GRANTING EMPLOYEES THE RIGHT TO WALK AWAY: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME?
February 5, 2009 - 2:37am ET
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People who live near Niagara Falls are said to become so used to the sound of roaring water that they literally don’t even hear it. A similar phenomenon appears to have taken place regarding one little-known facet of the American workplace, so-called “captive audience meetings,” where employees are forced to listen to their employer’s anti-union speech.
Frito-Lay, Inc., the world’s largest producer of salty snack foods, is one of the country’s leading practitioners of this art. It routinely not only compels its employees to listen to anti-union diatribes, on company time and property, but also forces its driver-employees to allow company employees (and other people, specifically chosen for their skill in advocating the company’s anti-union position) to accompany them on their routes as uninvited “guests,” thereby forcing the drivers to listen to this carefully crafted anti-union speech.
Frito-Lay sugarcoats what it is doing, of course. In an August 6, 2007, letter to several hundred Teamster-represented employees in Washington State, for example, informing them of its impending effort to oust the union, the company wrote, “We will probably use several methods of communication over the next few weeks, including employee meetings, letters, route rides, and individual discussions.” Left unstated, but none-the-less crystal clear, was the fact that these communications would not be voluntary on their part. To the contrary, any refusal by an employee to allow the company to communicate its message to him or her -- wherever, whenever, and for however long the company wished -- would be grounds for discharge.
Nor is this kind of behavior unique to Frito-Lay. A report for the federal government, based on a study of more than 400 union representation election campaigns, found that during 92 percent of union organizing drives, employers forced their employees to attend closed door anti-union meetings. In addition, 78 percent of employers directed supervisors to deliver anti-union messages to employees in one-on-one meetings. On average, employers held 11 captive audience meetings during every union organizing campaign.
Surprisingly, nothing in federal labor law, or any other federal law, prohibits this type of compulsion, or permits (for example) an employee to leave a meeting that has been held for the sole purpose of indoctrinating him or her in the employer’s anti-union credo.
Over the last few years, however, the AFL-CIO has initiated a nationwide campaign to have individual states fill that gap. A proposed state law, often entitled the “Worker Freedom Act” (WFA), would make it illegal for an employer to require workers to sit through meetings while the employer lectures on religious or political beliefs, including beliefs about joining a union. This law would not prohibit employers from sharing their opinions with their employees. It would, however, grant the employees the right to walk away.
Although legislation consistent with the WFA has been introduced into numerous state legislatures, it clearly has a long way to go before it achieves general acceptance. Yet, the Michigan, New Hampshire and Oregon houses of representatives have all passed the bill (Michigan most recently, on July 18, 2007), and it was passed by the Colorado legislature in 2006, before being vetoed by the governor. On February 3, 2009, committees of both houses of Washington State’s Legislature held hearings on the bill. Clearly, a lot of folks believe, as the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it in 1974, that while a person “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.”
They say that when the people who live near Niagara Falls go away for a weekend, they’re shocked, upon their return, at just how noisy is the din. The current momentum boiling up for the WFA suggests that when voters and legislators stop to think about captive audience meetings, the intrinsic vulnerability of employees at the workplace, and the WFA, they’ll recognize that workers are routinely denied something that the rest of us take for granted, and support this law to give employees the “right to walk away” long denied them under federal law.
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