In recent weeks, a flurry of news coverage has focused on an undemocratic trend in workplaces around the country: employers telling their workers which politicians they should vote for. CEOs for Murray Energy, Koch Industries, ASG Software and Westgate Resorts have pressured their employees to vote for particular political candidates, like Mitt Romney.
The Nation has found that the phenomenon appears far more wide-ranging than previously known. Businesses throughout Washington State, along with a loose network of hundreds of coal and mining companies, are preparing to urge employees to vote for specific political candidates. Meanwhile, lobbyists in Washington are working furiously to encourage more corporations to adopt these tactics.
One of the lesser-known consequences of the Citizens United decision is how corporations gained the power to explicitly recommend candidates to their rank-and-file workers. Before, corporations were limited to mostly encouraging civic participation. Now, managers can make political appeals for a candidate in the workplace.
This November, corporations are testing their new Supreme Court–granted rights for the first time in a presidential election. The coal industry is a good place to observe this shifting landscape.
Since 2004, lobbyists for the coal and mining industry have promoted something called “Mine the Vote,” an effort to organize employees and get them to the polls.
The lobbyists, working for the National Mining Association, have taken advantage of their new freedoms to make that effort more aggressive. They have produced a voting guide website called “Mine the Vote,” which they are promoting to their 325-member companies as a means to encourage employees to vote for Mitt Romney. The same website also lists endorsements for Congress, which skew Republican and conservative Democrat.
Patriot Coal, Caterpillar and Rosebud Mining Company are among the mining industry companies that have posted links to Mine the Vote. “It is vital that we elect candidates that support American mining, so we have provided a guide to show you which candidates supported by NMA PAC’s,” a message with the effort explains . The National Mining Association has distributed get-out-the-vote posters  featuring information about the voting guide website for managers to post in workrooms.
James Kahl, a corporate attorney advising a number of business associations, wrote in a memo  for his clients that the Citizens United decision appears to legalize a number of workplace electioneering efforts. Corporations may now “express electoral preferences to employees” as well as distribute voter guides authored by executives, wrote Kahl.
It was the same conclusion reached by Karl Crow, a political operative who helped the conservative Koch brothers develop their “Themis” grassroots strategy  this year. In an article  published several months after the court decision, Crow approvingly cited another prominent Republican attorney, Cleta Mitchell, who argued that Citizens United opens the door for businesses to educate “their employees, vendors and customers about candidates and ofﬁceholders whose philosophies and voting records would destroy or permanently damage America’s free enterprise system.” Koch Industries had a head start. As Mike Elk and Mark Ames reported  in The Nation, Koch began pressuring employees to vote GOP for the midterm elections two years ago.
The effort may spread like wildfire in offices and factories across the country. On Thursday, the US Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying association that represents companies like Dow Chemical and Prudential Financial, kicked off a campaign to have employers stuff payroll envelopes  with explicit campaign propaganda. The first political mailer is being distributed in Massachusetts and in bold letters  reads “Defeat U.S. Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren.”
The Chamber, ABC News reports, says it hopes to reach 7 million people.
“The real concern here is…the inherent power dynamics between employees and their employers,” Adam Skaggs, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, explained  recently on Current TV. An official e-mail from the boss saying something like “your job could depend on who wins the race” could be interpreted as coercion or intimidation, said Skaggs.
Of course, not all employee electioneering benefits the Republican Party. In 2010, the casino company Harrah’s worked closely with Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) reelection effort. “Waking up to the defeat of Harry Reid Nov. 3 will be devastating for our industry’s future,” one Harrah’s executive wrote in an e-mail mobilizing employees to get to the polls.
Only weeks after his re-election , Reid introduced fast-tracked online gambling legislation, which many saw as a payback to companies like Harrah’s. The case of Harrah’s, though, differs from the other examples of workplace electioneering since the company worked in concert with their union, which was democratically elected as a representative of the employees.
More and more businesses seem to be jumping in the game, hoping to score future favors from other lawmakers, even presidents. And they have help.
The firm that helped develop Koch Industries’ pro-Romney employee advocacy effort is called DDC Advocacy. The firm is led in part by Sara Fagen, Karl Rove’s former deputy known for her innovative uses of consumer data in the 2004 Bush re-election effort. DDC Advocacy is part of a cottage industry of Beltway consultants who specialize in helping businesses activate their employees and customers into-mini lobbyists. Currently, DDC is working for Boeing, Aetna, Altria, Humana, Ernst & Young, and other Fortune 500 corporations.
Its not clear if DDC Advocacy is replicating the type of explicit candidate endorsements pioneered by Koch for these other companies.
Though the extent to which businesses will fully embrace employee coercion is yet to be seen, there could be wide ranging consequences up and down the ballot.
In Washington State, a lobbying association for the homebuilding industry recently distributed a sample letter for its member companies to give to employees. The sample letter was sent along with a voter guide  instructing workers to support Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate for governor. Government is pushing “businesses like ours closer to shutting our doors,” the letter warns .
The letter also states that employees should review the voting guide “when filling out your ballot.” It sternly reminds them to use the guide “as you cast your vote in November.”
For more on the expanding effort to coerce employee political participation, read George Zornick’s report  on how Herman Cain is training business owners to get active this fall.