In America, bosses tell employees who to vote for.
Is it appropriate for a company to send its employees a list of approved candidates (from president to the statehouse), with a warning that workers “may suffer the consequences” if those candidates lost? What if a company told its mineworkers that attendance at presidential rally during the 2012 election cycle was “mandatory”, but “no one was forced to attend”? Do you think they would feel like they might be penalized for non-attendance? These examples are real, and they come from Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s new book, 'Politics at Work: How Companies Turn their Workers into Lobbyists'. The book documents an extraordinary practice that companies frequently try to persuade and mobilize their employees to support politicians and policies beneficial to the corporation.
Because of the inherent power imbalance between managers and workers, these practices look more like coercion than simple free speech. Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Politics at Work, reports that one-third of workers in one of his studies worried about retaliation if they didn’t follow corporate wishes. And unsurprisingly given their precarious financial situation, lower-income workers were more susceptible. When corporations monitor whether employees engage in political activities (and Hertel-Fernandez says that some do), employees are also more likely to respond to managers’ wishes.
Economically, worker and corporate interests are not always aligned. Corporations arguing against healthcare or the minimum wage might be acting more from ideology than any real threat to their bottom line. With labor unions in decline and corporate employees mobilized, the asymmetry of political power and influence will only deepen if employee mobilization expands.
It also isn’t clear that mobilizing employees to support the corporation’s profit-seeking agenda will be good for the economy overall. We have a consumer-driven economy, which grows when consumers have money to spend. This, in turn, means that policies that build and preserve a strong, large middle-income will be superior to those that deepen the pockets of the wealthy.
When corporations monitor whether employees engage in political activities (and Hertel-Fernandez says that some do), employees are also more likely to respond to managers’ wishes. The Citizens United case was particularly important in expanding employee mobilization activities: after the case, it became clear to corporations that such activities were protected.