Americans may not be able to agree on much these days, but one area of consensus is that big businesses have too much clout in politics. Well over half of Republicans and Democrats alike, for instance, agree with the sentiment that “too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies.” To curb that clout, we need to have a full understanding of the ways that businesses try to shape politics. Typically, money-in-politics reformers have focused on corporate campaign contributions or businesses’ K-street lobbyists. But that perspective misses out on an increasingly common way that businesses change politics and policy: through their employees. Consider three recent examples:
- In the run-up to Republican tax cut legislation last year, companies used meetings, emails, and phone calls to encourage their workers to contact their Members of Congress to voice support for the tax overhaul. Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence urged CEOs to get their workers to support the legislation by holding “town hall” style events in company cafeterias.
- In the 2012 election, a coal mine owned by Murray Energy required miners to attend a rally for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney – without pay. The mine’s owner also pressured workers to contribute to Romney and other GOP candidates, circulating lists of the employees who did not participate in his fundraising events.
- During a Congressional debate over climate change legislation in 2009, oil producer Tesoro’s CEO toured the company’s refineries urging employees to contact Congress to stop the bill. The company also developed a website for employees that described how the pending climate bill would hurt their business and consumers.
In a new book, Politics at Work, I draw on original surveys of workers and managers as well as interviews with dozens of corporate executives to show how companies, like those I described above, lean on their workers in an effort to change elections and policy debates. A nationally representative telephone poll I commissioned in 2015 reveals that about one in four employees had received a political message from their top bosses.
To be sure, some of these messages were simple reminders to register to vote or turn out to vote. Companies like Starbucks and Marriott Hotels have developed non-partisan efforts to get their employees registered to vote in recent elections. But most messages talked about policy and politics. These include requests to contact Congress or a state legislature to lobby for a bill, information about political candidates running in various elections, and attempts to change the ways that workers think about politics more generally.
In interviews for the book, corporate executives responsible for government affairs explained to me that employee mobilization was a valuable complement to their other political strategies. Companies might invite a politician to their plant or factory so that employees can meet her in a town hall. The politician, for her part, gets a vivid reminder of how many employee voters live and work in her constituency. Then, when relevant bills come up for debate in Congress, the company can press their employees to contact the politician and remind her about the support she received from their company. In short, employee mobilization lends a living, breathing face to corporate political demands. “Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents, the people they represent,” explained one company’s VP of public policy recently about their employee outreach efforts.
Employee political recruitment may be good for business, but its consequences for democracy are more troubling. As I show in the book, workers often feel pressure to respond to employer political requests – even if workers disagree – in order to keep their jobs. This means that workers may be giving up their political voice to their employers.
In addition, the growth of employee political mobilization comes as the government is increasingly failing to respond to the needs and wants of ordinary Americans. A growing body of political science research, for instance, documents how public policy choices are more likely to reflect the preferences of well-off citizens and businesses than those of the middle-class.
If money-in-politics reformers want to rebalance our democracy to ensure equal political voices for all American citizens, setting limits on corporate employee mobilization needs to be part of the solution.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, the author of Politics at Work (Oxford University Press, 2018), and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.
Purchasing Power: The Conversation
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