Labor-backed bill banning 'captive audience' meetings awaits House action

Labor-backed bill banning 'captive audience' meetings awaits House action

Measure excludes certain tax-exempt entities after negotiations

Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – With two weeks left before the General Assembly's spring session is set to adjourn, negotiations continue on a labor union-backed initiative that would allow Illinoisans to skip religious and political work meetings without reprimand. 

Dubbed the “Worker Freedom of Speech Act,” Senate Bill 3649 advanced out of the Senate on May 2 with only Democratic support.

The Illinois AFL-CIO labor organization brought the measure to Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, in an effort to ban what the unions refer to as employer-sponsored “captive audience meetings” pertaining to religion and politics. Labor advocates say the meetings give employers an opportunity to coerce employees to listen to anti-union rhetoric.

Employers found breaking the law would have to pay $1,000 per violation and provide relief to the wronged employee as the court dictates, which could involve paying owed wages and reinstating their position.

The measure has thus far not been assigned to a substantive committee in the House.

Rep. Marcus Evans, D-Chicago, a union ally and chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, is the measure’s House sponsor. He said he believes there is enough support for it to pass in the final two weeks – although a minor amendment could be forthcoming. 

Read more: Unions back measure protecting employees who skip religious or political work meetings

In 2022, Jennifer Abruzzo, the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, filed a memorandum asking the board to review its stance on the meetings. She wrote “forcing employees to listen to such employer speech under threat of discipline – directly leveraging the employees’ dependence on their jobs” violates labor law. An updated ruling on the matter could come once the NLRB finishes reviewing an ongoing court case from 2018. 

In the 1946 case NLRB v. Clark Bros Co. Inc., the NLRB decided captive audience meetings were illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, labeling them an anti-union tactic. The Taft-Hartley Act, which passed in 1947, reinstated an employer’s right to host the meetings if they do not threaten or bribe the employees. 

Research from the Economic Policy Institute indicates six states – Connecticut, Minnesota, Maine, Oregon, New York and Washington – have outlawed the meetings, while 10 other states, in addition to Illinois, introduced similar legislation within the last year.

A lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against the state of Connecticut for its implementation of a “captive audience meeting” ban was partially dismissed in 2023. The plaintiffs, who believe the law violates employers’ First and 14th Amendment rights to political speech, requested a judgment in April 2024. Various business associations, including the National Federation of Independent Business Inc., filed a similar suit against Minnesota earlier this year that is pending.

In Illinois, the bill ran into roadblocks earlier this session as advocacy groups were worried it would prevent them from talking to their employees about their jobs. An amendment to the measure now exempts organizations working in religion and policy from the act – specifically, groups with 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) IRS statuses.

Unlike 501(c)(3) organizations – the designation typically given to charities – social welfare groups, labor and agricultural organizations, and business leagues and trade associations with 501(c)(4, 5 and 6) designations can freely lobby and engage with political campaigns. Since much of their work involves policy issues, some felt like they needed extra protections to continue it. 

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, which has a 501(c)(4) designation, said his was one of the groups pushing for an amendment because there was concern staff would no longer be able to talk about work at mandatory work meetings. 

“If we spoke about an issue that we were working on – to try and advance trans rights, or try to advance reproductive rights, or try to advance other rights in some other way – would that run afoul of the black letter of the law in terms of compelling someone to hear speech about an issue as part of their job, even when someone may not be working on that?” Yohnka said. 

The amendment added language that explicitly says nothing in the bill prohibits organizations with a 501(c)(4, 5 or 6) designation from mandating meetings where the employer would communicate its political beliefs. 

Yohnka said it was clear during conversations with Peters and his legislative team, the measure was not intended to interfere with the work of advocacy groups. Because of the changes, he said ACLU believes the measure “won’t have any impact on the work of the ACLU or other similar organizations.”

The amendment also created exemptions for religious organizations to communicate their religious beliefs and for regulatory bodies, like the General Assembly, to communicate policy initiatives. 

Although it does not explicitly exclude 501(c)(3) organizations, Peters told Capitol News Illinois the law would not apply to employers talking to employees about political and religious matters related to their work.

He said it only applies to meetings and conversations that have “nothing to do with your work” and are “explicitly trying to get you to change your beliefs.”

A previous amendment granted exemptions for required diversity, equity and inclusion training and higher education employers speaking to employees about coursework and research.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association. 


Alex Abbeduto

Alex AbbedutoAlex Abbeduto

Alex Abbeduto is a University of Illinois Public Affairs Reporting program intern for Capitol News Illinois for 2024.

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Full biography

Alex Abbeduto is a University of Illinois Public Affairs Reporting program intern for Capitol News Illinois for 2024. Each year, CNI takes at least one intern from the program, working with them to supplement our state government coverage as they earn a master’s degree from UIS.


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