National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is taking aim at “captive audience meetings” held by employers, arguing that it is unfair to coerce workers to attend them. But then why shouldn’t the general counsel apply the same logic to the myriad of other ways that workers can be coerced into doing things under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? Shouldn’t the idea of “it’s the workers choice” apply in all cases?
The meetings Abruzzo is targeting have long been controversial. During union organizing campaigns, employers will often require workers to attend talks about the consequences forming a union. Managers usually put a negative spin on it in the hopes that will make the workers think twice about having one. Businesses have to walk a fine line doing this, since the NLRA forbids them from firing, threatening, or intimidating workers who wish to have a union. That’s a straight up violation of the law.
Unions have long hated managers’ mandatory meetings precisely because they tend to be effective in getting workers to oppose collective bargaining. In a memo to the board released Thursday, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said, “This license to coerce [attendance] is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with the Act’s protection of employees’ free choice. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights.” Abruzzo, a former lawyer for the Communication Workers of America, urged the board reinterpret the NLRA to prohibit the practice. She stated:
To ensure that employees are not held captive to employer speech about their union or protected activity, I will propose the Board adopt sensible assurances that an employer must convey to employees in order to make clear that their attendance is truly voluntary.
There’s a good chance that NLRB, the federal agency that enforces the NLRA and oversees union elections, will follow her advice. Under President Biden, the five-member board has a Democratic majority that favors unions.
From a free market libertarian perspective, the meetings are troublesome, since the individual worker is given no choice about attending. The right of individual workers to do as they see fit should be the most important consideration. Yet Abruzzo’s memo’s gives no indication that she sees this same logic applying in other circumstances even though there are quite a few ways in which the NLRA limits the rights of individual workers.
For example should workers be able to refrain from joining a union without fear of losing their jobs? That’s a right guaranteed in only 27 states. Why not all of them? Why shouldn’t workers be able to negotiate their salary and benefits on their own if they think they can get a better deal than what the union negotiated? Under the NLRA’s granting of “exclusive representation” to unions, workers are prohibited from doing that.
As long that remains true, the case against mandatory employer meetings gets a lot weaker. Mandatory meetings do at least assure that the system is fairer; they are often the only way for workers to get information about what collective bargaining means for them that doesn’t come directly from labor activists, who are not likely to explain workers’ Beck rights to not to fund the union’s political activities.