Can Your Boss Fire You for Your Political Beliefs? Part 2

A cautionary Labor Day tale.

Two months ago, Chatterbox related the story of Michael Italie, a sewing-machine operator fired by Goodwill Industries for spouting Marxist rhetoric on television. When Italie approached the American Civil Liberties Union, he was informed, correctly, that the First Amendment does not protect workers from being fired for their political beliefs (unless the employer happens to be the government). The Italie item prompted Bryan Keefer, then a research assistant at the Service Employees International Union, to contact Chatterbox and relate something similar that happened to him after he criticized an article in The Nation written by Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. Practically the only significant difference is that this time it was the left, rather than the right, that squashed dissent.

Keefer (who has since left SEIU) is a co-founder of Spinsanity, a Web site that dissects and criticizes political rhetoric. According to Keefer, SEIU knew (and didn’t care) when it hired Keefer in July 2001 that he was moonlighting for Spinsanity, which had started up three months earlier. Keefer’s SEIU co-workers even took him out for celebratory drinks after Salon struck a deal with Keefer and his partners to publish Spinsanity analyses. Although SEIU, which is based in Washington, is heavily involved in politics and policymaking, Keefer’s $40,000-a-year job was not related to either in any way; rather, it involved maintaining a database on buildings where janitors were trying to organize. To Keefer, there seemed no logical reason why he couldn’t help unionize janitors by day and decode political spin by night.

It was in this frame of mind that Keefer last spring posted an essay—first in Salon, then on Spinsanity—titled “Sticks and Stones.” The piece took to task Borosage’s Feb. 4 Nation article labeling the Bush administration and its allies “Enron Conservatives.” The phrase “Enron conservatives” (coined by Arianna Huffington) was, Keefer argued, a cheap smear reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s agitprop from the early 1990s. Chatterbox doesn’t really agree with Keefer. “Enron conservatives” strikes Chatterbox as an economical way to describe the Bush administration’s very real preference for business cronyism over free-market principles. But whether Keefer’s argument was sound is, of course, beside the point. Keefer’s making it ought not to have put his SEIU job in peril. But it did.

Keefer’s undoing was probably a parenthetical disclosure in the middle of his piece stating that he, Keefer, worked for SEIU, whose president, Andrew Stern, was a founding member of Borosage’s Campaign for America’s Future. While necessary, the disclosure may have seemed a provocation to Keefer’s bosses. About two weeks after Keefer posted “Sticks and Stones,” Keefer’s SEIU supervisor handed him a piece of paper stating SEIU’s policy toward “outside activities.” It said, “SEIU employees are expected to exercise sound judgment to ensure that any outside activities or outside employment … do not conflict with the policies or interests of SEIU.” Advance approval was needed for any outside activity that might be deemed “related” to SEIU, including “making public statements or assisting in formulating policy positions concerning issues of interest to workers.”

Keefer’s supervisor told him that he would have to discuss his Borosage piece with the director of research, Arne Anderson. According to Keefer, Anderson told him that his piece caused “quite a stir upstairs” and that “Andy had to answer for it.” (When Chatterbox asked Anderson for his side of the story, he said, “I don’t think that’s anything I’m interested in talking about.” Chatterbox’s phone message to Andrew Stern went unanswered.) Anderson advised Keefer, “We’re headed for a train wreck here.” Keefer answered that he was now familiar with SEIU’s policy toward outside activities, and that in the future he would avoid writing about anything material to SEIU or even to the Campaign for America’s Future. Anderson answered with a hypothetical: Say SEIU was giving money to Sen. Paul Wellstone’s campaign. (In fact, it’s given $11,250 during this election cycle.) Would Keefer feel free to criticize Wellstone’s political rhetoric? Yes, Keefer answered. Well, that’s a problem, Anderson replied, because that would be a fireable offense. “By that logic,” Keefer complained, “I can’t criticize most or all of the political left.” According to Keefer, Anderson answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

Keefer, a self-described liberal Democrat, says he maintains a favorable opinion of SEIU. “It’s effective, which is incredibly rare in private sector union organizing,” he told Chatterbox. “I wish them the best of luck.” But after his conversation with Anderson, he knew he couldn’t keep working there. So, he quit.

[Update, Sept. 4: SEIU President Andrew Stern returned Chatterbox’s phone call today. He said he was not familiar with Keefer’s case but would look into it.]

Click here for a follow-up on Keefer.