As Congressional Republicans moved at breakneck speed to pass big tax cuts late last year, corporate lobbyists also went into a “frenzy” to ensure that their clients would benefit from any legislative change. An army of well-heeled K-Street representatives descended on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and their staffs, as usual. But in addition to this time-honored strategy, American companies also took advantage of another resource to shape the tax reform debate: their employees.
U.S. companies organized rallies and town halls, sent emails, launched customized websites, and made phone calls encouraging their employees to contact Congress and voice their support for specific tax provisions. Managers at companies large and small hosted events and used the detailed information they hold on each of their employees to target political appeals to the workers living in the districts and states of critical lawmakers–and then prodded them to contact their members of Congress.
Corporate executives are generally optimistic about the effects that employee-led lobbying ultimately has on legislation like the tax bill. As one guide for employer recruitment efforts explained, “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.”
In the last decade, office politics have taken on a whole new meaning. For many employees, regular requests from their managers to lobby for legislation, contact elected officials, and even vote or volunteer for the candidates backed by their bosses has become part of the job. Thanks to changes in corporate practices, as well as election and labor laws, American private-sector managers can send political appeals to their workers and even require workers to participate in political activities.
My new book, Politics at Work: How Companies Turn Their Workers into Lobbyists, explains how employers came to see their workers as a political resource. Drawing on four years of research, including independent surveys of workers and managers, as well as interviews with top government affairs officers at dozens of companies, the book describes how common employer political recruitment efforts are, what they look like, and how employees respond, as well as the consequences employer political mobilization has had for elections and policy.
What Does Employer Mobilization Look Like?
In 2012, Wynn Resorts distributed a voter guide to its employees that pushed workers to register to vote and cast ballots for Wynn-endorsed candidates. When asked about his company’s preference for specific candidates, CEO Steve Wynn said that “it would be a complete disaster if Obama wins, which is why I’m urging my employees to vote for Romney.” Georgia Pacific, a division of Koch Industries, took a similar tack in the same elections, mailing its employees a list of Koch-endorsed candidates ranging from the presidency (Romney) all the way down to state legislative races.
One of the most striking examples of electoral requests came from Murray Energy, a coal-mining company whose owner regularly held rallies and fundraisers for Republican candidates (including GOP presidential candidates Trump and Romney). Workers at Murray were expected to attend these events and were called out by name when they did not, according to an investigation by The New Republic. In one letter circulated to workers, Murray’s owner warned, “I do not recall ever seeing the attached list of employees . . . at one of our fund-raisers.” As one frustrated miner put it to the magazine, “There’s a lot of coercion. I just wanted to work, but you feel this constant pressure that, if you don’t contribute, your job’s at stake. You’re compelled to do this whether you want to or not.”
Nearly one in four U.S. employees reported that their bosses had either expressed views about political candidates and issues to them, or contacted them specifically about politics at some point in the past, according to a nationally representative telephone poll I commissioned in the spring of 2015. That means that every worker can be seen as part of an “employee constituency,” in the words of the corporate managers I interviewed, with the potential to be mobilized as a force for lobbying government.
Managers also emphasized that messages to their employees often have ripple effects. “If you have a thousand employees, and you educate those thousand employees, each one of them touches 20, 30, 50 people in their family, in their community,” said a representative of a trade association that encourages employee political mobilization.
The most common type of message that managers were conveying to their employees involved discussions of policy issues or legislation. That might mean talking about bills pending in Congress, like with the tax cut legislation. But at the Midwest home improvement chain Menards, managers went further and set out to change the ways that workers think about politics more generally. The store has encouraged its some 40,000 employees to take an at-home civics course. The course’s materials are a recitation of conservative talking points against government regulation and taxes, with lessons on why the rich and businesses already pay too much in taxes and how the minimum wage hurts employment and job creation. The course was ostensibly optional, but Menards singled out individual employees who had participated with small rewards and recognized stores with especially high completion rates in company publications.
Managers at other companies I interviewed described these activities as “employee education,” or alternatively, “turning workers into employee voters” who think about politics with their business and industry in mind.
