Federal Lawsuit Challenges CT’s ‘Captive Audience’ Law

A coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is claiming Connecticut’s ban on “captive audience” meetings, which unions say are used to obstruct organizing, is unconstitutional and a preemption of federal labor law, and has recently filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hartford.

The lawsuit claims the ban violates free speech and equal protection rights under the Constitution by “chilling and prohibiting employer speech” with their workers. The suit has been joined by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) as well as trade groups representing retailers, among others.

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“This is a broad coalition,” said President Chris DiPentima of CBIA, the state’s largest business association. “The Connecticut law is essentially a gag order — an unnecessary and unconstitutional infringement on the rights of employers to communicate with employees in the workplace.”

The bill was signed by recently re-elected Governor Ned Lamont on May 17 after winning final legislative passage on April 29. It passed with only two Republican votes, one in each chamber, and took effect on July 1.

The lawsuit comes at a time when unions have been gaining ground. According to Bloomberg Law, in the first half of 2022 unions won more than 600 elections for the right to represent workers – the most in almost two decades.

“No employer should be able to force a worker to attend a meeting to coerce their opinions on religion, politics, or union organizing,” said Ed Hawthorne, President of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, at the time the law passed. “And no one should be fearful at work for exercising their right to join a union.”

The Connecticut law makes it illegal for employers to compel employee attendance at meetings where the employer is sharing its views on religious or political matters, which includes unionization. It also gives workers the right to sue for damages.

The current lawsuit was filed a week before the 2022 mid-term elections (timing which DiPentima said was coincidental), magnifying Republican rhetoric that Connecticut has seen lackluster economic growth in part due to an alleged hostile environment for business. The CBIA has longed claimed the CT General Assembly does not sufficiently consider the economic impact of the legislation it passes.

“It doesn’t send a message to Connecticut businesses, it doesn’t send a message to their employees, it doesn’t send a message to the broader world that Connecticut is where you want to be doing business,” DiPentima said.

Captive audience laws have seen limited success in other states. Wisconsin and Oregon both adopted such laws in 2010. Wisconsin later repealed its law after being sued, while the National Labor Relations Board under President Trump sued Oregon over its law in February 2020, arguing it preempted federal law.