Workers feel the heat from employers after Citizens United ruling

Former President Jimmy Carter recently called it “one of the stupidest rulings ever consummated or perpetrated on the American people.”   President Obama was equally blunt in his own condemnation of the controversial Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, calling it a “major victory . . .  for powerful interests that marshal their power every day .  .  .  to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

We’ve already seen how the decision has opened the floodgates to the outsized influence of corporations and secret money in our political dialogue by allowing special-interest groups to spend unregulated, unlimited contributions on campaign and issue ads.

CommonDreams, a watchdog organization, has been closely tracking the effects of the case.  Their conclusion?

In the wake of this decision, creative new techniques in the way election money is spent – and hidden – by outside groups have proliferated . . . After Citizens United, lobbyists can threaten that clients will spend millions on ads if senators or representatives do not do what the lobbyist wants.

The ramifications of the Citizens United decision could get even darker. Get ready for another body blow to representative government and the inviolability of a citizen’s right to vote free from coercion and indoctrination in the workplace.

Prior to the Citizens United decision in January 2010, the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) allowed corporations and businesses to communicate and solicit political views only with shareholders, executives, and administrative personnel.  Under FECA such interaction with rank-and-file employees was clearly prohibited. Post Citizens United, that firewall is gone.

Captive-audience techniques and subtly coercive tactics that attempt to influence employees’ voting choices have been tried in past election cycles, although illegal at the time. As recently as the the 2008 elections, at individual locations of two behemoths of corporate America – McDonald’s and Wal-Mart – management was reported to have crossed the indoctrination rubicon.

McDonald’s

In Canton, Ohio,  the owner of a McDonald’s franchise  sent out a letter to employees, in the same envelope containing their paychecks, indirectly advocating a vote for Republican candidates.  The letter clearly stated management’s position with these words: “If the right people are elected we will be able to continue with raises and benefits . . . if others are elected, we will not.”

Wal-Mart

According to employees at one Maryland Wal-Mart, although managers did not specifically tell employees how to vote during a pre-election employee meeting, it was made clear that a vote for Democrats and then–Senator Obama would have meant easing the process of unionization and fewer jobs at Wal-Mart due to soaring labor costs.

Koch Industries

As reported in the article “Big Brothers:  Thought Control at Koch,” written by Mark Ames and Mike Elk (The Nation, May 2011), prior to the recent midterm elections, a letter was sent to almost 50,000 Koch employees. The letter included a list of “Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates” and “warnings about the dire consequences to their families, jobs, and country should they choose to vote otherwise.”  In yet another incident, it has been reported that a Koch subsidiary in Portland, Oregon, has had complaints from workers about political and ideological propaganda.

In an article in The Yale Law Journal Online, Professor Paul M. Secunda of Marquette University Law School explains the difference between the pre– and post–Citizens United landscape:

Before Citizens United, federal election law allowed a company like Koch Industries to talk to officers and shareholders about whom to vote for, but not to talk with employees about whom to vote for.

Following the decision in Citizens United, Professor Secunda explains:

 Companies like Koch Industries are free to send out newsletters persuading their employees how to vote.  They can even intimidate their employees into voting for their candidates.

To date, only one state – Oregon – has taken action to protect workers from political coercion and captive-audience tactics in the workplace.

The Worker Freedom Act

On January 1, 2010, Oregon passed the Worker Freedom Act (S.B. 519), which grants employees the right to bring action against an employer if the employer fires or penalizes an employee for declining to attend a mandatory meeting held by the employer – whether it be a meeting that is political, labor-related, or religious in nature.  Under the statute, an employee may bring action against the employer for remedies such as reinstatement or back pay.  Following passage, a legal challenge to the statute was launched by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Associated Oregon Industries but was thrown out on procedural grounds.

The incidents at McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries may be an ominous bellwether of what we can expect in the 2012 campaigns. If these tactics become the new norm, making sure we have fair, unbiased, independent, and uncoerced elections just became that much harder.

 

About Renee Shur:
Renee Shur lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley.