A supporter holds a sign protesting the closure of the Augusta Chipotle in 2022 after workers attempted to unionize. | Courtesy of the Maine Service Employees Association
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 24, 2023
A Maine lawmaker has submitted legislation that would ban employers from retaliating against employees who refuse to attend anti-union meetings.
If successful, Maine would become just the third state, following Oregon and Connecticut, to crack down on “captive audience” meetings during union drives.
The tactic has been routine for decades. In the lead up to a union election, workers are often made to attend meetings during which paid legal consultants present them with anti-union messaging in the hopes of eroding possible support.
“Employers routinely break the law and also routinely, legally, intimidate and harass and scare workers out of being able to truly exercise what should be a right,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in organizing at the same time we’ve seen employers time after time pull workers into mandatory meetings on company time and force them to listen to manipulative, dishonest information.”
Captive audience meetings have been a fixture of the largest worker-led organizing efforts in Maine in recent years. Nurses at Maine’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, successfully overcame a union-avoidance campaign that featured mandatory meetings led by Reliant Labor Consultants, a firm with a nationwide portfolio of businesses they have coached to fight off unions. The nurses ultimately won their union election in 2021 by a large majority.
But other workers in Maine have not been as successful in countering the tactic. Staff at Bates College and Shalom House, a Portland nonprofit that serves people experiencing mental health challenges and homelessness, recently failed to form unions after facing strong opposition from their bosses.
LD 1756, “An Act to Protect Employee Freedom of Speech,” sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland), would prohibit an employer from “discharging, disciplining or otherwise penalizing or threatening to discharge” a worker who declines to receive a communication or attend a meeting about religious or political matters. The bill provides an exemption for religious employers.
The bill doesn’t ban captive audience meetings, but companies would be prohibited from penalizing workers for not attending, as such meetings contain “political” content.
“This is fundamentally a worker First Amendment bill,” Schlobohm explained. “The First Amendment grants the freedom of speech without fear of being censored or persecuted. This bill applies that standard to the workplace and allows workers to refuse to listen to employers’ coercive speech on religious or political matters.”
The nation’s largest business lobby, the Chamber of Commerce, has sued Oregon and Connecticut, arguing that their laws infringe on the ability of companies to freely communicate with employees. The chamber also says the state laws are preempted by federal law allowing them to lobby against unions so long as that “expression contains no threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.”
But labor advocates hope that the tide may be turning at the federal level. Last year, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo asking the board to find captive audience meetings a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
The potential shift at the NLRB, the federal agency that oversees union elections, comes after the PRO Act stalled in Congress. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would create a sweeping package of rights for workers, including barring employer interference in union elections. The PRO Act passed in the previous Democratic-led House but has not moved in the Senate, where Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King has signed on as a supporter.
Employees who have been on the losing side of that interference say that the state of Maine must intervene to protect workers’ right to organize.
“It should be a safe environment but it wasn’t,” said Darlene Zupancic, a communications and employment coordinator at Bates College in Lewiston.
Last month, the NLRB’s Boston office announced that an attempt to form a wall-to-wall union at Bates for staff and adjunct faculty didn’t have enough votes. The ballots were impounded for more than a year after the college’s administration challenged the makeup of the bargaining unit.
As Beacon previously reported, Bates hired anti-union consultants to host numerous meetings with staff. While the meetings weren’t mandatory, Zupancic feels they played a significant role in undermining the union effort. The consultants focused their messaging towards the dining and facilities staff, she said, spending less effort trying to convince faculty and professional staff.
“Instead of just giving really concrete unbiased information, it was definitely information to sway people,” Zupancic said of the meetings she attended. “That piece I didn’t appreciate, especially for one of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the world. The last thing we should be doing is using bully tactics to educate.”
Tim Stokes, a full-time residential support worker at Shalom House, felt under extreme pressure during that nonprofit’s recent unsuccessful union drive.
“The tension in the workplace was just exhausting,” he said. “I think that right now, we’re all still just kind of recovering from that feeling.”
Late last month, staff at Shalom House withdrew their petition for a union election after facing opposition from their bosses. Management sent emails, hung posters and had supervisors call their direct reports urging them to vote against the union. They also held two mandatory meetings, one of which was led by Rick Finberg, a union-avoidance expert from the Bennett Law Firm based in Portland and Boston.
Stokes said he intends to testify at the Maine State House in favor of Daughtry’s bill. He also said he has come to see that the overarching goal of a captive audience meeting, more than the content that is presented, is to make it clear that the people who sign the workers’ paychecks are against them having a union. That intimidation is difficult to organize against.
“The whole point of unionization is that it’s a choice. It’s just an unethical thing to have someone who’s in a position of power over you tell you what they want you to do,” he said. “Because the choice to form a union isn’t supposed to be about what management wants.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.