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Thought Control: Right-Wing Koch Brothers Caught Telling Thousands of Employees How to Vote

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The Nation magazine has revealed that Koch Industries sent a letter to most of its 50,000 employees on the eve of the November elections, advising them on whom to vote for and warning them of the dire consequences should they choose to vote otherwise. As a result of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling last year, Koch Industries and other corporations are now legally allowed to pressure their workers to adopt their political views. Koch Industries is run by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, who have helped bankroll the Tea Party movement and dozens of other right-wing causes, including the recent attacks on public sector employees and unions going on in many states. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now, though, to an exposé just published in The Nation magazine that raises alarming questions about the ability of corporations to influence their employees’ voting decisions. In an article titled “Big Brothers: Thought Control at Koch,” Mark Ames and Mike Elk report on an urgent letter that Koch Industries sent to most of its 50,000 employees on the eve of the November elections. The letter advised them on whom to vote for and warned them of the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country, should they choose to vote otherwise. Koch Industries is run by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. They have helped bankroll the Tea Party movement and dozens of other right-wing causes.

Koch Industries and other corporations are legally allowed to pressure their workers to adopt their political views at the ballot box because of last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The ruling granted free speech rights to corporations and effectively removed regulations preventing employers from politically manipulating their workers. In practice, employers can also fire workers who refuse to attend political seminars or dare to voice their dissenting opinions too loudly.

For more, we’re joined by the authors of the exposé, Mike Elk and Mark Ames. Both are contributing editors to The Nation. Mike joins us from Washington, D.C., Mark Ames from here in New York.

Mark, let’s begin with you. Start off with the documents that you got.

MARK AMES: Well, as we were investigating the story, it was Mike Elk, my partner on the story, who got a hold of this newsletter that was sent out. It was October 4th of last year, and it was sort of an election packet, dated October 4th, with a cover letter from the COO and president of Koch Industries, which is the head of this giant conglomerate, saying that “for the first time we feel that these elections” — that is, last November’s elections — “are so urgent, and we’re in such a dire situation, that we’re actually sending out this entire voting packet, including a list of candidates in federal and local elections that we believe, we urge you, or we strongly recommend that you vote for.” And, of course, most of the candidates — I mean, of the 19 candidates on the list that we obtained, which was for the Washington State elections, of 19 candidates, 16 were Republican and, you know, very Tea Party Republican, and of the three Democrats for local races, two were from a Democratic — a right-wing faction of the Democratic Party called the “Roadkill Caucus.” I guess, you know, this is like their Blue Dog, but Roadkill. I don’t know who the roadkill is in this case.

And then, along with that, there was a bunch of really pretty bizarre and disturbing sort of John Birch Society-like propaganda about, you know, just a paranoid vision of the world, in which free markets and freedom are constantly under attack from E.U. bureaucrats and the liberal media and all this other stuff, and sort of trying to warn or trying to advise their workers, you know, who to vote for, what to do. And on top of it, one of the most bizarre parts was a sort of an essay from Charles Koch — he’s the head of the company — telling workers who he thought the best president of the 20th century was. And he named Warren B. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, but he named them sort of as one president, one administration, as the best president of the 20th century. And he blamed Herbert Hoover for the Crash and for starting socialism in America. It’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever read in your life.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, you are a labor reporter. Talk about the significance of the letters being sent out to the employees of Koch Industries around the country.

MIKE ELK: Well, basically, what we’ve done now is politicized the workplace. And when you politicize the workplace, you open the door for political discrimination. Citizens United — I mean, this letter is just the tip of the iceberg. But Citizens United has created a situation in which employers can send letters to their employees, threatening them. I mean, basically, in this letter, they say if you don’t vote Republican, we’re questioning whether the company will be able to continue to survive and prosper — a ridiculous statement for the Koch brothers to make, who more than doubled their profits in the last three years. But you’ve politicized the workplace, and so now you can send these letters to people.

You can also have them attend captive audience meetings. And we know the Koch brothers are starting to do this. They make their workers at this Georgia-Pacific warehouse attend seminars on libertarian free market ideology, where they tell them, you know, wages getting up too high, well, that hurts productivity, that hurts growth. And they make them attend these bizarre seminars. They stamp on the back of every time card the 10 principles of Koch Industries. So there’s a lot of heavy captive audience political meetings. The workers don’t have a choice whether they want to attend these meetings or not. They’re forced to attend these meetings, because in this country, you know, you — in 49 states, you can fire employees at will, meaning for any reason whatsoever. So, the workers are forced to attend these meetings. And this creates a very dangerous standard.

