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The Boss Men And The Ballot Box: What Mitt Romney’s Been Telling Employers

It’s the final weeks of a close presidential campaign, and some employers are pulling out all the stops for their guy. In the current issue of the magazine, I write about Robert Murray, the owner of coal company Murray Energy, who, sources and documents indicate, has been ramping up pressure on salaried employees to give to Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, as well as requiring miners to attend a Romney speech. There are the Koch brothers, who sent a voter information packet to thousands of employees at their Georgia Pacific subsidiary, recommending they vote for Romney with this warning: “If we elect candidates who want to spend hundreds of billions in borrowed money on costly new subsidies for a few favored cronies, put unprecedented regulatory burdens on businesses, prevent or delay important new construction projects, and excessively hinder free trade, then many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences, including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.” And there is David Siegel, CEO of the time-share company Westgate Resorts, who fired off a doozy of an e-mail to his 7,000 employees (more than half of them in the swing states of Florida and Nevada) telling them in no uncertain terms that an Obama reelection would put their jobs at risk. It concludes: “You see, I can no longer support a system that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive. My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, so will your opportunities. If that happens, you can find me in the Caribbean sitting on the beach, under a palm tree, retired, and with no employees to worry about. Signed, your boss.”

And now comes word that Romney himself has been urging employers to press his cause among their workers. Romney closed out a June conference call with members of the National Federation of Independent Business—the conservative-leaning small-business lobby—with these words: “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections.”

A few thoughts on all this. First, while there are laws against employers forcing workers to donate to campaigns, or reimbursing them for doing so, the law is far more permissive about employers simply urging their politics on employees. The rules in this area were loosened further by the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which, by making legal direct corporate spending on behalf of candidates, also made more permissible corporate political advocacy within the workplace. (What is still being litigated at the Federal Election Commission is whether the law also makes it possible for employers to make workers engage in campaign activity, such as doing canvassing for favored candidates.)*

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Second, while it is not illegal, it strikes many of us as, well, wrong. It seems especially so today because it comes as another example of the great imbalance of power in the workplace—at a time when workers are all the less likely to be in a union and all the more likely to fear the consequences of being out of work, they are in a very vulnerable position when it comes to this kind of pressure. Yes, we have a secret ballot, and their boss won’t know their vote. But what will such pressure do to their willingness to volunteer for the other guy, or donate money, or talk politics with their colleagues? Not to mention that, for some employees, the message from a boss like Siegel will affect their vote. And here, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the above examples. I would argue that the message coming from Bob Murray—that is, the basic anti-Obama proselytizing, not the pressure to donate—is in one sense more valid than that coming from Siegel. Murray genuinely believes that the Obama administration is out to get the coal industry, though there are other big reasons (notably, the abundance of cheap natural gas) for coal’s recent struggles. From that vantage, there’s a plausible case to be made to your employees that their industry depends on electing a more coal-friendly president, even if there are many other issues (say, coal-mine safety) where workers would be better off with the status quo. Whereas Siegel’s argument is more of a stretch: if Obama gets reelected, I’ll take my ball and go home, tough luck for you.

But finally, there’s a more hopeful way of looking at this. Employers are pressuring their workers to vote for their guy, and Romney is urging them to do so, precisely because this is the one part of the game where the numbers are not on their side. Corporations may be taking an ever-greater share of earnings as profits rather than putting them into wage growth, and unlimited contributions to SuperPACs may have an ever-greater influence in campaigns. But on Election Day, David Siegel’s vote still counts no more than that of a single one of his housekeepers or reservation agents. Which must burn him, and which should offer employees some assurance as they endure this barrage of messaging from upstairs. On this one, the leverage is on their side—if they use it.

*The post initially downplayed the role of Citizens United in loosening the rules in this area. Experts subsequently pointed out to me the ways that the ruling in fact did ease restrictions on employer electioneering within the workplace.

**MSNBC’s “Up with Chris Hayes” had me on this past weekend for an in-depth segment on this very subject.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis