The most undercovered story of the year: political coercion of workers by bosses

Earlier this week, Starbucks made the news when it was revealed that its CEO, Howard Schultz, was ever-so-helpfully “urging” Starbucks to write “Come Together” on coffee cups. The “Come Together” message was to encourage Washington to come to a “compromise” on the fiscal cliff. Yeah, that was pretty gross, and the idea of having the employees themselves write the message was an especially humiliating touch.

But that’s just one stupid story, right? The problem is, it’s not. As Mark Schmitt, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, mentioned to me in an email, employers coercing employees to express their employers’ political views is “the most undercovered story of the year.” I’m afraid he’s right.

Consider not just the Starbucks story but the following examples from earlier in the year:

— In a conference call in June, Mitt Romney urged employers to tell employees how to vote. This attracted surprisingly little attention, except from the usual suspects in the liberal blogosphere.

— In August, Murray Energy, an Ohio coal mining company, forced its employees to attend a Romney rally, without pay. The company has also heavily pressured its employees to donate to Republican candidates.

— Also in August, the F.E.C. decided a case involving an employer in Hawaii which forced employees to campaign for a candidate on their own time. In this instance the candidate was a Democrat; the three Republicans on the Commission voted in favor of the employers, the three Democrats voted against, and the Commission was unable to act.

— In October, David A. Siegel, C.E.O. of Westgate Resorts, “wrote to his 7,000 employees, saying that if Mr. Obama won, the prospect of higher taxes could hurt the company’s future.” Two other companies, Cintas and Lacks Enterprises, were among the many firms that sent out similar letters. How exciting it must have been to receive one — can you imagine the thrill of knowing your job is hanging by a thread if your boss finds out you’re voting Democrat?

— As was reported in The Nation, this fall former presidential candidate Herman Cain made the rounds giving talks to business owners telling them how to “persuade” their employees to vote Republican, and providing them with materials to do so. But wait wait — wasn’t he that weird dude who was forced to end his presidential campaign in disgrace? Whatev, moving on . . .

— Also in October, Georgia Pacific, a Koch brothers company, sent a mailing to 45,000 of their employees telling them to vote for Romney. Not only that, Georgia Pacific now requires employees to “seek approval from supervisors” before running for office or serving on the boards of nonprofits, and enacted a strict new social media policy that has left many employees afraid to express their political views online.

— Speaking of those zany Koch brothers . . . last year, Alabama passed an “ethics” law they sponsored which had a chilling effect on employee free speech. Not only did it ban payroll dues deductions by unions that engage in any type of political activity, but it also prohibited government employees from engaging in “political activity” during work hours. “Political activity” is defined “very broadly, to include: ‘engaging in… any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate.'”

— Also in October, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce worked hand-in-hand with employers to in an attempt to defeat their very own public enemy number one, Elizabeth Warren. They even went so far as to create anti-Warren propaganda materials especially designed to fit in payroll envelopes — how thoughtful! Too bad for them it didn’t work. If it wasn’t for those meddling voters!

— This year also saw a scary trend of employers demanding employees’ Facebook passwords. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to speculate that they want access to your Facebook posts because they want to know your politics. I mean, they’re not asking so they can see your cute puppy pictures or wacky YouTube videos, are they?

There is a reason for all this employer coercion of employees, and it comes down to two words: Citizens United. As the New York Times’ Stephen Greenhouse has reported:

Until 2010, federal law barred companies from using corporate money to endorse and campaign for political candidates — and that included urging employees to support specific politicians.

But the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has freed companies from those restrictions . . .

In short: previously, this kind of employer activity would have been considered an illegal campaign contribution. But in a post-Citizens United world, it’s considered nothing more than perfectly legal “free speech,” and as such is unregulated.

In retrospect, these employee intimidation campaigns were clearly a major G.O.P. strategy. There was the Romney conference call in June, Herman Cain’s fall speaking tour instructing employers on how to coerce their employees to vote Republican, and then all those October forced attendance rallies and mailings on behalf of Romney and other Republican candidates. The Koch brothers’ successful drives to pass laws that limit employees’ and unions’ political speech is also part of this pattern. Wrapped up as we all were in the million other crazy things that were going on during this tumultuous election year, a lot of us didn’t put two and two together when this was happening. But stepping back, the writing is on the wall. This will be the G.O.P. strategy going forward.

Is all this legal? Sadly, it absolutely is, reports Salon’s Josh Eidelson. And it’s not just limited to the mail, either:

[E]mployers are also free to hold mandatory, on-the-clock meetings devoted entirely to lecturing their workers about politics (such “captive audience” meetings have long been a hallmark of anti-union campaigns.)

Worse, says Eidelson, it’s perfectly legal to fire employees for their “lawful off-duty activities, including politics.” Only four states offer legal protection to workers from being fired on the basis of such activities.

Now, when I say employer political coercion was “the most undercovered story of the year,” clearly, that’s not to say it wasn’t covered at all. There were excellent stories on this subject in Salon, The Nation, The New Republic, In These Times, even The New York Times, and of course, plenty of posts all over the liberal blogosphere. Yet for the most part, these stories got little traction in the mainstream media. If they did, they were one-day stories at best. There was stunningly little outrage directed at the companies who tried to coerce their employees’ votes, and especially, at the candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, who openly encouraged them to do so.

Corey Robin’s blog, which I strongly suggest you read regularly if you’re not already doing so, is the go-to place for commentary on these kinds of outrages. Earlier this year, he wrote:

[A]s I argued in my first book, “Fear: The History of a Political Idea,” in the United States it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While fewer than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as two out of every five American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.

Political indoctrination of workers by bosses may be an American tradition, but I can’t recall ever seeing anything this blatant and this systematic being perpetrated by a major political party. We cannot let it stand. Progressives need to be talking much more about the issue of political tyranny in the workplace, and we need to be pushing the mainstream media to take up this story. These political coercion campaigns are a brutal violation of employee rights, and we need to let the media and our elected officials know, loud and clear, that it is totally unacceptable.

In many important ways, the employer-as-Big-Brother gambit didn’t work this time. The candidates that employers spent the most time and money targeting for defeat, Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, won handily. But it’s clear that a longstanding political norm in this country has been broken. In the future we are likely to see more of this, especially as demographic trends continue to favor the Democrats. I don’t know that it’s possible to overturn or dramatically narrow the scope Citizens United. And as long as that law is around, some very ugly things will be done to workers rights, all in the name of “free speech” — their employers’ free speech, that is.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee