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Worker’s Rights or Infringement on Free Speech?


December 22, 2007
By Sen. Clark Barnes, R-- 15th District
In the last “Barnestorming” issue, I discussed the surprise proposed legislation which would place a Legislative Oversight Committee over the worker’s compensation system. The second such surprise from the interim committee process has been called the “Worker’s Communication Bill.” This proposed legislation would place restrictions on so-called captive audience meetings by employers for “political or religious” issues. Typically, these are used by companies to disseminate information to employees regarding how current political issues might affect their workplace environment, their benefits or even their future employment. This proposed legislation prohibits employers from requiring attendance at such meetings, even though they may be on paid company time.

The prohibition against such meetings would not apply to companies or organizations whose purpose is to promote political or religious issues since employees should be familiar with their employer’s beliefs about these matters. This would allow churches, political parties, unions, lobbying firms and so forth to hold such meetings.

The proposed bill states, “No employer or an employer’s agent, representative or designee may require its employees to attend an employer-sponsored meeting or participate in any communications with the employer or its agents, representative or any invitee of the employer, when the primary purpose is to communicate the employer’s opinion about religious or political matters.” It further stipulates that “political matters means political party affiliation or the decision to join or not join any political, labor, social group or organization. ...” Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect on federal requirements already in place.

Federal law already prohibits discrimination in the workplace from race, religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation and a myriad of other reasons. So let’s isolate the real purpose of the proposed legislation. Union organization is masked in the cloak of politics and religion. The National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. Section 1581) lays a framework for labor-management relations which protects the rights of any employee to participate in the formation of a union or to become a member. It also prohibits companies and employers from using unfair practices or threats to employees for such participation.

So now let’s go back to the new West Virginia proposal. What does it really do that is not covered by federal law? It prohibits employers from calling meetings and requiring attendance when the issue is formation of a labor union. Could this be considered a brand new attack on the constitutional rights of “free speech?” Can we assume the employees should not have the right to know how these decisions would affect their workplace environment, their benefits, their personnel matters? Are we to assume that the average West Virginia worker is not intelligent enough to process information from both sides of an argument? I’m insulted. My grandfather was one of the first organizers sent to Matewan by John L. Lewis. There were no protections in those days and you took your life in your own hands (or better yet, placed it in the hands of God). These early fighters for worker’s rights were intelligent men and would have been capable of standing up and debating the coal barons and the John D. Rockefellers of their day. But, there was no communication in those days, only threats and dismissal. Those days are gone, thanks to protections that are already in place and working.

Let’s look a little further into the language: “... or participate in any communications. ...” This takes it further than simply calling a meeting. Now we’ve expanded it for the courts to have jurisdiction into the meaning. If past results of West Virginia Supreme Court decisions are any indication, then we’ve broadened it into something that could overwhelm the civil court system. There is an entire section devoted to civil suits.

My concern with the bill is the affront it presents to free speech. Private employers should be allowed to decide what they discuss with their employees. Limits to such speech should only be placed in extreme circumstances such as sexual harassment or verbal abuse, and these are already dealt with by current laws.

We all know that there is a lot of information that employers throw at employees in an effort to improve or protect their bottom line. Some info is beneficial to employees. Some is not. The employee is the ultimate judge of what to buy into.

Current laws already protect workers from hostile work environments. An employee who feels he was wrongfully terminated can seek recourse through the courts at present. Adding a prohibition against captive audience meetings will do little to further protect employees, but it will restrict the rights of employers. Does this reflect an attitude of “Open for Business” or does it further discourage our ability to attract new businesses and jobs to our state? You tell me.

How about the issue of discussing religion? This bill would prohibit employers, supervisors or even fellow employees from having the right to share their faith with others at work, even at break times. Is this where we want to go? We’ve already told God that we don’t want Him in our schools, our pledge or our currency. I sometimes wonder why He bothers to stick around at all! But ... thank God, He does.

Write to me: Clark S. Barnes, State Senate, West Wing, Room 203, State Capitol Building, Charleston, W.Va. 25305. You can e-mail at: or call my Charleston office at (304) 357-7973.  



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