This election season has done an excellent job of showcasing an important, and little understood, truth about political freedom in the American workplace. In short: There isn’t any, unless you happen to be the boss.
Last Sunday, In These Times’ Mike Elk revealed that the Koch brothers have been sending their employees a helpful reminder to vote for Mitt Romney. (Other candidates are endorsed as well, all Republicans.) If Obama won, they warned, “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.”
The Koch mailers were subtle compared to the email CEO David Siegel sent to his 7,000 employees. In his missive, the billionaire described the harrowing consequences of an Obama victory, chiefly that he might have to pay higher taxes. “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,” he concluded. (Gawker broke this story, another in a series of excellent posts this year on inequality, labor rights, and economic justice: They aren’t just good for snark and gossip anymore.) These aren’t isolated incidents of political intimidation in the workplace.
Republicans are gleefully encouraging their allies to keep the pressure up. “”If you run, manage or own a company tell your employees. . . if Obama is reelected, I may have to let all of you go next year. . . I may not be able to cover your health insurance next year,” Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL) told a gathering of business representatives recently. On Wednesday Mike Elk broke the news that Romney himself, on a conference call with the intensely conservative National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is on the same page: “Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well.”
And Romney is right, as Josh Eidelson explains in Salon.
Why is that? First, thank Citizens United. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision overturned a key section of federal election law, which had previously restricted how and when employers could make political appeals to rank-and-file employees. That little-noticed aspect of the lightning-rod decision meant open season for any employers itching to tell their employees what to do with their votes or their dollars. It’s not restricted to postal mail – employers are also free to hold mandatory, on-the-clock meetings devoted entirely to lecturing their workers about politics
But while your bosses can say what they want to you about politics, the same does not apply to you or your co-workers. The Constitution only protects against public sector political persecution. In the private sector “employment-at-will” rules. That means you can be fired at any time, for any reason (or no reason at all), including your political actions outside the workplace. (As Eidelson notes, in 2004 a worker was sacked because she would not remove a John Kerry sticker from her car.) This total power is not limited to politics either. Employers have almost complete freedom of action in the workplace, unless they clearly fire or harass you based on your race, gender, religion, or a few other protected categories. (Theoretically, you are also protected if you are organizing a union or otherwise working to advance your rights at work, but the law is so weak that it’s practically worthless.)
From a Crooked Timber that explores this issue in great detail:
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, forreporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.
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