That kind of broader communication or education about political issues, managers stressed, can be an important way that companies prepare workers to act on more specific requests in the future, like contacting Congress or casting ballots for company-endorsed candidates. One government affairs officer explained that his company did not immediately ask workers to send messages to lawmakers. The first thing they did, he said, was to “build a [political] relationship with employees . . . [to] educate and inform them.” To do that, the company talked about broader political issues and how politics and policy–though not necessarily an individual bill or election–shape his company.
All of these requests from managers to workers add up to changes in workers’ political outlooks and behaviors.
These requests and appeals from employers tended to follow predictable ideological and partisan lines. The workers who reported receiving messages from their bosses with a clear political slant said those messages favored conservative and GOP candidates. That’s consistent with employers’ use of political recruitment to advance policies that favor corporate bottom lines, like measures to lower taxes and reduce government regulation.
For many workers, this does not pose any problem–roughly half of the people in my survey said that not only do they not mind receiving political messages from their employers, but that they agree with the messages. The remaining half were split between those who had no opinion and those who disliked receiving the messages, and disagreed with the political slant.
What kind of political appeals made workers uncomfortable? The messages that tended to focus on issues that clearly divided the interests of employers and workers, like unions or the minimum wage. More importantly, workers tended to cite messages that came with warnings of job loss or wage and hour cuts as being especially off-putting. About 20% of the workers in my survey contacted by their bosses received messages including such economic warnings.
A striking example came from a Florida timeshare company in the lead-up to the 2012 elections. The owner of the company sent a message to his workers, arguing that “the economy doesn’t currently pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job however, is another four years of the same presidential administration,” according to the New York Times. The owner then encouraged workers to vote against Obama for president–just as he had done in previous elections.
Such warnings can come in discussions about legislation, too, as when oil processor Tesoro sent its CEO on a tour of the company’s refineries to explain to workers how climate change legislation pending in Congress could force many companies–including Tesoro–“out of business.” A number of oil companies, including BP and ConocoPhillips, communicated similar messages with warnings about job losses to their Alaskan oil field workers during a debate in that state over SB 21, a ballot measure repealing tax cuts on oil production.
Workers reported significant pressure to vote against the ballot measure; according to one employee interviewed by Slate, “They let it be known that if SB 21 was repealed that there would be layoffs . . . It was clear how they wanted us to vote.”
The Alaskan ballot measure was soundly defeated.
Why Employers Got Into The Business Of Employee Political Recruitment
Political mobilization at work has a long history in the United States. Before reforms that brought us our modern voting system, political journalists as far back as 1896 reported on cases where company owners would pressure employees to vote for particular candidates, often with the threat of job loss and sometimes with the threat of physical harm. Less intensive forms of political messaging continued through the early 20th century at companies like General Electric, which used celebrity spokesmen (notably Ronald Reagan) to barnstorm the country talking up the virtues of the free market and the evils of unions and socialism, and even organized free-market economics reading groups among their employees. Still, GE was an outlier in the breadth of its efforts, and after the 1950s the practice seems to have all but disappeared. While it’s hard to pin down a single reason why mobilization disappeared from the political scene, electoral reforms coupled with an increasingly powerful labor movement likely played a big role.
A resurgence began in the 1990s, and especially in the early 2000s. As one political journalist put it in the Washington Post in 2004, “Companies that do not communicate with workers about political issues have become the exception, amounting to a quiet revolution in the way business conducts itself in the political world.”
Three factors fueled that quiet revolution.
First, it is simply easier for companies to contact their workers and make political requests of them than in the past. With a click of a button, managers can instantly send email messages to all of their workers with political information or requests for action, like contacting Congress. Often, those requests will come pre-populated with all of the information that the worker needs to act on the message–thanks to software platforms such the Prosperity Project, created by the Business-Industry Political Action Committee.
