No more mandatory meetings about politics, religion, and union organizing

By Georgene Barragan of Happy Valley, Oregon. Georgene has been a baker for 20 years in 2 bakeries, and has been a scaler-mixer at the bakery where she currently works for 2 years.

As a baker in a small bakery, I am one of many Oregonians who cannot easily stop working during my shift to attend meetings. When I am at work I need to be working, just like nurses, Oregonians who work in the service sector, or police and firefighters. If any of us miss work we are letting down our patients, the people we serve, our fellow Oregonians who depend upon us for their own safety, and in my case my coworkers who I work with on the line and who can’t do their job if I’m not there to do mine.

Of course, there are times when my supervisor needs to pull my coworkers and me off the floor for a meeting. Perhaps there is a schedule change that we need to know about, or a policy change that will affect our working conditions. These are important matters and these meetings are clearly necessary. When I get called off the floor, away from my work, leaving others to pick up the slack and either slowing down our production or forcing my coworkers to work twice as fast (which is just not safe when you’re working with industrial-sized bakery machines), I take that meeting seriously and I take the topics covered seriously. I think we all would.

Some employers abuse the seriousness of mandatory meetings, though. They call us off the floor and away from our job to ask us how we plan to vote, and then lecture us about who they think we should vote for – in political matters including union elections. They call us off the line to talk to a lawyer who was hired solely to convince us not to form a union. They ask us to stop working, even if we think that is unfair or unsafe for our coworkers, or just plain irresponsible, to tell us what to believe. And all this is legal in Oregon.

If you think that sounds extreme you’re right. That’s why most Oregonians think the law needs to be changed. 88% of Oregonians, in a December poll, said they did not think an employer should be allowed to force workers to attend meetings about the employer’s opinion on politics, religion, or union organizing. 84% support legislation allowing a worker to opt out of these meetings and ensuring that those of us who chose to opt out are not disciplined or fired for doing so.

There is legislation in Salem right now that would do just that – ensure that Oregonians can opt-out of meetings regarding their boss’s opinion on politics, religion or unions without being disciplined or fired. SB 519, known as the Worker Freedom Act, had a hearing in the state Senate Committee on Commerce and Workforce Development at the beginning of March, but it has yet to come up for a vote. I’d like to ask our Democratic legislators: why not?

Do they think it is acceptable for my boss to take advantage of a situation where she knows I will take her every word very seriously, or as a de facto threat of my job security? Do they think it is okay for my coworker, who has very different political values from mine, to feel unwelcome at work? And what do they say to the 88% of Oregonians who think this is a crucial issue? What do they say to the 92% of workers in the private sector whose employers pull them away from their jobs to attend meetings about why unions are bad, who are not allowed to speak up if they disagree, and who are threatened with being fired if they try to walk out?

I’m sure some of my coworkers would find these meetings interesting, and occasionally we have slow days when we could safely take a break to attend these meetings. But I also think I should be allowed not to attend. Mandatory workplace meetings should be reserved for the most serious of discussions – discussions that are so important that it is worth leaving my work to someone else so that I can attend.

This may all sound hypothetical, but it’s real. When my coworkers and I tried to form a union and be represented by the Bakery, Confectioner, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) this past year we were called in to mandatory meetings where we heard all about how much management hated unions. Many of us were also left to cover for our coworkers who were in these meetings. I was personally shut down and belittled every time I tried to ask a question or speak up at these meetings.

Three other Oregonians and I went to Salem to testify in favor of the Worker Freedom Act, citing experiences in our workplaces where mandatory meetings have been held. Nationwide large corporations consider these practices run of the mill, like Walmart during the 2008 election. We are just a small sample, from across the state, of workers who have been intimidated, disciplined, or fired because the law doesn’t protect our rights at work.

A more stringent version of the Worker Freedom Act passed the state House in 2007, but did not get to a vote in the state Senate. The current version specifically allows voluntary meetings – this bill is about stopping coercion and the threat of firing. That’s all.

Other states across the country are considering similar legislation. 17 Legislators have co-sponsored the Oregon bill, including Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin and Senators Diane Rosenbaum, Alan Bates, Laurie Monnes Anderson, Rod Monroe and Vicki Walker. I’d like to thank all of these leaders, and their fellow Senators who did not cosponsor the bill but who are committed to passing it, for standing with working Oregonians.

But I have to ask - where is the rest of the Oregon Senate on this? What would you ask the Senators who don’t support this bill? How, for two years now, can Democrats not be willing to take a stand on the rights of working Oregonians?

Comments

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    This is a bald faced lie and a brazen attempt to undermine the ONLY manner that an employer has to counter union organizing in the workplace under the National Labor Relations Act. The stuff about religion and politics are red herrings.

    It is already a potential cause of action to force employees to listen to religious views held by managers or owners of a company (unless it is a religious organization). Prosletyzing in the workplace is not currently allowed under national labor law.

    If you want to change the National Labor Relations act, then by all means do so - AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL. Currently employers are only allowed contact with employees while they are at work. They are not allowed to campaign while the employee is on break, lunch or off work at home or in other areas. Not so union organizers. Not only do they have access to the employee at all times the employer does not; they can force the employer to give them current address and contact information for the employee.

