Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

Very unwise for employers to tell employees how to vote

This piece originally appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.

Recent weeks have brought a rash of reports of something that used to be unthinkable in America: employers telling their workers who to vote for.

First, Republican billionaire and Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel informed his 8,000 employees that “another four years of the same presidential administration” would “threaten your job.” Then, Koch Industries wrote its 45,000 employees that “if we elect candidates who … put unprecedented regulatory burdens on businesses,” employees “may suffer the consequences.”

The Kochs may be ideological extremists, but their tactics are quickly becoming mainstream. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign encouraging businesses to distribute political ads in the payroll envelopes of their employees. And a newly surfaced tape records Mitt Romney himself urging employers to “make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming election.”

These are the kind of banana-republic tactics that our government regularly condemns when they occur abroad. The Bush administration, for instance, rejected Ukrainian elections as illegitimate, in part because international observers found that managers of state-owned enterprises had “instructed their subordinates to vote for [the ruling party].”

One step beyond even the Kochs is GOP mega-donor Bob Murray, who required employees at an Ohio coal mine to attend a Romney campaign event. The resulting photo-op could have been at home in the old East Germany—candidate standing before a crowd of miners, replete with banner reading “Coal Country Stands With Mitt,” with no notice that miners were attending under the direction of their boss, forced to give up a day’s pay in order to serve as human props. Again, we routinely condemn such charades when carried out by foreigners. The Bush administration criticized Armenia’s elections, for instance, after observers reported that “factory workers … were instructed to attend the incumbent’s rallies.” But what we reject for Armenians and Ukrainians, the business lobbies now want to institute at home.

An employee whose boss tells them how to vote may still ignore this advice in the privacy of a voting booth. What they won’t do, however, is display a button or bumper sticker, write a letter to the editor, or be seen attending a rally of the opposing party. This strikes at the very heart of democracy. Elections are only “free and fair” if voters are free to speak out, write in, and publicly support the candidate of their choice, without fear for their livelihoods.

This principle is not only enshrined in international standards; it is a fundamental norm of American democracy. When the Founders set about designing the world’s first democracy, they were particularly concerned that employees might be subject to the undue influence of those who controlled their economic fate. “In the main,” Alexander Hamilton warned, “power over a man’s support is power over his will.” Constitutional author Gouverneur Morris likewise worried that those who “receive their bread from their employer” would be pressured to “sell [their votes] to the rich.”

This concern spawned a host of federal and state regulations specifically aimed at insulating voters from political pressure in the workplace. A dozen states, for example, ban employers from putting political messages in employees’ paychecks. Others have laws like Ohio’s that prohibit employers from predicting that “if any particular candidate is elected … work in the establishment will cease in whole or in part.”

What sets democratic elections apart from the sham votes of authoritarian regimes is not secret ballots—after all, even Saddam Hussein had secret ballots—but the ability of all voters to participate in what the Supreme Court termed “uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate” without fear of retaliation.

In striking down limits on political advertising, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision also—perhaps inadvertently—deleted the statutory language that prevented corporations from forcing political propaganda on employees. The GOP and corporate lobbies now want to exploit this loophole to turn us into a country where only the independently wealthy are truly free to speak out, while the rest of us have to look over our shoulders before signing a petition or wearing the “wrong” button.

It’s hard to imagine a worse direction for the country, or a more important place for Republicans and Democrats to come together in defending the fundamentals of our democracy.

See related work on Unions and Labor Standards

See more work by Gordon Lafer