WV takes 'step backward' in labor relations

West Virginia's labor movement has struggled the last few years to win battles in the Legislature. Its biggest defeat was the privatization of the workers compensation system. But this session, labor has gotten some traction with a controversial proposal. It's called the "captive audience" bill. Labor leaders and other supporters say it keeps employers from requiring employees to attend meetings where the boss's views on politics or unions are forced down their throats.

They back up their arguments with anecdotal horror stories of workers being threatened for trying to form unions or forced to sit through employer anti-union diatribes.

The bill is halfway home after passing the House of Delegates this week 64-33, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

The legislation, I believe, is fundamentally flawed, both for technical and philosophical reasons.

First, laws, rules and regulations governing labor relations are already covered by the federal government. Courts don't allow state governments to pass laws that would preempt federal law.

In other words, even if the captive audience bill did become law, a federal judge would probably strike it down.

Second, the existing rules already prohibit the kind of workplace abuse that labor complains about. If I fire you because you're trying to organize a union, then the National Labor Relations Board will protect your rights, and I'll be in a lot of trouble.

Third, the legislation would have a chilling effect on employer-employee meetings.
No, the boss should not be able to subject a worker to intimidation, but managers need the ability to call workers into meetings to discuss operations without worrying that they might be sued.

And finally, no other state in the country has a law like this.

West Virginia has been scraping and clawing the last few years to improve the business climate.

The privatization of workers comp and the scaled reduction of taxes represent progress.

This bill could easily be perceived as a step backward.

The labor leaders pushing this bill are sincere. They have a healthy skepticism of employers' intentions that has been forged by a lifetime of experiences with nasty bosses.

It's reasonable and appropriate for employees to be able to go to work with an expectation that they will not be subjected to intimidation or worse.

But the captive audience bill is an overreach, a can of worms that, if passed, will ultimately do more harm that good.

- Hoppy Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.


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