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Originally published March 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 14, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Labor lobbyists push for quick passage of union bill

Companies would be barred from requiring employees to attend meetings about union-organizing efforts under a bill that surfaced Tuesday...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Companies would be barred from requiring employees to attend meetings about union-organizing efforts under a bill that surfaced Tuesday in the House.

Though the legislation won't be formally introduced until today, labor lobbyists are pushing to get it through the House before a key deadline this evening.

Union leaders and their Democratic allies say the ban is needed because companies wield an unfair advantage during organizing fights.

Employers can hold mandatory employee meetings, while unions must conduct their organizing activities outside the workplace, said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, prime sponsor of the bill and secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council.

"It's one of the reasons we've seen such a decline in private-sector unionism," said Rep. Steve Conway of Tacoma, one of nearly 30 House Democrats co-sponsoring the bill. "What we're trying to do is restore some balance."

Business leaders, however, say the legislation would violate federal laws that give employers the right to communicate freely with their workers.

"This is kind of a gag order on the entire business community," said Kris Tefft, general counsel for the Association of Washington Business.

Labor leaders this year had initially pushed for legislation specifically targeting aerospace companies. That bill would have prohibited Boeing and its contractors from collecting hundreds of millions in state tax breaks unless it agreed to remain neutral toward union-organizing efforts.

Union leaders have alleged that a few Boeing suppliers fought off union-organizing efforts partly by pressuring or intimidating workers.

But that bill met resistance from some Democrats — including Gov. Christine Gregoire — who weren't comfortable targeting a particular industry. So labor leaders this week decided to try a broader approach aimed at curtailing so-called "captive audience" meetings by all employers.

Under the new legislation, House Bill 2383, it would be illegal for companies to require employees to attend meetings or "participate in any communications" on non-work-related issues, such as religion, politics or union-organizing matters.

Companies would be barred from disciplining or firing an employee who refuses to participate. Companies that violate the law could be required to pay damages up to three times an employee's actual damages, such as back pay and benefits if the person was fired, as well as all attorney fees.

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A nearly identical bill was introduced in the House last year, but it never reached the floor. Supporters say they will be able to rush the new bill through the House before this evening, the deadline for getting non-budget bills out of either the House or Senate.

Tefft said it's not unusual for employers to hold employee meetings to discuss the trade-offs of unionizing. Federal law allows such meetings as long as employers aren't coercive or threatening.

"If an employer is facing a union-organizing campaign and is aware of it and objects to it, I do think it's a common practice to pull everybody together," he said.

Barring such meetings would be an unconstitutional infringement on employers' free-speech rights, Tefft said.

But Jeff Johnson, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, said the legislation would not bar employers from holding the meetings. Instead, he said, it merely prohibits mandatory attendance.

"Freedom of speech is not a one-way street," Johnson said. "You should also have the right to not listen."

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882

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