Salwa Mogaddedi, worker at Starbucks in Vernon Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Labor organizers and legislative Democrats celebrated the Friday implementation of a new law prohibiting captive audience meetings outside a Vernon Starbucks, where employees said that management had discouraged their campaign to unionize baristas. 

Friday, the first day of the new fiscal year, marked the effective date of two high-profile labor policies: the state’s minimum wage increased by a dollar to $14 per hour and a new rule went into effect preventing employers from holding mandatory meetings to discourage workers from unionizing. 

Some of the bill’s proponents gathered for a press conference at a Starbucks store in Vernon, where baristas said they had been subjected to intimidating meetings ahead of their July 14 vote count on an effort to organize. 

“Enough is enough,” Salwa Mogaddedi, an employee at the location, said. “Frankly, we are tired of the intimidation and the lies against our unionizing efforts, lies that have unfolded during captive audience meetings, where many of us were forced to endure under fear of discipline.”

Mogaddedi said the meetings were often one-on-one encounters with the store’s upper management where employees were warned that their working conditions would worsen if they successfully unionized. 

Reached by phone, a spokesperson for Starbucks disputed the claims.

“Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false. We respect our partners’ right to organize and should they begin the unionization process we will follow the [National Labor Relations Board] process,” the spokesperson said.

During a Friday’s press conference, Senate President Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said efforts to discourage workers from unionizing have remained largely consistent for decades. Looney said his father had been subjected to the same tactics in the 1950s when he was involved in organizing efforts at the Winchester arms factory in New Haven.

Sen. Martin Looney and Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“The plant would close,” Looney said workers were told, “your [immigration] status would be investigated, given your citizenship. Those were the serious threats, the idea that benefits you already have might be taken away. The unions will be intrusive and work conditions will deteriorate.”

Connecticut labor leaders have sought a prohibition on captive audience meetings for more than a decade. Looney said he first introduced a similar bill in 2005. 

However, the policy has been staunchly opposed by the state’s business community. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association has for years referred to the policy as an “employer gag order” and argued that adoption would prevent employers from communicating vital work-related information to their workers despite an exemption designed to ensure employers could still pass information necessary for workers to complete their jobs.

This year, after it was approved by both chambers of the legislature, CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima wrote to Gov. Ned Lamont and urged him to veto the bill. 

“[E]mployees could refuse to attend workplace meetings because they are offensive to one’s personal political or religious views,” DiPentima wrote. “This could impact discussions and training about diversity, equity and inclusion, LGBTQ issues, vaccination policy, or maintaining workplace safety.”

Lamont, a Democrat running for re-election in the fall, did not veto the bill. His signature back in May joined Connecticut with Oregon, the only other state with a similar policy currently on the books.  

Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Opponents have suggested the policy may be temporary, arguing that the law is pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act. Although former Attorney General George Jepsen reached the same opinion of earlier versions of Connecticut’s bill, current AG William Tong has said this year’s policy differs enough to pass muster. 

On Friday, Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s labor committee, said Connecticut’s new law was carefully written to avoid such pitfalls by prohibiting meetings not just aimed at union busting but meetings designed to force workers to listen to any political or religious opinions of their employers. 

Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, agreed.

“I think we’re on solid ground,” Winfield said. “But I will say this: if there’s a challenge to this, there’s a challenge. It’s still worth having done.”