Visibly shaken, feeling horrible, trapped in a supply closet, being told to shut up — these are the experiences of captive audience meetings that workers and organizers describe in a video published by the Connecticut AFL-CIO. Currently, employers are allowed to indoctrinate their employees with captive audience meetings — meetings that workers are required to attend. If a worker wants to say no and opt to just go back to their work duties, they could be disciplined or fired for insubordination. On top of all this, employers can hire anti-union consultants, and often pay them thousands of dollars, to do this work. Management is able to pay thousands of dollars every day to these union busters, sometimes totaling millions over a campaign, while refusing to provide their workers with a raise. These captive audience meetings can leave xqworkers fearful of voting against their employer’s interests, especially when they need the wages and benefits from their job. Despite 65 percent of Americans supporting labor unions, these coercive tactics prevent many workers from successfully organizing one.

After workers file for a union election, employers often wage aggressive campaigns against their employees. In a public testimony, Joseph Hutchison, a member of UNITE HERE Local 217, recounted his experience during a union election campaign at the Stamford Sheraton. The hotel operator hired the union-busting firm Lupe Cruz and Associates, which had access to the hotel at what seemed like all hours to workers. Creole and Spanish speaking campaigners from this firm held meetings with Haitian and Latinx workers. They forced workers to endure captive audience meetings that spanned two to three hours, with some meetings ending as late as 3:00 a.m. Individuals from this anti-union firm were able to hold these meetings while workers were on the clock, as if enduring this campaign were part of their jobs. Despite the employer pressing unfair advantages, the workers won.

But this is often not the outcome.  

Enduring anti-union meetings is not in the job description for workers. Employers should not be able to force workers to sit through these meetings, or punish them if the workers want to leave and get back to work. A housekeeper is hired to clean rooms, a nurse is hired to care for patients, a barista is hired to prepare and serve coffee. None of these workers are hired to endure political speech and intimidation tactics from professional anti-union firms.  

Moreover, captive audience meetings violate any sense of fair elections. Workers are not allowed to pull their co-workers off their job duties or pay them to participate in a pro-union meeting. They cannot discipline co-workers for refusing to participate in these meetings.    

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to give workers more freedom in the workplace. Currently, the Connecticut General Assembly is considering Senate Bill 163, which would give workers the right to refuse to participate in meetings about politics or religion without fear of punishment as long as these meetings were not part of the workers’ job duties. This bill’s aim spans beyond just captive audience meetings to include other forms of political and religious pressure, giving workers important freedoms from employer coercion. At the federal level, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act would prohibit employers from forcing employees to attend captive audience meetings, and it would require the National Labor Relations Board to get an injunction to reinstate workers who have experienced retaliation from an employer for union activities. It would also create civil penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights, whereas currently employers face no civil penalties for violating these rights. The National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo also announced that she will ask the Board to make captive audience meetings illegal. 

While opponents will claim that these efforts are attempts to curtail the speech rights of employers, this is not true. The First Amendment does not protect the right to speak to a captive audience. Workers, union organizers and employers should all have the right to say what they want. But workers should not be forced to endure anti-union campaigns in captive audience meetings under the threat of discipline. Employers should not be able to force workers to listen to an anti-union campaigner. A free and fair election should not give employers special rights that are denied to workers who are organizing a union.

Captive audience meetings are just what the name indicates: workers are held captive in an anti-union campaign. Their wages and employment are contingent on enduring intimidating meetings that are run by anti-union professionals. Employers use these meetings to stifle workplace democracy, and campaigns based on intimidation stymie the efforts of workers to win living wages and benefits. When workers win under these circumstances, they do so with heroic courage prevailing under unfair labor laws. While we should all take inspiration from these workers, we must also insist that workers have a fairer process in exercising their rights to collectively negotiate with their employer.  

 Caroline Reed is a sophomore in Saybrook College.  Contact her at