Power and Privilege in the Workplace

Today, Adele Stan uncovers another example of a big employer trying to bully their employees into voting for Mitt Romney. We've seen a number of these stories in the last few weeks, as one company after another sends out notices to their workers saying, Hey, we're not telling you whom to vote for or anything, but if that socialist Barack Obama gets elected, we might have to fire you. The twist in this case is that the company, home improvement retailer Menards, is using an online "civics" course as its means of persuasion. Employees who take the "voluntary" (which means you don't have to take it, but your bosses are keeping account of who did and who didn't) course are fed a bucket of anti-Obama propaganda.

As this kind of thing becomes more common, there are a couple of things to remember. First, though the CEOs inevitably say they're just giving their employees the straight dope on business realities, this has absolutely nothing to do with business realities and much more to do with their personal ideological preferences. Why didn't corporate America back a single-payer health plan, which would without question save them money and relieve them of the hassle and expense of managing their employees' health benefits? Not because of a business calculation, but because the people running corporations are mostly conservatives who think single-payer is commie stuff. We've known for some time that the economy has performed better under Democratic presidents, and under Barack Obama in particular, the stock market has done spectacularly well and corporate profits are near all-time highs. But most CEOs don't much care, because Obama once used the term "fat cats" in a speech and that really hurt their feelings. After Citizens United, some of them realized that the Supreme Court had now made it legal for them to proselytize to their workers, and it's only likely to become more common.

The second thing these stories highlight is just how unequal power relations are in the workplace today, and how hard conservatives are working to make them even more unequal. Just as they fought for the principles codified in Citizens United, they fight against any and all protections for workers, whether it's a higher minimum wage, workplace safety requirements, rules on discrimination, and most important of all the right to collective bargaining. To listen to them talk, you'd think that when a factory worker asks his boss for some new safety equipment or a raise, the two are basically on equal terms. The boss can fire the worker, while the worker can take his skills elsewhere, so all's fair.

I don't know if they actually believe this insanely unrealistic view of the world and the way power works in it or not. But when you have that viewpoint, it seems perfectly reasonable for a CEO to tell his employees how to vote. After all, they'll say, he's just exercising his free speech rights. And if the employees are going to feel a little less free to exercise theirs (how willing would you be to drive your car with an Obama-Biden '12 bumper sticker on it into the company lot after getting one of those letters?), well then they should buck up and be as brave as the CEO.

Though I don't have firsthand experience, it seems to me that one of the consequences of becoming (or always having been) rich is that things that are actually privileges of your wealth end up seeming like inalienable rights. Every American should have the right to spend millions of dollars getting his or her preferred candidate elected. Every American should have the right to threaten the jobs of hundreds or thousands of people if they don't vote the right way. Every American should have the right to convince members of Congress to twist the tax laws in their favor. That's what freedom's all about.

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