- Interview by
- Meagan Day
During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney stopped at a coal mine outside of Beallsville, Ohio and delivered a speech surrounded by workers in hardhats, their faces dusted with coal from the shift that had just ended. It made for a striking visual — but not all the workers who were present for the photo-op were Romney supporters. Their employer Murray Energy had told them that attendance at the rally was mandatory.
Murray Energy coupled its directive to attend the Romney event with strong internal messages to employees stating that if Obama won the election, the company would have no choice but layoffs. When Obama did win, Murray Energy followed through on its threat and fired a hundred workers. Its CEO lamented that the “American people have made their choice” and “will pay the price in their reduced standard of living.”
Murray Energy’s coercion of its workers was an example of what political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez calls “employer mobilizations.” His new book Politics at Work: How Companies Turn Their Workers Into Lobbyists explores the many ways corporations seek to influence the political preferences and behavior of workers, from outright threats like Murray Energy’s to softer forms of propaganda and the long-term construction of workers’ political outlook.
Employer mobilization has spawned a cottage industry, with experts and consultants emerging to help businesses deploy their own workers to influence policy decisions and elections. They’re not shy about their mission; as one consultant wrote in a guide to CEOs:
Corporations don’t vote. Environmentalists vote. Union members vote. Senior citizens vote — big time. But many legislators look upon corporations as piles of bricks that don’t vote and thus pose no political perils. Grassroots action by corporate stakeholders lends living, breathing, voting faces to your otherwise faceless corporation. With effective grassroots action, your corporation (and thus you) quickly becomes a player to be reckoned with instead of a punching bag.
Jacobin writer Meagan Day spoke with Hertel-Fernandez about this new trend in corporate “grassroots action” and its implications for American political life.
How does a company compel its employees to vote a certain way, volunteer for a campaign, or call a legislator’s office?
It depends on the type of company and what they’re hoping to do. For example, Wynn Resorts focused on electing pro-corporate candidates, particularly Republicans, up and down the ballot in Nevada. That involved distributing a voter guide to their casino employees in Nevada and discussing the stances that the candidates took and why it was important for workers to vote for the candidates Wynn endorsed.
Some companies try to affect specific pending legislation, either at the national or the state level. In that case, they might contact employees living in districts of pivotal elected officials to get them to express their support or opposition to the bill. The idea there is that lawmakers will receive a very strong signal that there’s a group of mobilized constituents who might vote on this issue in the next election. The chemical manufacturer DuPont does this with regulatory legislation, for example.
The third scenario is where businesses are trying not to affect any one particular outcome but to change the way workers think about politics more generally. The Midwestern home-improvement chain Menards is an example of this. They communicate about politics with their employees to encourage their workers to become more skeptical of government regulation and taxes.
What’s the legal terrain underneath this practice?
There’s the labor law piece of it, which means that employers have a lot of latitude to change working conditions and fire workers for pretty much any reason. Private-sector workers lack any federal free-speech protections when it comes to politics. There are certain protections afforded to workers under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows even nonunionized workers to communicate about improving conditions on the job, but aside from that, employers have the ability to fire workers for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.
The campaign finance piece is also relevant. The Federal Elections Contributions Act, which was passed in the 1970s, said that companies could solicit workers for contributions. But it set pretty strict limits on how they could make those solicitations — for instance you were only allowed to communicate with your managerial employees, not rank-and-file workers.
But with Citizens United, the Supreme Court made it possible for companies to contribute to campaigns outside of their Political Action Committees, meaning they could spend from their own treasuries on elections so long as they weren’t coordinating with individual candidates or parties. That’s relevant for the activities that I’m talking about, because in the eyes of the law employee time and effort are now company resources that can be redirected toward partisan aims.
So coupled with the lax labor law, employers are in a situation where they can really ask a lot of workers, and potentially even reprimand or fire them — or on the flip side, reward them — for political participation on the job.
In some cases, workers are explicitly coerced into voting or behaving a certain way politically, but there’s a softer form of influence gong on too. Can you talk about the less explicit ways businesses influence and shape their workers’ political behavior?
Some companies are trying to change how their workers think about politics more generally. The idea isn’t to mobilize around a specific election but to transform workers into employee-voters. And to do that, they don’t need to be heavy-handed. Threats are not necessary in order for workers to feel pressure.
When an employer says something to a worker, that carries a lot of weight, because workers today recognize that their situation is precarious. This has changed over time — mid-century American workers might have had greater possibility of union representation and stronger labor-market protections, so they would have felt more confident in their jobs. But the situation is very different today.
Private-sector union density is around 6 percent. Unions are pretty much nonexistent in most sectors of the economy, and labor-market protections have eroded, as has their enforcement. So workers feel a lot more pressure to do whatever it takes to appease managers in order to hold onto their jobs. I saw this reflected in the surveys I conducted: workers who were more worried about retaliation from their bosses and losing their jobs were most likely to respond to employers’ political requests.
Do corporations tend to take the same, or similar, political positions?
For the most part, employer political messaging focuses on securing favorable regulatory and tax policies from government. Sometimes that’s government expansion, in the case of companies asking workers to lobby for subsidies for their industry. But they’re often traditionally conservative anti-regulatory stances, like lobbying against environmental or labor regulations.
It raises a thorny question: how should we think about the worker’s economic interests and the firm’s economic interests? When are those united, and when are they opposed? It’s probably true that if you work at a coal mine, stricter environmental standards will hurt your firm, and that might be bad for individual workers. But workers have other identities too. So it’s hard to say that the policies firms push are objectively in the workers’ interests.
Why is employer mobilization trending upward now?
Although what I’m describing has become more common in recent years, it’s certainly not the case that companies didn’t do this before. We actually saw a lot of corporate efforts to direct the political activity of employees in earlier historical periods, particularly during industrialization and at the turn of the century.
It sort of receded from the workplace in the middle of the twentieth century, in part because workers had more bargaining power. It was harder for employers to make requests of workers that workers might disagree with. And in addition, employers were competing with unions, so if they wanted to send an endorsement of a particular candidate to their workers, they had to compete with a union who was describing why a different candidate was better. The erosion of collective bargaining can help explain why we’ve seen a return to these tactics, though in different forms, today.
There’s a lot of research on how how unions, churches, and interest groups influence their constituents’ political behavior, but there is very little — besides your book — on corporate influence over workers. How is what a corporation does to influence employees’ political participation different from what a church does?
There is something fundamentally different about the economic relationship between workers and their employers than there is between, say, an individual and their church or a political party or civic association. Ultimately, employers control the economic circumstances of workers in a really direct way.
Labor law historically recognized that and said we need to set limits on the sort of speech or activities employers can perform with in the workplace. The power differential between workers and bosses pressures workers to obey directives in order to keep their job, and from my perspective that warrants regulation from the federal government. That’s where I end the book: a call for the government to set rules and standards for what employers can do in the workplace.