Minnesota lawmakers on verge of banning captive audience meetings
State Sen. Eric Murphy leads the push to end captive audience meetings forced upon workers when bosses want to feed them anti-union propaganda | video screenshot via Twitter

ST. PAUL, Minn.—Minnesota lawmakers appear on the verge of banning one of employers’ most notorious anti-union tactics, so-called “captive audience meetings.”

If approved and signed by Gov. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., an Education Minnesota union member, Minnesota would join Connecticut and Oregon in outlawing the meetings, one of the most intimidating—and successful—devices bosses use to thwart workers during union organizing campaigns.

“This bill is a big damn deal,” State Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, told the May 16 press conference on the legislation, producing chuckles from the crowd.

“Many workers describe them”—captive audience meetings—“as raw intimidation,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President  Bernie Burnham told lawmakers earlier this year.

“As powerful as corporations are…we need to make sure the people who work for a living are equally powerful,” said Murphy, a registered nurse who is also a past Minnesota Nurses Association executive director. “We are making important advances for worker safety, but as important, for worker power and worker voice.”

The legislation faced fierce opposition from the corporate class, Murphy said.

“Here at the end of this session, it is unavoidable…The powerful voices, the powerful efforts of corporations in their efforts to try and undermine the work that we’re doing for Minnesotans. And as powerful as corporations are, and they are powerful actors in our communities, in this legislature, across the state, and in our economy, we need to make sure people who work for a living are equally powerful,” she declared at the press conference.

A typical captive audience meeting, which Burnham said now occurs there in more than 90% of organizing campaigns in Minnesota, features bosses and supervisors haranguing workers against the union, behind closed doors. And that’s a small part of the intimidation.

Under current labor law, as interpreted by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board, bosses can force workers to attend the meetings and discipline those who don’t. Likewise, if a pro-union worker stands up and challenges the boss, or the union buster the boss imports, the worker is marked out for later retribution.

And captive audience meetings often see veiled threats, which stop just short of labor law-breaking, that companies or institutions may close, that wages would start at zero in bargaining if the union wins a recognition vote, that benefits would be yanked, and so on.

Bosses also can tell lies about union dues and alleged big pay for “union bosses”—their rhetoric—while not disclosing their own pay or how much they pay the union busters.

“The person who signs your paycheck should not be allowed to force you, under threat of discipline or retaliation, to listen to their opinions about your legally protected right to choose whether to join a union,” added Patrick Kennedy, a licensed social worker who tried to organize his mental health facility for Office and Professional Employees Local 12, testified earlier this year.

The meeting was so intimidating that though 80% of workers signed union election authorization cards, only 42% voted union in the NLRB-run election, he said. OPEIU lost.

Teamsters Local 120 member Jeff Schreiner, who helped lead a 10-year organizing drive at Sysco in St. Cloud, said regular captive audience meetings created a “psychologically stressful” work environment, pitted workers against each other, and spread misinformation. “It’s almost like there’s a script that companies follow,” he said after listening to testimony from workers in other industries.

The captive meeting ban which is headed towards Walz’s desk is one of a raft of pro-worker laws the governor and lawmakers are pushing through now that the 2022 election gave the DFL and its union allies a complete “trifecta”: Control of the legislature as well as re-electing Walz.

The legislature has already enacted paid family and medical leave. Other bills moving fast include requiring hospital staffing committees to include nurses and establishing financial oversight panels at the institutions, too. National Nurses United has long campaigned, in Minnesota and elsewhere, for mandated nurse-patient staffing ratios, to help nurses better tend their patients, and advocate for them.

“At my facility, we have two housekeepers to do the work that four people used to do. Last year I worked 23 days straight,” nursing home housekeeper Teresa Bates told the May 16 press conference on the legislation.

Other legislation includes free college tuition for families earning under $80,000 a year and a Warehouse Workers Safety bill by Murphy aimed straight, she said, at Amazon. The monster retailer, warehouser, and the delivery firm has in the past treated its Minnesota workers with special disdain, even going so far as to ban Muslim workers from taking time for Ramadan. Under public pressure, Amazon changed that policy.

Michael Moore, editor of The Union Advocate, St. Paul, Minn., contributed reporting for this article.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.