Unions back measure protecting employees who skip religious or political work meetings

Opponents concerned about broad definitions, potential legal issues

AFL-CIO President Tim Drea is pictured at a Springfield news conference in October 2021. Drea’s AFL-CIO labor organization is backing a bill that would protect employees who abstain from political or religious work meetings from retaliation by their employer.

SPRINGFIELD – Democrats in the Illinois Senate on Wednesday advanced a measure that would prohibit Illinois companies from requiring employees to attend work-related meetings about politics or religion.

Senate Bill 3649, which is backed by organized labor, passed the Senate Labor Committee 11-4. Backers have dubbed it the “Worker Freedom of Speech Act.”

Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO labor organization, said the bill would help Illinoisans avoid unnecessary and potentially uncomfortable gatherings in which workers are forced to be a “captive audience” for their employers’ political or religious speech.

“They go to work for a paycheck and to make a profit for the employer, period,” Drea said. “Not to be indoctrinated by anyone’s religious or political beliefs.”

Under the proposal, it would be illegal for a business to “discharge, discipline, or otherwise penalize” an employee who “declines to attend or participate in an employer-sponsored meeting “about religious or political matters,” according to the bill’s language.

Employees who believe their workplaces violated the law would be able to file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor and sue their employer to reverse any illegal punishment, like being fired for not attending a meeting.

Opponents of the bill, like National Federation of Independent Business Illinois State Director Noah Finley, said the legislation would infringe on employers’ civil liberties by creating “content-based discrimination.” He also claimed the measure would prevent employees from getting new points of view from their employer – like which legislation their union dues could support.

Republicans on the committee expressed concerns that the bill’s definitions of “religious” and “political” speech were too broad.

The bill defines “political matters” as anything pertaining to elections, changing laws or regulations, or joining advocacy groups, fraternal organizations, unions or political parties. “Religious matters” include anything pertaining to belief, affiliation, practice or decision to join any religious organization or association.

Opponents also argued the General Assembly has no authority to pass the legislation because it’s preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, but no official ruling has been made in any of the five other states with similar laws.

Frances Orenic, legislative director for Illinois AFL-CIO, said the bill does not prohibit employees from exercising their right to free speech.

“It will just protect employees if they decide not to engage,” Orenic told the panel.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. He said he filed it in response to a 2022 memorandum from the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. The memo advocated for making “captive audience” meetings for political or religious matters a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

But the NLRB has not taken such an action.

“With no response from the federal level, Illinois must step in to promote employee-friendly environments,” Peters said in a news release.

While the bill passed committee, Orenic said negotiations on final bill language will continue in the coming weeks. She noted the AFL-CIO was working with groups such as the ACLU of Illinois, Equality Illinois and Planned Parenthood.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.