Employer Political Coercion: A Growing Threat


This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

A common piece of advice for new hires is to avoid talking about politics, sex, and religion in the workplace. But it may be increasingly difficult for workers to keep their politics to themselves. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, employers now have broad legal rights to campaign for political candidates inside their firms as well as in the public arena. And thanks to new technology, they have the means to track their employees’ political opinions and activities.

Managers and supervisors can now legally require their workers to participate in politics as a condition of employment. For instance, in most states, managers have the legal right to mandate worker attendance at a political rally for a favored candidate—and fire or punish workers who decline to participate. Consider the following examples from recent years of employers engaging their workers in politics:

  • An Ohio coal-mining firm invited Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for a rally at its plant. The firm’s management told miners that they would be required to attend the rally, and that they would not be paid for their participation.
  • Executives at Cintas, a provider of uniforms and other workplace supplies, and Georgia-Pacific, a major paper-product manufacturer, sent letters to their respective workforces expressing clear partisan stances during the 2012 election. Executives at Georgia-Pacific, which is owned by Charles and David Koch, distributed a flyer and a letter indicating which candidates the firm endorsed in races ranging from the presidency to state government. The letters warned that workers might “suffer the consequences” if the company’s favored candidates were not elected.
  • A renewable energy company whose executives I interviewed reported that it encouraged its workers to contact their members of Congress in an effort to renew a federal tax credit for wind energy, warning its workers of the decline in sales of their products if the credit were to expire.
  • In the wake of a number of highly publicized episodes of racial violence, Starbucks executives launched a campaign for their baristas to start conversations with their patrons about race relations in America. Baristas would write the words “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups. Staff were also encouraged to visit a company website with essays and videos about race relations. In an earlier 2013 effort, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz encouraged the store’s patrons to sign a petition to end a government shutdown, and baristas wrote the words “Come Together” on coffee cups.

Beyond these vignettes, there is evidence that employer efforts to recruit workers into politics—what I call employer mobilization—are common in the American labor force. A recent survey I commissioned indicates that perhaps one in four employees, or about 29 million to 39 million Americans, have been contacted by their managers about voting, political candidates, or public policies and political issues. By comparison, about 100 million Americans reported being contacted by a political party about the 2012 election and about 45 million Americans reported contact from a group other than a party about candidates in that election. Among employers I also surveyed, about half (46 percent) reported engaging their workers in politics.

Employer mobilization is important to understand because it offers companies an opportunity to shape public policy using a resource already at their disposal—their workforce. Top corporate managers responding to my survey of firms ranked employer mobilization as a highly effective means of influencing government. Debates over corporate lobbying and the power of business in politics thus ought to consider employer mobilization just as much as they focus on campaign contributions and other standard corporate political strategies.

Coercive forms of political recruitment in the workplace pose a serious threat to workers’ freedom of expression. Not all efforts at employee political mobilization, however, are worrisome. For instance, managers can help workers to register or turn out to vote without endorsing specific candidates. Managers can also help workers to understand potentially relevant policy debates. My polling indicates that this is the norm for most workplace mobilization efforts.

But more intimidating varieties of employer mobilization, such as when employers use threats of layoffs to motivate participation by their workers, put undue political pressure on employees to maintain their economic livelihood. I estimate that about 4 million to 14 million Americans have experienced these more coercive forms of workplace political contact. State and federal lawmakers need to take action to curb the most intimidating forms of workplace political communication while allowing employers to continue other contacts with their workers.


Employer Mobilization in Practice

Employer mobilization ranges from efforts to help employees to register to vote to more intensive efforts, such as those at Georgia-Pacific and Koch Industries, where managers have explicitly endorsed specific candidates that their workers ought to support. In the nationally representative survey of employees I conducted in April 2015, 11 percent of workers experienced “get out the vote”–type mobilization that only discussed voter registration and turnout, while 13 percent reported employer contacts about specific issues or political candidates. These contacts vary in coerciveness. About 7 percent of workers (or 28 percent of mobilized workers) reported employer messages that made them uncomfortable or included threats of economic retaliation, such as job loss, changes to hours and wages, and plant closures.

Only half as many workers (12 percent) reported hearing from a union as well as from an employer. Unions in their much-diminished condition in the United States are clearly not equal to employers as players in workplace political mobilization. In some cases, especially on regulatory and trade issues, employers coordinate with unions on mobilization efforts, but interviews with corporate executives indicated that this was relatively uncommon. Most workers who reported union mobilization on the survey did not also report firm mobilization.

Some evidence from other sources suggests that mobilization has been increasing. For instance, the Business Roundtable, an association of about 200 of the largest and most prominent firms in the country, estimates that the share of its members contacting workers about politics increased from 18 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2004. The Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), a business group that helps firms to mobilize their workers, estimates on the basis of its own polling that the share of employees hearing from their bosses in politics has risen from 7 percent of employees in 2000 to 31 percent in 2014 (somewhat higher than in my survey). And Reuters, drawing on data from the Federal Election Commission and BIPAC, reported that the number of firms contacting their workers about politics had increased by 45 percent from 2010 to 2015.

Mobilization is highly effective, at least according to corporate managers. Politicians and journalists focus on campaign contributions as the main way that companies influence government. But managers responding to my survey of employers reported that mobilization of workers was about as effective in changing public policy as hiring lobbyists, and that mobilization was even more effective than contributing to political action committees, buying campaign ads, and participating in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Employee mobilization appears to be complementary to these other activities. Companies that reported more traditional political activities such as lobbying or donating to candidates were much more likely to report engaging in worker mobilization compared to less politically active firms.

Interviews with managers reveal that mobilization advances corporate interests in a variety of ways. Mobilization can directly change the preferences of voters in races that the companies regard as critical; these are often at the state level and include referenda and ballot initiatives. Mobilization can also provide the names of supportive employees to be used in lobbying efforts. For example, a firm attempting to change the votes of key legislators in Congress might mobilize workers who live in their districts, encouraging them to contact their representatives.


The Changing Context of Employer Mobilization

Although employer mobilization has a lengthy history in American politics, the context has changed. Employers now enjoy more legal rights to recruit their workers to participate in politics than they did even a decade ago. These rights are further reinforced by workers’ loss of bargaining leverage, as well as by technological advances that enable employers to disseminate their opinions more effectively and to monitor their workers more closely.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case ushered in a new legal regime for employer mobilization. Most discussion about that decision has focused on the green light the Court gave companies to spend unlimited amounts from their own treasuries on electoral politics. But Citizens United also allows managers to use employee time (a corporate resource) for campaigning or politics as long as those activities are not coordinated with a candidate. What is more, there are no federal legal protections for employees who are fired or suffer other reprisals for refusing to participate in politics. If they are employed “at will,” as most workers are, they can have their hours or wages changed or be fired without cause, as long as it is not for a narrowly defined set of legally protected reasons, such as religion, race, or gender. Only some states have protections in place for private employee speech or political activity. Moreover, many of the state-level political-freedom laws protect an employee’s speech or activities only during off-work hours, rather than limiting political coercion by a manager on the job.

Even before Citizens United, employers had already begun to engage in practices that resembled the ones that the Supreme Court legalized in its 2010 decision. For instance, companies have long used “captive audience” mandatory workplace meetings to discourage workers from supporting labor unions. In the early 2000s, leading companies and business associations had even started to hold captive-audience meetings about a broader range of political issues, including some related to political candidates. Both the First Amendment and the National Labor Relations Act, which governs private-sector labor organizing, permit captive audiences on labor-related issues and offer no protections for employees who are disciplined or fired for refusing to attend, leaving early, or asking questions. Citizens United gave firms the confidence to mobilize more—and in more intensive ways—than when the legal status of mobilization was murkier.

Aside from Citizens United and the overall political climate, several other changes in the American workplace have facilitated greater political recruitment of workers by managers. Most important, American workers have lost much of the voice and bargaining power that they possessed a generation ago. One clear manifestation of this imbalance in workplace power is the stagnation of the typical worker’s wages relative to the productivity of the overall economy, especially since the 1970s. Other signs of reduced worker bargaining power include record levels of wage theft by managers and the rise of on-call positions where employees are not notified of their schedules until just before they are required to report for work.

The collapse of the labor movement, competition with lower-wage economies overseas, the failure to update labor-law protections, and greater pressures on firms to generate high returns have all contributed to workers’ loss of power and left them in a far weaker position to resist employer demands for political support. In the past, when workers were more secure in their employment, they might have been comfortable refusing to participate in employer-led political activities. Today, not so much: Employees are reluctant to defy management for fear of being replaced.

