to hear one-sided propaganda. Workers have no right to ask questions or hear opposing viewpoints during these meetings. Analysis of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections documents shows that 89% of all employers conduct captive audience meetings in response to unionization efforts. And the use of captive audience meetings caused the average union election win rate to fall from 73% to 47%.

Today, employers spend over $400 million per year on “union-avoidance” consultants, who specialize in using captive audience meetings along with a host of other tactics designed to intimidate and instill fear in workers for the purpose of union-busting. Legislation giving workers the right to opt out of captive audience meetings without fear of discipline or termination is fundamental to restoring workers’ basic right to organize without interference.

The unequal impact of coercive speech on workers

Legislation to protect workers from coercive speech is particularly important for the workers most likely to encounter discrimination at work.

Particularly vulnerable to such coercion are Black, brown, disabled, formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ, and other groups of workers who have historically faced discrimination and unequal treatment in the labor market. Structural racism and discrimination in the form of systematically higher unemployment rates, higher job search costs, lower wages, and greater tolerance for unfair treatment, put these workers in a disadvantaged position to resist employer abuses.

Further, the United States’ piecemeal approach to holding employers accountable for discrimination often puts the onus of enforcement on workers, leaves many exposed to retaliation, and excludes many of the most vulnerable workers altogether. Given the precarity of employment for non-union workers in the United States, there is a clear need for comprehensive and enforceable worker protections from coercive speech.

Conclusion: State-level solutions to coercion

State lawmakers have the power to fight back against employer coercion and address gaps in weak, outdated federal laws. States can legislate to protect workers from unwanted speech, as affirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling Frisby v. Schultz. Many of the proposed state-level laws also have the advantage of offering quicker enforcement mechanisms than federal proceedings and include provisions for “injunctive relief” (emergency court intervention to immediately stop damaging employer behavior), restitution for lost wages, reinstatement with retained benefits and seniority, and coverage of attorney fees. As the national spotlight intensifies on growing economic inequality and decades-long erosion of workers’ rights, it is clear that state-led initiatives could play a pivotal role in shaping the future of worker rights in the U.S.

Legislators in all states should continue to build on existing momentum to protect the freedom to avoid offensive or unwanted political and religious speech at work. Lawmakers can enact enforcement mechanisms to protect workers against financial harm and retaliation if they opt out of such speech. This legislation will help safeguard democracy by protecting citizens from undue influence over their political views, donations, or votes; guaranteeing workers’ freedoms; and ensuring all workers can fully exercise their rights in the workplace.

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