U.S. labor board official wants to end mandatory anti-union meetings

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April 7 (Reuters) - The top lawyer at the agency that enforces U.S. labor laws said on Thursday she will ask the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to prohibit businesses from requiring workers to attend meetings discouraging unionizing, which would eliminate a major tool employers use to counter union campaigns.

Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the NLRB, said in a memo that so-called captive audience meetings discourage employees from exercising their right to refrain from listening to anti-union messages, making them illegal under federal labor law.

“This license to coerce is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with the (law's) protection of employees’ free choice," wrote Abruzzo, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden.

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Abruzzo said that in a future case she will ask the five-member NLRB to overturn its own precedent going back to the 1940s that says captive audience meetings are legal. The general counsel acts as a prosecutor, filing complaints against businesses that are then heard by the board.

The NLRB in past cases has said the meetings are a valid exercise of employers' free-speech rights, but Abruzzo said those decisions failed to balance those rights with the ability of workers to freely choose whether to join unions.

The memo comes amid a spate of high-profile union campaigns involving companies such as Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O), both of which have reportedly held captive audience meetings. Some studies have estimated that more than 90% of employers facing union elections hold mandatory anti-union meetings.

Amazon and Starbucks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement on Thursday that employers use captive audience meetings to spread disinformation and intimidate workers.

"The question of whether workers want a union should be the workers' choice – not the employers' – free of intimidation and interference," he said.

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Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.