Law protecting workers from mandatory meetings in peril
Imagine you receive an email explaining all workers at your company are required to attend a meeting with senior management. You show up expecting a presentation about work, only to find a manager explaining why you should vote for President Donald Trump or else the company might have to lay off workers. When some of your coworkers ask to leave, managers remind them participation is mandatory and anyone who leaves may be fired.
Can your boss do that?
In Oregon, thankfully, no. But that could change if the Trump Administration gets its way.
No federal law bars private-sector employers from using corporate time or resources to push political views on employees. So it was perfectly legal for Menards, a large home improvement chain, to strongly encourage its workers to complete an "at-home training" that included classes on free market economics and why Obama administration policies were harming the economy.
So, too, could Shell Oil require that workers at a Pennsylvania plant appear as props for a visit by President Trump or lose pay for the day. In fact, research conducted by one of us has shown that a growing number of employers are talking politics with their workers in an effort to influence elections.
In 2009, Oregon became the first state to pass a law prohibiting employers from requiring their workers to attend meetings about politics or religion — "captive audience meetings." It allows managers to communicate with their workers and hold meetings to share their views about candidates or policies or religion. The only change the law makes is preventing employers from making such meetings mandatory.
Oregon's law recognizes that there is a difference between free speech and forced listening. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1974, "While (a person) clearly has a right to express his views to those who wish to listen, he has no right to force his message upon an audience incapable of declining to receive it."
While that might seem reasonable, Oregon employers have been fighting the law since its passage, arguing that it infringes on their right to communicate with employees, particularly about unions. Business groups sued Oregon in 2009, but the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.
Last week the Trump administration's National Labor Relations Board came down on the side of forced listening, suing the state in federal court, arguing that Oregon's law violates employers' rights.
Oregon's law says an employer cannot fire an employee who declines to attend a meeting where the primary purpose is to communicate the employer's opinion about "religious or political matters," including opinions about whether workers should join or support a political party, community group or labor organization. The NLRB's complaint alleges that employers have "rights under (federal labor law) to hold captive-audience speeches."
But federal labor law has never prevented states from establishing requirements for all employers to abide by, like a higher minimum wage than the federal law requires. Just as states can protect workers from excessive work hours, they can protect workers' freedom of conscience by preventing captive audience meetings.
The dismantling of campaign finance laws, plus skyrocketing income and wealth at the top, has meant that corporate executives already have substantial and growing resources to invest in elections and lobbying. Business leaders should not be able to use their workplaces to further entrench their political clout.
Notably, the day before Trump's NLRB sued Oregon, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would give workers a fair chance to form and join unions.
It would also bar employers from requiring or coercing "an employee to attend or participate in (an) employer's campaign activities unrelated to the employee's job duties."
With anti-worker control of the Senate and White House, passing the PRO Act requires a long-term strategy. That is why states like Oregon must uphold workers' rights to make political decisions for themselves, like which candidates to support in November and whether to join a community group or union without being forced to listen to their boss's view.
Graham Trainor is the president of the Oregon AFL-CIO; Craig Becker is general counsel for the AFL-CIO and was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2010 to 2012; Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University
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