So, if the boss is constantly talking about politics in the workplace, and all of a sudden a bunch of your co-workers are wearing Republican buttons, does that mean you have to wear one, too? If all of your other co-workers are going out and volunteering with your boss on the weekend for GOP candidates, does that mean if you want to get a raise you have to go out and volunteer for a GOP candidate, as well? We’ve created a really dangerous situation of intimidation in the workplace, and this is something that we haven’t seen since going back, well, to the era of Calvin Coolidge, since the 1920s. And this is a very scary situation for most workers, who now find themselves in a situation in which they can’t voice their political views.

But it’s also scary because we’ve seen how effective, in anti-union drives, these captive audience meetings can be. In most anti-union drives, they have about 11 of these meetings. And for a lot of workers who, quite frankly, don’t have the time to listen to Democracy Now! or can’t get it, they get their news in snippets — you know, the newspaper here or there, cable news here or there. But if your boss is sitting down with you for meetings, dozens of meetings before an election, showing you fancy PowerPoints, fancy charts and, you know, cooked-up numbers about how voting for Republicans will help your company and save your job, you’re very likely to do it, if you’re a low-information voter. So this presents a real threat. And unions — unions can’t come into the workplace and do this type of thing. Unions are absolutely forbidden from doing this. But an employer can fire you if you don’t attend these types of meetings. So it’s a very dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read just a few of the excerpts from the letters that went out. The first, “As Koch company employees, we have a lot at stake in the upcoming election. Each of us is likely to be affected by the outcome on Nov. 2. That is why, for the first time ever, we are mailing our newest edition of Discovery and several other helpful items to the home address of every U.S. employee.”

Here is another one, another of the quotes from the letters: “The following candidates in your state are supported by Koch companies and KOCHPAC, the political action committee for Koch companies. We believe these candidates will best advance policies supporting economic freedom.”

And here’s another one, another excerpt of a letter: “For more than 40 years, Koch Industries has openly and consistently supported the principles of economic freedom and market-based policies. Unfortunately, these values and principled point of view are now being strongly opposed by many politicians (and their media allies) who favor ever-increasing government… Even worse, recent government actions are threatening to bankrupt the country… And the facts are that the overwhelming majority of the American people will be much worse off if government overspending is allowed to bankrupt the country,” they said.

And one last: “Citizens who are openly critical of the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels or the out-of-control government of the United States,” they write, “are being shouted down by politicians, government officials and their media and other allies.”

These are just some of the quotes. Mike, if you’re an employee, so your employer is giving you their point of view.

MIKE ELK: Yeah, and that’s an important point to bring up. But this is your boss. And, you know, in this kind of desperate economy, how do you say no to your boss? And who’s to say, you know, how much they’re going to do? Say somebody speaks up in the workplace, say they disagree with their boss in one of these meetings, and then the boss decides to fire them. That sends a very scary signal to the rest of the workers right before an election.

And we know that, you know, in anti-union campaigns, that when the employer gives his point of view, it kills union campaigns. We see — I’ve been involved in campaigns where — you know, when we initially file for an election, we’ll have 70 percent of the signatures, unions will have 70 percent of the signatures, saying, “Hey, we want a union.” And after three or four months of this type of meetings and mailings and propaganda, you know, the majority of workers will vote against, because they’re scared of their boss, and they’re scared of taking on their boss, and they typically don’t have the protection of a union, where they can disagree with their employer.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike, why are the Koch brothers so important?

MIKE ELK: The Koch brothers are so important, in my opinion, because the Koch brothers are really — they set the trend in the industry. I mean, they have these meetings in Aspen and the one they just had out in California, where they set the trend with the rest of the industry in terms of what they’re going to do in terms of pushing politics. Lee Fang of ThinkProgress put a memo up on ThinkProgress yesterday from an operative who’s been tied to the Koch Industries, saying that, really, after Citizens United, corporations need to start using their employees more to push their politics. So they’re going to start using the three million supervisors that work in this country to directly push politics on the job before elections. And this is something we haven’t seen in American history since we passed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s.

MARK AMES: Let me add what I think is so unusual and important —


MARK AMES: Yeah, sorry — about the Koch brothers, because people say, “Well, we have different billionaires.” I mean, it’s true, this country is turning more and more into a sort of oligarchy. What makes the Koch brothers different is how politically conscious and astute they are. There are two generations of political oligarchical activity, let’s say. Their father, Fred Koch, was one of the founders of the John Birch Society. And, you know, the Tea Party and a lot of the Libertarian stuff is basically the John Birch Society without the sort of the racism, anti-Semitism, but the same basic idea behind both, which is roll back the New Deal, roll back rights for workers, roll back rights for everybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Their father’s organization.

