Senate Sends Employer Gag Order to House

Issues & Policies

The Connecticut state Senate approved controversial legislation April 21 curtailing employer free speech rights in the workplace.

SB 163 passed on a 23-11 vote, with Republican senators Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) and John Kissel (R-Enfield) joining all Democrats present in support of the measure.

The state Senate passed SB 163 on a 23-11 vote, with two senators absent.

Senators Dennis Bradley (D-Bridgeport) and Norm Needleman (D-Essex) were absent.

The bill allows employees to walk out of any employer sponsored meeting if the employee subjectively believes the employer is discussing “political matters,” including legislation or regulations that impact business operations or employer involvement in civic or community events. 

This is far from the first iteration of this bill, which essentially amounts to a gag order on employers, over the last decade-plus at the General Assembly.

Previous proposals foundered primarily based on concerns that these types of measures cannot withstand constitutional legal challenges.

Attorney General Opinions

CBIA learned early in the legislative session that despite then Attorney General Jepsen’s 2019 warning that an identical bill was preempted by federal law, the employer gag order was organized labor’s number one priority this year.

Labor’s efforts were bolstered when Attorney General William Tong issued a memo noting his “strong support” for SB 163, although he did not cite any legal developments or additional court rulings to justify that position.

CBIA and a coalition of business organizations worked against the bill throughout the session.

SB 163’s definition of “political matters,” is too broad, and includes discussions not just of labor organizing efforts, but also elections or candidates, any pending legislation or regulation, or the employer’s involvement in civic or community events.

The bill also allows employees to walk out of meetings if discussions turned to “religious matters,” which when combined with “political matters” means workers could justify their refusal to participate in any meeting or training session because it violated their political or religious beliefs. 

CBIA has also continued to point to evidence that the bill is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, which regulates workplace activities.

Preempts Federal Law

Coincidentally, the preemption argument was verified earlier this month when National Labor Relations Board general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo that that so-called captive audience meetings were not permissible under law despite all the case law since 1948, and verified that such meetings are subject to regulation by the NLRA. 

While those arguments slowed down the bill in the state Senate over the last week, it was eventually called Thursday.

The debate in the Senate lasted almost six hours, with the majority of Republicans going to bat for employers. 

House leadership has confirmed that SB 163 will be called for a vote in the chamber, although they have not yet counted the votes in the lower chamber.

A number of moderate Democrats have signaled they will vote against the bill in the House.   

If the House does approve the bill and Gov. Ned Lamont signs it, the fight to protect employer free speech rights will move to the federal court system.

  For more information, contact CBIA’s Eric Gjede (860.480.1784) | @egjede


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