General counsel will urge NLRB to deem captive audience meetings illegal

After learning its booksellers were forming a union, management at Half Price Books in St. Louis Park called Lindsey Dorsey and her co-workers into a meeting, hoping to snuff out the organizing drive.

“When you’re scheduled to do it, you do it,” Dorsey said. “But it was really clear why they were there and what they were doing and what they were talking about.”

Such mandatory meetings – known by union organizers as “captive audience meetings” – could soon become a violation of federal labor law, after the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel announced April 7 that she will ask board members to overturn a longstanding precedent allowing the practice.

Jennifer Abruzzo, appointed general counsel by President Joe Biden last summer, said employees organizing a union on the job have a right to listen to – or refrain from listening to – employer speech concerning their rights to act collectively to improve their workplace. And it falls on the NLRB to protect that right.

For over 70 years the NLRB has allowed employers to use captive audience meetings to stifle organizing drives and take disciplinary action against any employee who refuses to attend. Abruzzo said that’s inconsistent with the National Labor Relations Act, which the board is charged with upholding.

“This license to coerce is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with the Act’s protection of employees’ free choice,” Abruzzo wrote. “It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights.

“I believe that the NLRB case precedent, which has tolerated such meetings, is at odds with fundamental labor-law principles, our statutory language and our congressional mandate. Because of this, I plan to urge the board to reconsider such precedent and find mandatory meetings of this sort unlawful.”

That’s good news for working people looking to gain a say over their wages, benefits and working conditions, union organizers said.

“Ending captive audience meetings puts decisions about organizing back in workers’ hands,” Minnesota AFL-CIO Organizing and Growth Director Todd Dahlstrom said. “Working people need the freedom to decide whether to join together in union without a boss putting their finger on the scale with threats or misinformation.”

Captive audience meetings are a mainstay of the anti-union playbook, utilized by human resources departments and the high-priced, union-busting consultants they call on to squelch organizing drives. In a 2009 study, the Economic Policy Institute found that 89% of employers held captive audience meetings in advance of union elections between 1999 and 2003.

In Abruzzo’s opinion, those meetings should have been voluntary and, moving forward, employers should be held responsible for making it clear that attendance is optional. “Such an approach will appropriately protect employers’ free-speech rights to express views, arguments, or opinions concerning the employees’ exercise of their protected labor rights without unduly infringing on the rights of employees to refrain, or not, from listening to such expressions,” her statement said.

“This is a big step in returning power back to working people,” Dahlstrom said.

Whether workers at the Half Price Books in St. Louis Park could have opted out of their meeting with management without facing discipline is unclear. No one thought to ask, Dorsey said.

Either way, the move backfired, as workers later voted nearly unanimously to form a union with Local 663 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Several workers, Dorsey said, signed union cards shortly after the meeting with management.

“We knew when they were being misleading because we had been communicating with workers at other stores,” Dorsey said. “So when we were talking about our staffing issues and we were told that it’s our store’s problem and no other store has that problem, we knew it was a lie.

“That’s the best defense against anything, just communicating and knowing the truth.”

Half Price Books unions in St. Louis Park and three other metro stores – Arden Hills, Roseville and St. Paul – are currently bargaining first contracts with the bookseller.

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