The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 25, 2008

‘Captive audience’ bill clears House after long debate

Mannix Porterfield

CHARLESTON — Critics viewed it as a labor-led attempt to chill free speech of business owners in the work place, especially when union organizers are prowling in the neighborhood.

Supporters, however, saw the so-called “captive audience” bill Monday as a means of shielding workers from having their bosses’ opinions on political and labor issues shoved down their throats.

When the dust settled in an hour-long debate, proponents won by a 64-33 tally that transcended party lines.

One who voted against it, Delegate John Pino, D-Fayette, allowed that some business owners have been shoddy, but told delegates of “many wonderful” firms where no employees’ rights are being abused.

Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, who led the opposition charge, said the nation’s first-ever proposed state law, if approved by the Senate, would trigger lawsuits and scare out-of-state businesses from locating in West Virginia.

“This is a litigation gold mine where these questions are going to be decided in our courts,” he warned.

On the other side, House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, recalled the fear evident in the eyes of non-union workers he attempted to recruit in his early days as a United Mine Workers of America organizer.

“I have sat at kitchen tables and watched workers tremble,” Caputo said. “If anybody doesn’t believe that happens, I’d love to take you on an organizing campaign from start to finish. I’ve seen workers tremble and fear for their jobs. They have been forced to sit in captive audiences by employers and virtually get pounded on day in and day out.”

Originally, the bill that surfaced in interims and was put before the House early on also embraced religious talks in the work place, but Judiciary Chair Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, said this element was scratched.

“There were too many questions of what it would allow and would not allow,” she explained.

Pino said he was “glad” to see the religious clause of the bill extracted, then spoke against the proposal, which now heads to the Senate.

Webster said the bill doesn’t bar employers from conducting meetings, but does keep them from forcing workers to attend and listen.

But critics maintained it would have a chilling effect on employers to discuss such issues as environment with workers when, in the long haul, they could affect their very employment.

Besides, argued Overington, when he was working, he considered himself a “captive” employee.

“My employer told me what to do,” he said. “I was part of a captive audience as long as there wasn’t any type of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. He was paying me for what he wanted me to do.”

Overington said West Virginia has fallen to 50th in Forbes’ latest business rankings, making void the old comfort of at least having Mississippi to look down upon.

“I think our new slogan will be, ‘Thank goodness for our friends in Mexico,’” the delegate said. “They will be what keeps us from being dead last in this hemisphere.”

Caputo said he had no desire to cancel an employer’s right to exercise free speech under the First Amendment.

“But in free speech, a person should have the right to walk away,” the delegate said, looking directly at Overington. “It wasn’t this long ago when this country forced people to live in coal camps and told them what church to go to and what preacher to listen to and what doctor to go to. If they decided to go on strike, their clothes were set on the street. That was in this country. Not Mexico. This country. And it hasn’t been that long ago.”

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