By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
Employers are transmitting political messages to some one-quarter of all workers at their jobs, a new doctoral study says. And the author’s interviews with workers add that one-fifth of that group – 5 percent overall -- report economic pressure to vote a particular way.
In his paper published by the American Political Science Association, Harvard University doctoral candidate Alexander Hertel-Fernandez reported the economic pressure includes threats of firing, discipline and wage cuts.
Political messaging from employers is important, since the boss has the power, in nonunion workplaces, to fire workers at will and for any reason, including political beliefs, or none.
“Well over half of contacted workers reported they received messages from their employers that ran contrary to their own political beliefs, for instance, liberal workers who were contacted by conservative employers,” Hertel-Fernandez discovered.
Employer threats to worker livelihoods for political reasons have a long history. Hertel-Fernandez, a doctoral candidate in government and social policy at Harvard, notes they’ve been around since at least the 1890s. Several threats by pro-Romney employers occurred in 2012.
Hertel-Fernandez said 24 percent of all workers got the boss’ political messages. And 11 percent of all workers reported the missives were about voter registration and turnout, with the rest evenly split between issues and legislation, and candidates and political parties. He also reported 47 percent of workers said they agreed with the bosses’ messages. The rest (28 percent) had no opinion or opposed the boss (25 percent).
Some 43 percent of employer messages were conservative and another 30 percent were moderate. “Well over half of contacted workers reported they received messages from their employers that ran contrary to their own political beliefs, for instance, liberal workers who were contacted by conservative employers,” Hertel-Fernandez discovered.
The proportion of workers receiving political messages from their employers, which sometimes includes information about which candidates and parties the bosses support or donate to, is double the share – 12 percent – who reported receiving messages from unions, he noted. Ironically, only four percent of the employers’ messages were about unions themselves, the study says, ahead of only messages about trade (three percent).
“If employers make a political request of their workers while also incorporating an explicit or implicit warning about job losses or wage cuts, workers might feel pressured to follow through on their employer’s request -- even if workers might not agree with their employer’s position,” Hertel-Fernandez wrote.
“This economic pressure might well violate workers’ political liberty, as workers are forced to behave in ways that they would not otherwise in order to appease their employers. These concerns are likely to be magnified as economic pressures on workers — such as the decline of the labor movement and low-wage competition —continue to mount.”
Workers don’t like the pressure. In a footnote, Hertel-Fernandez reported that “70 percent of those surveyed favored limits on political campaigning in the workplace.”
While most employers offered political messages, a minority – 20 percent of 391 firms surveyed, according to their workers -- included the explicit threats that Hertel-Fernandez discussed. The threats included job loss, plant closure or changes in wages and hours. “Twenty percent of workers contacted by their bosses reported their employer included at least one such warning, or 5 percent of all workers,” Hertel-Fernandez reported.
“To be sure, these warnings could represent a wide range of practices, encompassing very specific threats about the election of particular candidates or more general information about the consequences of regulations. But these cases both share the underlying feature that employers are tying the economic fate of employees to political activities.
“These warnings capture what is unique about employers as political recruiters: While other actors can speculate about the effect of elections and legislation on wages and jobs, only corporate executives are in a position to actually follow through on those warnings. A politician can claim the economy will suffer if her opponent gains power, but only employers have the power to ultimately lay off workers or cut wages.”
Almost half the workers (47 percent) said they had to give in to boss’ political pressure, at least occasionally. Almost one-third of them – 15 percent overall – said “their company’s political message made them more likely to vote for an employer’s favored candidate” and an equal percentage reported that after the company’s message, they wrote to lawmakers, seconding the employer’s position on a particular policy issue.
After election, some employers prove to be false prophets
*Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel sent a 2012 email to his 7, 000 workers saying that if President Obama gets re-elected "I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company." (After the election he didn't fire anybody, but gave his employees raises, according to the International Business Times).
*A pre-2012 election missive from the Koch brothers to their 45, 000 workers at Georgia Pacific said that they could "suffer the consequences, including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills" if they voted for candidates not supported by Koch-owned companies or its political fund-raising arm. None of those endorsed by the Kochs were Democrats. (Since the election, the inflation rate has remained low, and gas prices have dropped - a the price of a gallon of gas is more than a dollar less than the $3.60 average that was the average 2012).
Arthur Allen, CEO of ASG Software, also sent employees an email urging them to vote for Republican challenger Mitt Romney over Obama, and suggested employees donate the maximum $2,500 to the Romney campaign. "The economy doesn't currently pose a threat to your job," he wrote. "What does threaten your job however, is another four years of the same presidential administration." (Over the past 6.5 years, 15.1 million private sector jobs have been created, the nation's unemployment rate dropped from 6.8 in November 2012 to 4.9 percent in August 2016).