Imagine your bosses tell you that a proposed law would be good for your company. They then push you to contact your member of Congress to lobby for the bill and support the politicians who end up voting for it. That could have happened to you — as it did to so many others — during the push to pass big tax cuts this past December. US companies large and small used town halls, emails, and calls to prod workers into telling their legislators that workers supported the tax overhaul.
For a new book, Politics at Work: How Companies Turn Their Workers into Lobbyists, I surveyed workers and managers and interviewed dozens of top executives to show how these political calls to action have become a common practice for American companies. One in four American employees said in a nationally representative survey I commissioned in 2015 that they have received political messages or requests from their top managers and supervisors.
The United States is essentially the only developed democracy where employers can require participation in politics as part of employees’ day-to-day jobs — and where managers can reward or punish private sector workers for their political views and actions. This is a problem. Encouraging employees to be civically engaged is one thing, but political requests from bosses can veer toward coercion — regardless of whether bosses intend it. Workplace political recruitment also builds corporate power at a time when businesses already have an outsize voice in national, state, and local politics.
Why employers are increasingly talking politics with their workers
Of course, not all employers lean on their workers as heavily as others. Some employers merely remind their workers to register and turn out to vote (like Starbucks and Marriott). But in other cases, employers try to change how workers think about politics. The Midwest home improvement chain Menards, for instance, encouraged its 40,000 employees to take an at-home civics course that argues against government regulation and taxes.
Other employers endorse political candidates and causes. The casino giant Wynn Resorts has distributed voter guides to employees that encourage workers to cast ballots for Wynn-endorsed politicians.
And some businesses go even further. In one striking example, workers at Murray Energy were required to attend a rally (without pay) for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Murray has a long record of pressuring workers to contribute to company-favored politicians, including, most recently, Donald Trump.
Politicians take employer mobilization seriously. It shows that a well-organized bloc of voters in their districts care about an issue and carries a lot of weight as lawmakers think about reelection campaigns. “Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents, the people they represent,” one company’s VP of public policy explained to the Wall Street Journal about employee outreach efforts.
As one of my corporate interviewees put it to me, recruiting employees to write to Congress “creates a heightened sense of importance of an issue” and permits their lobbyists to bring up those contacts in meetings in Congress. The lobbyists might say, “We have 3,500 workers in your district, and this is an important issue for them.” And if workers sent enough correspondence to Congress, it might even be the elected officials who asked the company’s lobbyists about the issue. One example of the concrete success of employee mobilization: Murray Energy’s “wish list” is now President Trump’s “to-do list” on coal policy, according to reporting from the New York Times.
Why unchecked employer political recruitment is problematic
Employer political mobilization of workers is clearly good for corporate bottom lines. But its effects on American democracy are more concerning. For one thing, my research finds that the workers who are most likely to respond to employer requests tend to be those who worry that their bosses might retaliate against them if they don’t comply. “There’s a lot of coercion,” lamented one employee at Murray Energy to a New Republic reporter. “I just wanted to work, but you feel this constant pressure that, if you don’t contribute, your job’s at stake. You’re compelled to do this whether you want to or not.”
The Murray employee’s concern is understandable. Many American private sector workers can have their hours or wages changed — or can even be fired — without cause, as long as it is not for reasons related to race, gender, or other legally protected categories. Contrary to popular belief, there is no First Amendment right to free speech in the private sector.
Public sector workers, on the other hand, do enjoy comprehensive political protections in the workplace. For one thing, public sector workers are employed by the government, so the First Amendment applies to them. In addition, many public sector workers are also protected from coercion by strict limits on permissible political activities in government agencies. An important Supreme Court decision in 2016 further extended these protections for public employees in election campaigns, with Justice Stephen Breyer arguing that “the Constitution prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular political candidate.” Private sector workers deserve similar protections.
Loss of private sector workers’ right to free political speech and action is not the only issue with unchecked employer mobilization. At a time when people on the left and right think that big companies have too much clout, employer mobilization also bolsters corporate political power. The majority of Republicans and Democrats in recent polling report that too much power is concentrated in large companies. Allowing employers to recruit their workers into politics unchecked threatens to skew politics further toward big business.
New workplace political protections are needed
What can be done? Congress can add political views to the list of classes protected by the Civil Rights Act, like race and gender. That would bar employers from treating workers differently based on their political views or actions — a protection that workers in nearly all other advanced democracies enjoy. Polling I have done suggests that large majorities from both parties — perhaps some three-quarters of American adults — would support this change.
If Congress does not act, however, there is still much more others can do. States can pass legislation protecting workers from political pressure on the job. Several states, like California, already have such laws on their books, although, as I show in my book, it is unclear whether workers are aware of them and whether managers pay attention to them when crafting political requests. Any new state reforms thus ought to ensure that the laws actually change employer practices.
Barring federal or state action, investors and consumers can push businesses to commit to codes of conduct for politics in the workplace. Many investors already take into account the social and environmental records of businesses when making investment decisions, prioritizing firms that have more socially responsible practices. Investors could similarly avoid companies that do not set clear boundaries on their political messages to workers. Consumer advocacy groups could also help politically conscious Americans reward companies that abide by codes of conduct and boycott those firms that do not.
The United States has long prided itself on a vibrant free speech tradition. But we lack free speech protections in one of the places that most affect our lives: our jobs. Americans shouldn’t have to give up their First Amendment rights when they come into work every day. Political voice — and pressure — at work should be a concern for anyone who cares about our democracy, both at the ballot box and in the workplace.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, the author of Politics at Work, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.