Funny Business

What would the legendary labor leader Walter Reuther have said if 40 years ago he was told that American business was going to spend millions to register workers and encourage them to vote? He would probably have been ecstatic: “They're spending their money to turn out my people?!”

And indeed, since World War II, business usually stayed far away from that kind of politics. Corporations and their political action committees provided the money that drove campaigns -- for both parties, but more exclusively to Republicans after 1994 -- and that was where their involvement ended.

But recently, big business has quietly become a political actor in a new way, organizing employees and getting them to vote in what they see as the interests of their employers. For 2006, the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) has a goal of registering 2.1 million new “pro-business voters” in 15 targeted states. In 2004, the BIPAC program registered 16,000 voters in Iowa, a state George W. Bush won by 13,000 votes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's “VoteforBusiness.com” program in 2004 set up 400 Web sites for companies and local chambers with information on candidates' positions on issues that matter to employees, like tort reform, energy policy, and of course, “the death tax.” This year, they'll set up approximately 1,000 sites.

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In their new book, One Party Country, Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times describe this phenomenon and the underlying change in attitude that made it possible: “Workers understood that manufacturing jobs were evaporating,” they write. “They no longer dared dismiss out of hand arguments that what was good for their employers was also good for them.”

This is an unnerving challenge to the idea that working people vote Republican because they put social values above their economic interest. In many cases, they see their economic interest as bound up in their employers' interests. Many coal miners in West Virginia in 2000 defied their union and helped George W. Bush win the state -- and the presidency -- because of his support from their bosses.

This new loyalty comes at a time when it's far less likely to be reciprocated with secure employment. In Reuther's day, the relationship between business and workers was driven by the assumptions that General Motors and Ford would always be there and would always be profitable, and the worker's interest was to capture more of that profit. Today's insecurity -- the sense that GM could go bankrupt, and that any job, blue- or white-collar, could disappear -- drives a panicked sense of loyalty that often overrides any sense of class solidarity. The challenge in this is profound.

The tragedy of this new business involvement in politics is not in its complete merger with the Republican Party, but that the shortsighted agenda it supports is as bad for business as it is for workers. The issues that these Web sites put before employees -- repealing the “death tax,” expanded oil drilling, tort reform -- may serve the short-term benefit of investors, but the consequent fiscal debacle, radical income inequality, health-care mess, energy insecurity, and overall level of risk is a great danger to future economic prosperity.

There is a parallel between the shortsighted, reckless politics of the Bush era and the short-time horizons and imprudence of modern corporate leaders. The pressure from Wall Street to “meet or beat” quarterly earnings estimates drives everything, and highly paid CEOs who expect to move on to the next job in a few years don't think about their company's prospects into the next decade.

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There are modest attempts by Democrats to reconstruct the adversarial worker-employer politics of another era: the belated push to increase the minimum wage, the campaign against Wal-Mart. But these won't change the overall picture.

Perhaps the best hope is to challenge or divide businesses and offer an alternative that supports the interests of workers in restored security and opportunity as well as the interests of business in sustained prosperity. Such a new social contract would include a robust universal health-care program that would lift those costs off the employer, and the repair of broken systems like unemployment insurance. It would include investment in new sustainable energy technologies and education to generate real economic growth. And Democrats should find a way to challenge businesses to explain to their workers why the GOP agenda is in anyone's interest. All this is easier said than done, but the urgency of it should be clear: They're out there registering 2.1 million new voters.

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