  • Ross Lampert (unverified)
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    Kurt, you're forgetting one thing...the 40 hours (often more) that the employees are at the workplace. That's a significant portion of the employees time. If the employee sleeps for 8 hours per night (56 hours per week) and works for 40 hours a week, that means they have 72 hours per week of "free" time to do their laundry, cook, eat, clean, walk the dog, play with the kids, go out to see music, etc.

    The union gets the excelsior list (the list of names and addresses) a month before the election and tries to visit each individual while they happen to be home and they happen to have enough time to talk with that union rep. I'm sure that the union reps knock on a lot of doors and get nobody home. They don't get to walk into the workplace, where they know the employee will be at 9 am tomorrow. The union doesn't know where the employee will be when they get off work at 5 tonight, so good luck finding them!

    On the other hand, the company sure knows where that employee will be at 9am tomorrow! Unlike the union, the company has the opportunity to talk with all their employees at once and pitch their side in a mandatory meeting. 40 hours per week is about 25% (23.8% to be precise) of the time in a week. A quarter of the employees' time isn't sufficient to threaten to take their job if they unionize? Give me a break.

  • Logan Gilles (unverified)
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    Let's level the playing field and pass this bill already!

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Thanks Ross, you made my point for me. Under the NLRA, the company is only allowed contact during 23.8% of the week. Less actually after you subtract mandatory rest and lunch breaks. The organizing unions have the remainder, some 76.8% of the week in which they may contact the employee.

    Logan from the math above it appears that the playing field is already scewed in favor of the union.

  • gordon taxer (unverified)
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    So, employers don't really want to hold mandatory meetings just to talk politics or religion; they only want to talk about those "nasty" unions. They think it is okay to pay wages to employees forced to listen to their expensive union-busting lawyers because they are afraid of the unions. After all, unions in the workplace mean justice in the workplace. And justice can only lead to prosperity for the American middle-class.

  • Salemite (unverified)
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    The Democratically-controlled House passed this bill with their (then very narrow 31-29) new majority in 2007.

    What's up with the Senate?

  • Matt (unverified)
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    I agree with the poster that it is time to have this come forward for a vote. This is does not force employers to stop having the conversation, rather, it gives employees the right to opt out of participating. I guess that I don't understand the big deal.

    I also wouldn't short change the religious or political meetings. These are things that do happen in today's workplaces while folks are on the clock.

    Kudos to the poster for standing up on this.

  • (Show?)

    Those mandatory meetings with bosses are intimidating indeed. I've talked with lots of people who have been through them -- Imagine sitting alone with your boss while he or she tries to figure out whether you support a union and hints (or says outright) that people will lose their jobs if the union is supported. We should all be free to walk out of meetings like that and get back to our patients, clients and workload without being fired for it.

  • tl (in sw) (unverified)
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    Kurt is obviously correct. I mean, look at the tremendous growth in membership numbers and political power unions have enjoyed over the last couple decades. Whatever can management do to stem this unstoppable force?

    Oh, that's right, union numbers have been dropping (20.1% in 1983, 12.4% in 2008). The divide between rich and poor has greatly increased, and the US is third highest poverty rate (behind Mexico and Turkey) in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

    I'm not suggesting that unions would reverse these trends, but I would argue there is a correlation between weak workers' rights and these troubling trends. To claim that management is weak and helpless against union organizing, though, would be laughable if the actual truth weren't so sad.

    -tl

  • Ross Lampert (unverified)
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    Kurt, sorry, I'm not proving your point for you, what I'm saying is that while employers have unfettered access to their employees for 40 hours every week, Union organizers get four weeks to find and talk to every single employee in the company. The employer can do in 1 hour what takes the Union weeks to do...if they can even get it done.

    The employer knows where all its employees will be during their work hours, so it's easy for them to have access. The Union has no idea where those same employees will be during their off hours, so access is much more difficult and usually is individual instead of being able to talk with everyone at once.

    You're also suggesting that 76.2% of the time is available for organizers to talk to the employees...come on, don't you think it would be a little rude to knock on someone's door at 3am? People sleep, that knocks the time available down quite substantially. Out of a 168 hour week, if you sleep 8 hours a night, you're asleep for 56 hours. If you're also at work for 40 hours, that leaves 72 hours for an organizer to contact and meet with each employee of the workplace. So while the union has more time to meet with employees, they have much less access. They have no power to force employees to meet with them and most of that 72 hours is eaten up just trying to find the employees. On the other hand, the employer can just call a mandatory meeting and everyone will be there or risk losing their job...yeah, that's level.

  • proworker (unverified)
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    In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board found employers guilty 29,500 times for illegal threats and promises as they use their economic power in the workplace to fight organizing campaigns. Workers don't have a fair chance at organizing unions. This bill would allow workers to opt out of these kinds of meetings which absolutely take their toll. Workers should not have to go through the kind of war employers wage when workers start to organize. This is one small step in the right direction.