Crucially, those platforms also let managers target messages to discrete groups of workers within specific legislative districts or states. Companies might do this because a bill pending, say, in Oregon is only relevant to employees in that state, or because they want to influence especially pivotal lawmakers. A government affairs executive at an oil production equipment manufacturer told me that “being able to target [political messages] to discrete audiences” was the biggest advance his company had experienced in lobbying in recent years. That manager boasted of being able to target “100 people that live on one street” out of the company’s 45,000-person workforce.
The decline of the labor movement cleared a path for the rise of corporate political mobilization–in fact, unions provided the inspiration for many of these efforts. Unions once did the job of conveying information about policy and endorsing candidates, prompting their membership to contact lawmakers, and volunteer for campaigns. And for decades, corporate strategists had urged business leaders to take a page from the unions’ playbook and communicate management’s perspective to workers in a similar manner. “Corporations can participate legally in a wide variety of political activities” similar to unions but “typically they are much more reluctant than labor unions to do so,” lamented one corporate adviser in the 1980s.
While employers could have theoretically tried to push their workers to vote for business-supported candidates or back business legislation during that time, those workers would have been far more likely to receive counter-messages from labor unions. But with private sector unions in decline–membership fell from 24% in 1973 to 6% by 2017–employers can communicate with, and recruit, their workers with far more freedom than before.
The final piece of the story behind the rise of employer political mobilization is an increasingly permissive legal environment. Private sector employers in the United States have long had a freer hand to fire workers or change their hours, wages, or working conditions compared to managers in Western Europe and even Canada and Australia. That’s because most U.S. private sector workers are employed at-will: They can be fired, as labor lawyers like to quip, for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.
And one of the under-appreciated consequences of the 2010 Citizens United decision is that it lets companies use corporate resources to campaign for candidates among rank-and-file workers without running afoul of campaign finance law. That included activities like distributing voter guides with candidate endorsements, holding rallies for candidates, and encouraging employees to volunteer their time and money for campaigns.
Just a few years after the Court handed down Citizens United, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) deadlocked over whether companies could force their employees to attend political rallies or contribute to political campaigns (the cases involved coal mine Murray Energy). That non-decision effectively signaled to companies that there was neither the legal nor political will to regulate workplace recruitment efforts. As one partner at a leading Washington, D.C., law firm told the Washington Post, it “made corporations more comfortable with giving all employees educational materials or ‘voter guides’ that make their political positions clear.”
The upshot of these changes is that companies have come to see recruitment of their workers as a crucial part of their political arsenal, along with more standard strategies like hiring lobbyists, participating in business trade groups, and making campaign contributions to candidates. The Business-Industry Political Action Committee has been talking up the benefits of workplace recruitment to executives since 2000. They will even help install their software, for a fee, called the Prosperity Project, on corporate intranets, which lets managers send tailored requests to workers and track worker participation in those requests.
BIPAC estimates that use of its platform has grown from just 50 companies and trade groups in 2000 to over 7,000 by 2014, reaching perhaps a fifth of the private-sector workforce. Participating companies have included Campbell’s Soup, International Paper, Phillips 66, Volvo, Mary Kay, Walmart, and Lockheed Martin.
Major business associations– including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable–have made employee mobilization a central strategy as well, and now encourage their corporate members to mobilize workers on a regular basis.
When asked to rank the different strategies their company used to change policy– including making political action committee contributions, participating in business associations, hiring lobbyists, or recruiting their workers into politics—35% managers in my survey listed employee political recruitment as their company’s top strategy and managers were about as likely to rank employee recruitment as being most effective as they were to rank traditional lobbying as most effective. Managers were even more likely to rank employee recruitment above donating to political candidates through political action committees.
Could Employer Mobilization Be Good For Democracy?
The fact that some Americans are getting the chance to hear about politics from a potentially trusted source, and to have new opportunities for participating in the political process, is potentially worth celebrating. And employer mobilization does pull Americans into politics, according to my research.
But it is an open question whether employer appeals are actually equipping workers to participate in politics beyond the specific requests that bosses make of their workers. For instance, workers who received employer political appeals were no more likely to possess basic civic knowledge about American government than were similar workers who did not receive employer requests. That finding belies the notion that employer mobilization is creating new citizen-activists prepared to engage in politics outside the workplace.
