Face the Facts

Face the Facts: Captive Audience Meetings and Pandemic Pay for Frontline Workers

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We've seen protests for both higher wages and better benefits throughout the state and this week, the governor had a breakthrough with some of the unions for state employees.

So where are they now?

At least 20 SEIU 1199 members were arrested after staging a protest that blocked a busy street near the State Capitol Thursday afternoon.

NBC Connecticut's American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Ed Hawthorne talks about the deal that's on the table and another measure that's being discussed.

Mike Hydeck: "First, let's talk about the deal. Governor Lamont struck with SEBAC. We know you're not a part of that, but I know it's part of what you need to hear moving forward. As far as paying is concerned, frontline workers have been risking their lives all the way through this pandemic. What's your take, when it comes to wages and benefits in the deal that's offered by the governor?"

Ed Hawthorne: "You have to look at it in context. So over the last 20 years, there's been a 20% reduction in our state workforce, we have the possibility of losing another quarter of our most senior state employees in four months come July 1. We already have between 150 to 200 open positions for plow truck drivers, over 400 open positions for correctional officers, and an additional 400 have already put in their retirement papers. I know of no employer, including the State of Connecticut, that can provide quality service to its customers, after having lost a quarter of its workforce. It's a fair deal from what's been put out into the media, as you said, we're not a subject to it. You know, as a labor movement, we believe every employee public sector, private sector, building trades in the state of Connecticut deserves a raise and these workers are no different."

Mike Hydeck: "And we're talking about a silver tsunami. So many people, as you sort of alluded to there, have a chance to possibly retire in the months moving forward. The governor was public about before this deal was struck that he said 'look, I want to try to keep as many of our skilled workers with institutional knowledge as possible.' Are there incentives in this package? Do you believe that'll help some of these workers stay on the job for a little while longer?"

Ed Hawthorne: "Oh, absolutely. If you look at the history of these contracts, they've had six wage freezes in the past 12 years, employee concessions have saved the state $1.6 billion in the biennium. You know, the state's coffers are frankly overflowing with money at this point. And, you know, I think these employees have shown their worth and we need to give them a reason to stay. And that reason is, you know, increased wages, and an opportunity to stay in the workplace and stay a productive member of that workplace."

Mike Hydeck: "Would there be other options on the table that you would appreciate, whether it's like a bonus, if you stay an extra two years, or maybe a one-time payment, in addition to the wage hike? Are there other things that you would lobby for in this package or that are in there? And you think, 'okay, they're not so bad.'"

Ed Hawthorne: "I would have to defer to the SEBAC negotiators with that. As you alluded to, I'm not privy to those negotiations. So you know, you'd have to talk to someone from SEBAC regarding that."

Mike Hydeck: "Understandable. Okay, so another measure that I know you're very interested in - lawmakers are now discussing what's called the captive audience bill. And if you haven't heard of it, it's one of the things when your boss can call you into a meeting one-on-one and discuss when employees at large are thinking about forming a union. What do you think about the proposal that's on the table for this captive audience bill, now?"

Ed Hawthorne: "The bill before the General Assembly allows workers to leave a meeting that is about politics, religion, or union organizing without fear of retaliation. So imagine your employer wants to force you to sit in a meeting and they want to talk to you about Joe Biden or Donald Trump. And you must stay in that meeting and listen to their views without the opportunity to speak up, without the opportunity to disagree. In fact, if you do speak up or leave the meeting, which has nothing to do with your job, you can be fired. And this often happens during the union organizing campaign. They're subjected to multiple captive audience meetings. In fact, this business of, you know, busting unions is over a $3 billion business. There are mandatory closed door meetings during work hours, where workers are threatened and harassed."

Mike Hydeck: "Now, people from the business community will say on the other side, 'look, I can't even talk to them about something that does affect my job, irrespective of the union, if this particular measure passes.' What's your response to that?"

Ed Hawthorne: "That does not prevent employers from talking with employees about any matters relating to work. Here are some examples of things it says you can do: you can call in workers to explain COVID protocols, vaccines and other workplace and safety matters; discussions in the workplace, even encouraging workers to volunteer and contact elected officials. We're asking for this to be voluntary, not be forced upon them. We're simply asking that the employer bullying and the employer boosts occurring during these meetings does not happen. Some examples of these that I've heard is a nurse during an organizing campaign was actually pretty much forced into a supply closet with the manager's back to the door and was berated for a very prolonged period of time about what the person's view was about joining a union. Another worker was threatened that the company may close the store if they join a union. And there's examples of political-free speech. And we really do believe this is a free speech issue, it's a workers rights issue. And we're simply trying to level the playing field and give the employer a voice, or the employee a voice against a manager that's trying to force their views upon them."

Mike Hydeck: "Now, this measure has been brought forth many times before and in the not too distant past, the former state attorney general George Jepsen issued an opinion he said, 'look, I think federal law might preempt this.' What do you think about that?"

Ed Hawthorne: "Well, this law is fundamentally different. The law that Attorney General Jepsen was referring to back in 2018, was an outright ban on these meetings. Simply said, you cannot have such a meeting. The law before the legislator and Attorney General Tong addresses his opinion, is fundamentally different. It is an option to leave the meeting, the employer can have any meeting they want. What we're saying is it's a free speech issue, to force an employee to stay and listen to speech they disagree with and, you know, the labor movement agrees with the Attorney General Tong that this bill is fundamentally different from the bill that Attorney General Jepsen referenced."

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