It was once illegal for companies to urge employees to support a certain candidate. And while Washington has long criticized elections abroad where there is corporate pressure to support a certain candidate, it has become a reality within the United States. You can thank the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 for the development since it overturned laws banning employers from discussing political opinions with their employees.
News that companies have sent out letters to employees urging them to vote for Mitt Romney is hardly new. Yet Saturday the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse takes a broad look at the issue showing that it’s far from an isolated event. As could be expected, the employers who send out the letters vehemently deny they’re pressuring employees but just educating them on how what they do in the voting booth could affect the businesses they work for. “I really wanted them to know how I felt four more years under President Obama was going to affect them,” said David A. Siegel, who wrote to his 7,000 employees warning them that the president’s re-election would hurt the company.* “It would be no different from telling your children: ‘Eat your spinach. It’s good for you.’”
WFMY, a local North Carolina CBS affiliate, reported Friday that a Taco Bell franchise owner sent a memo to his employees warning that the president’s health care package would cut down employee paychecks and force employers to cut back on hours.
These kinds of efforts aren’t exactly being kept under the table. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been encouraging businesses to distribute political ads in payroll envelopes, writes Gordon Lafer in the Hill. And of course, Mitt Romney himself told employers earlier this year they should “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 election.”
Besides discouraging political speech from employees who might disagree with their employers, this type of political advocacy makes many people uncomfortable because workers largely view their employers as the most credible source for information, according to a study cited by the Denver Business Journal. Others, however, insist these types of communications even out the playing field with labor unions that have long been influential at promoting candidates to their members.
Lynn Rhinehart, general counsel for the AFL-CIO, tells Reuters that while employers can encourage support for a certain candidate, they can’t threaten to fire someone based on his or her vote.*
Correction, Oct. 27, 2012: This item originally misidentified David A. Siegel as Lee Seigel and misspelled the last name of Lynn Rhinehart.