MARK AMES: The father’s and the sons’. And so, these — unlike other politically active billionaires in this country, these guys understand how politics creates wealth and what a great — the opposite of a vicious circle it is for them and the vicious circle it is for the rest of us. So, you know, you’ve seen, according to Forbes, at least, the brothers, Charles and David Koch, their combined wealth was $28 billion in March of 2009, and now it’s $45 billion. So just two years after they invested in the Tea Party, their wealth has gone up 60 percent. They are, combined, the fourth-richest combined person in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the website published video showing Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown thanking conservative billionaire David Koch for his campaign donations and asking for more money in 2012. The video was shot at a recent dedication of MIT’s David H. Koch Integrative Cancer Institute.

SEN. SCOTT BROWN: It made a difference, and I can certainly use it again. And obviously, the —

DAVID KOCH: When are you running for the next term?



SEN. SCOTT BROWN: I’m in the cycle right now. We’re already banging away.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, can you talk about the role of the Koch brothers that have played overall in right-wing politics, especially in regards to Governor Walker of Wisconsin’s attacks on collective bargaining?

MIKE ELK: Well, they were big funders of Governor Walker. You know, they provided a lot of money for Governor Walker, and they’ve provided a lot of money for the anti-union think tanks that have sprung up around the country. And we saw in the Supreme Court election in Wisconsin, you know, one of the groups that got involved donated $400,000 right before the last two weeks of the election, which really swung the election back in the Republican, David Prosser’s favor in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. And we’ve seen the Koch brothers as the overall biggest funders of the anti-union movement in this country, and really the leaders of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Ames, you’ve reported for years from the former Soviet Union. Can you talk about what you learned there and why that informs your reporting here?

MARK AMES: Yeah, when — you know, I came back here just when the economic system collapsed in September of 2008, in the financial system collapse. And what I saw was what happens when you sort of institute this perfect Austrian economics free market society, which is complete bedlam, chaos, hate, violence, you know, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the complete subversion of democracy, the perversion of the media, and so on and so forth. And so, when I — I actually broke the first story in February of 2009 about the Kochs, Koch brothers, funding the Tea Party, with Yasha Levine, my old colleague from The Exiled. And, you know, to us, it seemed pretty obvious that these fake grassroots movements would be manipulated by rich oligarchs, because that’s what happens in Russia. Russia — in Russia, you have rich oligarchs funding these fake political movements — “virtual politics” is what they call it — and then using their minions in the media to push it forward and attack anybody who tries to expose it.

I didn’t realize — when we put out this article in 2009, you know, we were attacked pretty seriously by people from The Atlantic Monthly and so on, who later turned out to have ties to the Koch brothers. I didn’t realize how far along, how far down the road to a sort of Russian oligarchy we had already gone. And, you know, so, when you spend a lot of time in Russia, you understand how cynical oligarchs and the rich, especially when they get involved in politics, can be. And one of the huge differences, though, is that Russians themselves have become very cynical and skeptical, but Americans are still pretty trusting and gullible, and so they keep kind of getting hoodwinked. I mean, people were led to believe the Tea Party was this completely spontaneous, you know, outbreak of protests, when in fact the whole thing was guided by rich people to push their book. I think people in this country need to get a lot more skeptical than they’ve been.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mike Elk, the piece is called “Big Brothers: Thought Control at Koch.” This is a letter that went out right before the previous election, instructing employees how to vote. What words of warning do you have for 2012, and what do you see down the pike?

MIKE ELK: Well, I think that we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of stuff. We’re going to see employers adopting this. We know that Wal-Mart tried to do this during the Employee Free Choice Act, and they got in a lot of trouble legally. We know McDonald’s tried to do this once in Ohio, and they got in a lot of trouble. And really, the only solution for most Americans is to organize, to organize in the workplace, because, you know, if you are forced to attend these types of meetings, if you’re in a situation where you’re being politically coerced, if you don’t have the protection of a union, you have no way of speaking up.

Yesterday I put in a call to Travis McKinney, who’s one of the Georgia-Pacific workers quoted in the story, and I said to Travis, I said, “You know, the story” — right before it went to publish, I said, “It’s going to get a lot of attention. Are you sure you want to do this? You know, you’re poking in the eyes some of the most powerful people in the world, the Koch brothers.” And he said, “You know, I’m a member of the longshoremen’s union. I think I’ll be OK. We’ll stand up, and we’ll fight this, if they come after me.”

And I think that’s what Americans really have to realize, is that we don’t have any power, except the power of solidarity and the power to strike and the power to organize in unions. Street protests are great. Online petitions are great. But only when you can threaten to shut down the factories of the boss, only when you can have that type of leverage, are Americans ever going to be able to change the situation. And I don’t see the situation changing unless there’s more organizing. I think we’re going to see more corporate oligarchs taking on workers, unless workers themselves organize and take away the power, their power to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk and Mark Ames, thanks so much for joining us. Their piece in The Nation magazine is called “Big Brothers: Thought Control at Koch.”

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