In addition, the workers in my survey who were most likely to respond to employer requests were those who feared for their job security or those who doubted the privacy of their political choices and actions.
Distressingly, it was lower-wage workers–those with the least bargaining clout on the job–who were most worried about political retaliation from their bosses.
These findings should make us question whether employer messages are really just like political appeals that Americans might receive elsewhere in their lives–say from a church leader or a political campaign–or whether employer messages carry disproportionate weight in the minds of workers because of the economic power managers have over them.
In other contexts, like sexual harassment laws, the federal government has explicitly recognized the fact that speech from bosses to employees often carries with it implicit economic weight, and therefore should be regulated more tightly than speech in other contexts. Labor law also bars employers from sending certain kinds of messages to workers in the union organizing process because of that power differential. As such, the federal government needs to place similar limits on employer political recruitment to guard against political coercion of workers.
Even apart from worries about political coercion, there is another reason to think that the government should step in to regulate political mobilization in the workplace. We are living through an era where concentrated economic interests–especially wealthier Americans and businesses–are much more likely to see public policy made in their favor.
All of this is compounded by the move toward greater consolidation and monopoly across a range of industries. Employer recruitment of workers adds to this overall imbalance of political power, threatening to further skew the voices heard by government.
What, then, can we do? One straightforward idea is to add political views to the Civil Rights Act, which would prevent employers from treating workers differently based on their political orientations and actions just like employers are barred from discriminating against workers on the basis of sex or race. With that one piece of legislation, the government would reach nearly all private sector workers. What’s more, enforcement would be delegated to an agency–the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–that has a stronger track record than other alternative agencies for regulating employer political recruitment, like the hamstrung Federal Election Commission or the polarized National Labor Relations Board. Employers could still convey political messages and requests to their workers even with this law in place, and workers could still benefit from the political information that bosses impart to them. The only difference is that private-sector workers would now know that they would not have to listen to, or comply with, those messages if they did not want to. This is a protection that workers in nearly all other advanced democracies can count on–but that is lacking in the United States.
Of course, adding political views and behavior to the list of federally protected employment classes would mean tolerating speech that some coworkers and managers might disagree with. Conservative businesses would have to put up with liberal workers who talk about boosting the minimum wage and liberal businesses would need to tolerate conservative employees supportive of the Trump administration. Still, existing limits on workplace speech would hold: Any right that workers would have to talk politics in the workplace would be limited by existing protections against sexual harassment or racial discrimination. The example of James Damore, a Google engineer fired for circulating a memo critical of efforts to increase gender diversity, provides a model of these limits. Damore’s speech would cease to have been protected as soon as it created a hostile work environment for women (as the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a recent decision).
States could also pass laws that bolster employees’ political rights on the job and that set limits on the abilities of employers to pressure their workers into certain political stances and participation. And beyond legislation, civic-minded private companies can play a role as well:
- Companies could voluntarily pledge not to engage in partisan or coercive messaging to their workers, like Starbucks and Marriott Hotels did in their recent voter registration drives.
- B Corporations could include this pledge in the certification policy governing their performance.
- Institutional investors could refrain from buying stock in companies that are known to engage in especially partisan or intimidating recruitment of their workers.
While there are opportunities for creative reforms, the problems raised by employer political recruitment need to be addressed before they spread further in the economy. For one glimpse at what could happen should employer mobilization proceed unchecked, we need only look at what has happened to union organizing. It is now standard practice for employers to deploy mandatory presentations and meetings, surveillance of workers’ on- and off-work activities, one-on-one interrogations, and aggressive threats of layoffs or wage cuts to pressure workers into opposing union representation.
In our contemporary era of intense partisan polarization, it is not a stretch to envision these activities seeping into corporate political activities, too. Freedom of political thought and speech is a right at the heart of American democracy. Americans shouldn’t have to give that freedom up when they walk into work every day, nor should we allow employers to dominate political discourse through the voices of their employees.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is the author of Politics at Work: How Companies Turn Their Workers into Lobbyists