Proposed labor law would make Vermont one of few states to ban captive-audience meetings

By Ciara McEneany | Community News Service

Vermont lawmakers are seeking to give workers increased protections when it comes to collective bargaining and union organizing through a bill that has passed in the Senate with a number of changes since it was introduced.

The bill, S.102, would make it illegal under state law for employers to discipline or fire employees who decline to attend employer-hosted meetings that are primarily about the employers’ political or religious opinions — including unionization. The same would apply to requiring employees to look at or participate in communications about their boss’ political or religious opinions.

That would, to some degree, make Vermont the fourth state to pass legislation to bar what are called captive-audience meetings. Wisconsin and Oregon passed such laws more than a decade ago; Wisconsin repealed its law after being sued, and Oregon’s withstood a court challenge. Connecticut lawmakers last year passed their own bill that has also been challenged in court. The language in the Vermont law closely mirrors that of Connecticut’s.

The current standard in which unions are recognized in the state can take, at a minimum, several weeks, giving employers ample time to stop a union from forming, according to Elizabeth Medina, executive director of the Vermont State Labor Council, the state’s branch of the AFL-CIO.

“Unfortunately, this period of waiting between when workers have majority support — and effectively have elected a union through signing union cards — and when they reaffirm their commitment to the union through a board election, there’s ample time to union bust,” said Medina. “And one of the main tactics used by employers who want to end union bust and suppress their workers’ rights to form a union is to hold what are called captive-audience meetings.”

Captive-audience meetings are a longtime tactic of anti-union employers in which bosses or hired consultants hold mandatory meetings with employees to address an attempt for union representation.

“These captive-audience meetings are really used to try to instill fear and to find out who the leaders are, and they’re very effective,” Medina said. Last year, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo put out a memo saying the board would consider captive-audience meetings a labor law violation.

But groups representing employers think the measure has been “hurried through” committee, as the Vermont Chamber of Commerce said in a March commentary, and that it would prompt legal headaches for the state.

The statewide group said the bill could let employees decline to attend diversity or other social justice–centered trainings, as did the Associated Industries of Vermont and the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.

“The bill can also be construed and potentially used by employees that do not want to participate in meetings that involve topics they deem political, such as those around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies or metrics,” the Lake Champlain chamber said in a recent commentary on the bill, which it called “problematic.”

The bill also aims to make it easier for employees of the state or state colleges to unionize by allowing the state labor board to recognize a union if a majority of represented employees signs their support — something nearby states have in place already, according to labor leaders.

When the bill was originally introduced in the Senate, there were provisions to include unionization for domestic and agricultural workers, but they were removed. Labor advocates have been outspoken in rejecting the removal of their protections.

“This is a group of very vulnerable workers that really could use a union,” said Medina, adding, “It’s really difficult to form a union in the first place, and then secondly, it’s even more difficult when you cannot even have a legal right to do so.”

Advocates also had to compromise on the bill’s original language surrounding good-cause termination — a process that would require employers to go through progressing discipline before firing an employee — which was removed for it to pass in the Senate. Still they believe the bill will make a landmark difference in the state.

“It addresses one of the main barriers to organizing a union, which is fear of retaliation and termination,” Medina said. “Even though technically it is illegal to fire an employee for union activity … we would like the state to take a more proactive role.”

According to the Lake Champlain chamber’s legislative update earlier this month, lawmakers are going to “postpone further work on the bill until next year” because of its complexity.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of Public domain