  • Terry Lansing (unverified)
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    The Real World: The Employer not only has mandatory access to each worker, but they hold the power of employment over each worker. Remember, the non-union are "at will" and the Employer uses this to force their "opinion" upon each worker. Not only that, it is legal for the employer to lie to the workers at these mandatory meetings and claim their lies are the truth. The Union workers have no ability to respond and correct the lies. And if they try - they are identified as Union supporters and often fired. At one stretch of mandatory meetings, the Employer claimed that a vote for the Union was like a vote for the Devil. Over and over again, we have seen the Employers use all kinds of tactics in mandatory meetings with the sole purpose of terrorizing the workers into submission to their boss. This Bill needs to be passed just to give workers a small chance at fairness. Unions are workers! And only Union workers speak for the plight of the non-union workers.

  • Elana (unverified)
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    I'd like to thank Georgene for sharing her story with everyone. I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal talking about union organizing efforts at Wal-Mart.

    A direct quote from the article - "The Bentonville, Ark., retailer...said managers have seen increased union activity at a number of stores, prompting mandatory meetings to discuss unionization."

    Check out the full story here.

  • georgene (unverified)
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    In response to Kurt, your percentages are way off. In my experience the company also required mandatory overtime (10+ hours a day) during the campaign to reduce the time even more that the workers would be available for Union to make contact with them. Also we are not talking about one mandatory meeting, there are daily meetings workers are forced to attend during the time they are trying to join a Union. It's almost on the vurge of harrassment by the company to force the workers to go through this. The workers in Oregon need the support and strength that this bill would give to them.

  • Pancho (unverified)
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    At least the employers are paying for their employees' time.

    If union organizers paid these same employees an hourly wage to listen to their pitch they'd probably find a lot more workers willing to accommodate them.

  • Joe Hill (unverified)
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    It is shocking that we even have to have a debate about passing this law. Pass this law yesterday. Twice.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    By all means, lets rush to make it more difficult to do business in Oregon. with the second hghest minimum wage and highest unemployment nationally lets go for it!

    Oh, I notice that nobody has yet commented on the latest regarding the Portland Stadium deal for MLS. Why no progressives commenting on Paulsen now cutting the number of jobs from 300 to around 200 and the number of full time jobs to around 125.

    Why no comments that the city of Portland currently subsidizes the wages of many of Paulsen's employees at PG&E Park to the tune of around $3.50/hr? Why no comment that Adams and Leonard would extend this subsidy to the "new" jobs allegedly created?

  • tl (in sw) (unverified)
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    Kurt, you may have a point regarding "[making] it more difficult to do business" and I think it's worth discussion. But how do MLS and City of Portland wage subsidies have anything to do with employer mandatory meetings? Do you really see a connection, or are you just venting in general?

    -tl

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    tl, that is a very fair question. I guess the whole MLS details were a general vent.

    I am frustrated that BO tends to shy away from follow-up on good sprited discussions when the subsequent facts come out showing a less than favorable light for a progressive cause. Case in point, all those wondeful jobs pointed at by Leonard, Admas et al when giving away public dollars now are shinking even before the ink is dry on the agreement to agree.

    I also find it interesting that the initial discussion on Bo and in the Oregonian neglected reporting that the existing Paulsen jobs at PGE Park are subsidized by the city of Portland to the tune of $150k/year.

  • wsl (unverified)
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    Kurt I take it to mean from all of your anti-union ranting and Pancho that you are in the upper management pay bracket and you have no fear of losing your jobs as long as you stand on the necks of the working class poor whose minimum wage jobs don't afford decent housing, medical care or food to feed themselves or their families. That those same working poor are working two and three minumum wage jobs just to get by from pay check to pay check. I would like to see you and the rest of you living off the sweat, blood and tears of the non-union high minimum wage survive or try to anyway for 6 month to a year on that same minimu wage with no outside help, ie. medicaid, food stamps because your three or two minimum wage jobs put you fifty cent over the state/fed. poverty line and explain to your chil(dren) why they have to wear clothes from the free box,(if you can find one)cuz even goodwill is too expensive.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    wsl, I'll ignore the obvious class warfare intent of your rant to say that I have worked in both union and non-union companies. Some were run very well and others, well weren't. My views are not an ad hominen attack on unions. They aren't even anti-union.

    I am a strong advocate for a complete review and revision of the NLRA. There have been no complete revisions since it was first passed in 1935. That was then and this is now. The Act as written is too open to partisan meddling by whatever party happens to be in power. Currently, as written, the Act only applows companies the ability to contact and engage employees while at work. By the time a petition is presented for a union to become the exclusive bargaining agent for a group of employees that union has already been in contact with the employees. Most unions do not go forward with the Representation Petion without at least 85% of the cards checked. The company can not campaign until after the petition is presented.

    <h2>Our country has been plagued with huge pendulum swings over the past 60 years. If we voted for change, I thought it was an attempt to make meaningful reviews and revisions rather than the same old knee-jerk reactionary politics. Of course I could be wrong.</h2>
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