In May 2022, an employee at a Target store in Christiansburg, Virginia, leaked audio from a meeting that store employees were forced to attend.
Workers had been trying to organize a union at the store since 2019. In the recorded meeting, which was mandatory, the store managers assembled to tell the staff that they didn’t have to support the union. One manager claimed that joining a union could end up costing everyone $500 a month. “I think right now, especially as times are tight.… I’d definitely check that this is the best decision for yourselves,” he told the staff. “The other thing too is if you say, ‘I don’t want to be part of a union. I want to do my own thing. I want to represent myself’… if the vote comes back 51 percent you’ll lose all that. You’ll have to pay the dues, you’ll have to pay initiation fees as part of that situation.”
When a Target employee (and member of the organizing committee) informed the manager that the information he shared was inaccurate and workers could end up paying as little as $6 a month to be part of a union, management promptly ended the meeting.
What happened at that Target is called a captive audience meeting, and it’s a consistent staple of employer union-busting efforts. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 90 percent of companies conduct captive audience meetings when confronted with a unionization campaign — and the data shows there’s a direct correlation between the meetings and whether the union prevails in their election.
Union Organizing Prompts States to Pass Bans
The voice that piped up to correct the manager’s false information during that Target meeting was that of Adam Ryan, a Target worker who helped create a rank-and-file organizing initiative called Target Workers Unite.
“They ran these captive audience meetings on a daily basis once we filed for a union election,” Ryan told Truthout. “They’re usually called team huddles, where managers call all the workers to one area of the store and talk about the daily goals for the store. Then when we started trying to unionize, they switched the script and it was just anti-union stuff. They even brought old managers back to the store to try to utilize any emotional connection they might have had with coworkers to sway them against the union.”
“Some workers said the whole thing felt like 1984 or The Stepford Wives,” he continued. “These people were acting nice, but completely robotic with the talking points. I think it woke many of my coworkers up to the reality that managers will do whatever the corporation tells them.”
In recent years, captive audience meetings have gained more attention as they have factored into many high-profile union fights. In February 2023, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge John Giannopoulos ruled that Starbucks had illegally threatened workers during a captive audience meeting, although he still held that the practice was legal.
An increasing number of states have also begun banning the practice on the local level. In 2022, Gov. Ned Lamont (D-Connecticut) signed legislation banning the meetings. This year, Minnesota and Maine did the same. A bill outlawing the practice in New York has passed the state legislature and is awaiting a signature from Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Maine AFL-CIO Communications Director Andy O’Brien told Truthout that momentum for the legal push stemmed from a local boom in unionization. “We’ve seen a lot of organizing here lately just like we have seen a lot across the country,” said O’Brien. “We had a number of high-profile union drives. We had workers come to the state house and testify in support of these bills. They described what happens at these meetings.”
One of the people who testified in support of the Maine bill was Jillian Gruber, a residential support worker at Portland’s Shalom House. Gruber says she was pulled away from her clients and forced to attend captive audience meetings after employees filed a petition to unionize.
“At the anti-union meeting, I felt talked down to and my concerns dismissed,” she told lawmakers. “My coworkers and I did not have a fair and equal opportunity to discuss anti-union claims that were being made, nor did it feel like a safe environment to do so. Administrative employees and managers who are not part of the bargaining unit were interspersed in the audience of the meeting in a way that felt manipulative, isolating and pressuring. I left the meeting with a greater sense of mistrust, and I witnessed a coworker immediately call their supervisor to resign after the meeting because of what they experienced.”
Industry Fights Back
There is some debate about how these new state regulations fit into the backdrop of federal law. Captive audience meetings were actually deemed unlawful by the NLRB in 1946, but at the behest of big business, a GOP-controlled Congress was able to add employer “free speech” protections into the Taft-Hartley Act a year later.
In April 2022, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo urging the board to deem mandatory meetings unlawful again. “This license to coerce is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with the Act’s protection of employees’ free choice,” she said. “It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights.”
A recent Bloomberg piece on the situation notes that Oregon, which became the first state to ban the practice over a decade ago, has failed to stop captive audience meetings in the state. “While it’s true that Oregon workers can refuse to attend meetings about their boss’s views on unionization, it’s a right that many workers aren’t aware of,” United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555 spokesman Miles Eshaia told Bloomberg. “Their boss isn’t likely to inform them.”
That possibility remains a hurdle for most of these new laws. The bills prohibit companies from disciplining workers who skip the meetings, but that doesn’t mean they can’t claim they’re still mandatory. If companies defy the state bans, but don’t retaliate against workers for skipping them, the legal avenues for employees aren’t entirely clear. Abruzzo’s memo calls for captive audience meetings to be classified as an unfair labor practice so that workers would have legal recourse regardless of whether or not an employee is retaliated against.
Connecticut’s law faces a federal lawsuit launched by a coalition of pro-business groups and led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This is a broad coalition,” Connecticut Business and Industry Association President Chris DiPentima told the CT Mirror. “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.”
One surefire way to help establish legal clarity on the issue is to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. In addition to banning captive audience meetings, the bill would create penalties for illegally firing employees and protections for independent contractors. The PRO Act has been a legislative priority for organized labor since it was first introduced in 2019, but it currently lies stagnant in the Senate as a result of holdouts like Senators Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) and Mark Kelly (D-Arizona).
The laws might technically remain in flux but, amid rising union popularity and work stoppages, local efforts to outlaw captive audience meetings will most likely expand.
“Now organizers in Maine can tell their coworkers, ‘You don’t have to attend this,’” said O’Brien. “The opponents of these bans hate unions and they want to use every available tool to stop them, but if we get enough momentum, we can start a movement.”