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Originally published March 9, 2009 at 3:30 PM | Page modified March 10, 2009 at 11:20 AM

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Guest columnist

Employers should keep nonwork opinions to themselves

Required workplace meetings should be about work-related subjects — not a way to be coerced to listen to opinions on religion, politics or union membership, argues Dave Schmitz, president of UFCW 21. The Washington Legislature should enact the Worker Privacy Act.

Special to The Times

WORKERS, as a condition of employment, should never be required by their bosses to attend workplace meetings where they are subjected to their employer's opinion on religion, politics, charitable giving or unions.

Required workplace meetings should be about work-related subjects — not a way to be coerced to listen to opinions on matters of personal conscience. This is not right, and strikes at the core of our democracy. That is why the Worker Privacy Act is needed now. House Bill 1528 and Senate Bill 5446 each have already been voted out of their respective committees, but some who want to maintain this unfair control over workers are trying to hold back the legislation.

The Worker Privacy Act doesn't cost the state a dime. The House and Senate should welcome a bill they can pass without budgetary considerations and give peace of mind to hundreds of thousands of workers across the state.

Under current Washington state law, employers can and do hold mandatory workplace meetings where they lecture employees on their political, union or religious beliefs. They coerce employees to attend charitable giving campaign meetings to give to causes the employer supports. And they hold required meetings where they indoctrinate employees about their opinions on unions.

All of this can have a dramatic impact on the rights of workers as they seek to protect their personal beliefs from unwarranted intrusion by their boss.

These are not unfounded fears. Significant employee testimony was heard earlier in February before both state House and Senate committees. This testimony helped compel enough legislators to pass the bill out of committee. Now is time for the bill to come to a full vote.

Just to be clear, the Worker Privacy Act does not affect the free speech of an employer. They still have the right to hold staff meetings. They still have the right to say essentially whatever they want. But they would no longer be able to coerce employees to attend workplace meetings regarding issues unrelated to their actual work. Why should an employee be required to attend a meeting where they have to listen to an employers' view on religion, politics or unions? It does not engender the kind of positive workplace where employees are enthusiastic about their job and do their best work.

At difficult economic times, employees are most vulnerable to this kind of coercion. Who would put their job at risk by refusing to do something that their boss is requiring them to do — something allowed by current law. The Worker Privacy Act would give workers that power to say, "No thank you, I'll just keep doing my job."

How people vote, where they give their donations and where they should worship are not work-related. Attending the boss' church when you belong to a totally different faith tradition becomes a moral, spiritual and values-laden issue that tugs at a worker's soul.

Some major employers want us to believe that the Worker Privacy Act will put them out of business. That is just not a credible point of view. We know firsthand that those issues of personal conscience don't belong to employers. And the opportunity for coercion and abuse is far greater when Washingtonians are more fearful for their jobs than perhaps any other time. Workplace coercion is not good for business, it's not good for employees and it is not good for democracy.

Especially in these grim economic times, the Legislature can show real leadership. Pass the Workers Privacy Act. And we ask Gov. Christine Gregoire to keep the commitment she has made to workers and sign it for all the working families of Washington.

Dave Schmitz is President of UFCW 21 (www.ufcw21.org), the largest private-sector local union in the state of Washington.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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