Opinion

When the boss says, you either do this or else… by Rep. Mike Sells, 38th Legislative District

Should you be required to sit through religious services — or listen to political speeches — as part of your job?

Unless you work for a church, or for a politician, the answer should be no.

How about donations to charity? Shouldn’t you be the only one deciding which causes to support?

These are issues of individual conscience, your individual conscience, and are totally unrelated to your job performance.

Workers certainly must go through mandatory training to be better at their jobs; nobody’s arguing that, the problem arises when your job is conditioned not on how well you do it, but on how you vote, what you believe in, whether you want to join a union, or who you give your hard-earned money to.

This is happening more and more across America and our state is not the exception. Employers are requiring their workers to sit through mandatory events that have no relation or relevance to the work they were hired to do. To ensure they follow through, employers often make the workers understand that if they don’t comply, the consequences can be really bad and may even involve a pink slip.

What it boils down to is that workers either do what they’re told or they may not have a job the next day. Nobody wants to put their income at risk.

This is legal in our state and it has to stop.

I have introduced House Bill 1528 to make this practice unlawful. The terms of the Worker Privacy Act are very clear and very simple: your employer can’t fire you or even threaten to fire you if you don’t go to a meeting or an event where the purpose is to feed you information on political or religious matters, or to influence you to change your beliefs, opinions or actions about these matters.

The bill is necessary to protect your fundamental freedom of thought and speech, since employers are currently allowed to trample on that freedom by forcing you to do things that are not only not related to your job, but in fact disregard your individuality and violate your privacy.

What my bill doesn’t do is prohibit or infringe the right of employer speech. The Worker Privacy Act is no gag rule; employers are free to speak out at the workplace on any political, religious and charitable issues they want and in any way they choose to do so. They can use meetings, posters, flyers, e-mail messages and whatever other form to get their word out on these matters — they just can’t force workers to give these communications the time of day.

Opponents are saying that my bill goes against federal labor laws and that it challenges the First Amendment. But neither of those claims is true. First, the state has full authority to establish minimum working conditions, which the Worker Privacy Act does. For instance, just as the state prevents employers from forcing workers to toil in unsafe working conditions, it can also pass a law preventing employers from forcing workers to attend a meeting that threatens their freedom of conscience.

And regarding the First Amendment, my bill in no way prevents employers or anyone else from discussing religion, politics or any other subject in the workplace; it merely prohibits coercing and threatening employees who don’t want to listen.

Would someone seriously argue that the First Amendment gives an employer the right to order employees into a meeting where the goal is to convince them to be Catholics instead of Protestants, or Democrats instead of Republicans?

As Washingtonians who aim to live in a free, fair and just state, we must recognize the importance of protecting employees from this form of coercion and the way to do it is passing the Worker Privacy Act.

The Worker Privacy Act has 46 supporters in the House and 20 in the Senate version.

Mike Sells is a state representative from the 38th Legislative District, which includes the communities of Everett, Marysville and Tulalip. He currently serves as Secretary-Treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council, an organization of 65 unions that represent 42,000 working people in Snohomish County.

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