Advances in technology have also facilitated employer mobilization. Top corporate managers acknowledge in interviews that a company might now launch a mobilization effort with a series of emails to workers, then call virtual town-hall video forums, and finally ask workers to visit a website to send employer-written messages to their elected officials. The new systems permit employers to track which workers read and respond to political requests and which don’t. Employers can easily see, for instance, whether workers opened a particular email about politics, clicked through to websites with additional information, and followed their manager’s request to write a letter to a legislator. In fact, employers can legally use tracking information to reward workers who do the company’s political bidding and punish those who don’t. Indeed, one corporate manager reported to me that his firm kept track of the firm’s “champions,” the workers with the highest participation rates in the firm’s political campaigns. Champions were then invited to become political ambassadors for the firm.


Curbing Coercive Employer Mobilization

While most mobilization efforts do not appear to be coercive and unwanted by workers, some of them clearly are. When employers make political requests of employees to support a particular bill, candidate, or issue, and incorporate implicit or explicit warnings about job loss or cuts to wages and hours, workers may feel pressured to support their employers’ positions. This kind of mobilization poses a serious threat to the right of workers, as citizens, to arrive at their political views and decisions free from the undue influence of others. Coercive mobilization also violates individual workers’ rights to free speech, as they are pressured into making political statements that they may not believe but feel are necessary to appease their employers.

More generally, intimidating forms of mobilization pose a challenge to the quality of our democratic institutions and processes. Coercive mobilization tilts the political balance in favor of corporate interests, as firms are able to change worker preferences and behaviors, and thus electoral and legislative outcomes in ways that other groups cannot. Although only 7 percent of American employees have experienced strongly coercive mobilization, this share might well be enough to swing a close election in favor of a particular firm or industry. Mobilization could make an even bigger difference in low-turnout races, such as for state ballot initiatives or referenda, which are an important priority for many businesses.

One means of curbing employer coercion, described in a recent Harvard Law Review article, would be an extension of federal limits on political action committees to companies. Currently, PACs are restricted from collecting anything of value through “physical force, job discrimination, financial reprisals, or the threat of force, job discrimination, or financial reprisal … or as a condition of employment.” Congress could alter the relevant statute to extend these regulations from PACs to corporations themselves. This straightforward change in language would shield workers from being required to contribute anything of value (such as their money, time, or political voice) to corporate political activities. Companies could thus no longer use the threat of job loss or plant closures to compel worker political activity. Legislation of this kind would at once reach all (or nearly all) private-sector workers, but of course, in the current Congress, no such measure is likely to pass.

Barring federal action, the states could ban coercive recruitment in the workplace, following the lead of New Jersey and Oregon, which have passed versions of the Worker Freedom Act. That law prohibits employers from discharging, disciplining, or penalizing employees who decline to participate in employer-sponsored activities or communications about religious or political issues. The measure exempts religious or political organizations as well as meetings and communications that are legally required.

States could also pass laws to shore up the rights of employees to exercise their political rights without fear of reprisal from their employers. For instance, the California labor code forbids employers from blocking workers’ political participation and controlling or directing their political activities and affiliations. This is similar to the Oregon legislation, except that it protects employees not only from coercive employer recruitment into politics, but also from employer retaliation for workers’ own political activities off the clock.

A final, long-run strategy for reducing coercive mobilization is to try to change the context of work and improve the bargaining power of employees. If employees feel more secure in their jobs, they will feel more secure resisting employer coercion. The government could help shore up workers’ positions by more vigorously enforcing existing labor standards, while also establishing new protections that take into account the radically changed landscape of employment.

Now is the moment to curb coercive employer mobilization practices before they spread further in the labor force. To delay action will only increase the risk of inciting a political war at work. To see what such a war could look like, we need only examine how the process of labor-organizing has evolved over the past few decades. According to the best research on these trends by Kate Bronfenbrenner, it is now standard practice for workers to be “subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.” All evidence suggests that the intensity of these practices has increased dramatically over time, too. It is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.

Addressing workplace political coercion could also raise broader concerns about worker rights. In the eyes of the law, civil rights such as the right to vote and protections against racial or sex discrimination are wholly distinct from statutes governing the ability of workers to organize and collectively bargain with their employers. This artificial separation has hurt both causes. It has meant that employers who discriminate against workers for trying to organize a union face far weaker penalties than employers who discriminate against their workers on the basis of race or sex. The distinction has also hampered the civil-rights movement by keeping the language of economic power out of civil-rights protections.

Resistance to political coercion is a concern common to the civil-rights and labor traditions. Efforts to curb employer political intimidation could remind Americans that the quality of democracy in the workplace has direct bearing on the quality of democracy at the ballot box.  

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)