A new exposé raises alarming questions about the ability of corporations to influence the voting decisions of their employees. In an article published by “In These Times” magazine, labor journalist Mike Elk examines the contents of a voter information packet that Koch Industries sent to tens of thousands of employees at its subsidiary, Georgia-Pacific. The packet advised the employees 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. Corporations like Koch are legally allowed to pressure their workers to adopt their political views at the ballot box because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Elk joins us to discuss his In These Times article, “Koch Sends Pro-Romney Mailing to 45,000 Employees While Stifling Workplace Political Speech.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re continuing our 100-city tour, back in New York. We’ll be covering the presidential debate tomorrow night at Hofstra and expanding the debate Wednesday morning on Democracy Now!, bringing third-party candidates in to respond to the very same questions that are put to the major-party candidates.
With about three weeks to go before the November election, we’re turning now to a new exposé that raises alarming questions about the ability of corporations to influence the voting decisions of their employees. In an article published by In These Times magazine, labor journalist Mike Elk examines the contents of a voter information packet that Koch Industries sent to tens of thousands of employees at its subsidiary, Georgia-Pacific. The packet advised the employees 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 the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who helped bankroll the tea party movement and dozens of other right-wing causes.
The cover letter, by Koch Industries president and chief operating officer, Dave Robertson, said, quote, “If we elect candidates who want to spend hundreds of billions in borrowed money on costly new subsidies for a few favored cronies, put unprecedented regulatory burdens on businesses, prevent or delay important new construction projects, and excessively hinder free trade, then 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,” unquote.
The packet also included an anti-Obama editorial by Charles Koch and a pro-Romney editorial by David Koch. Koch Industries and other corporations are legally allowed to pressure their workers to adopt their political views at the ballot box because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The ruling granted free speech rights to corporations, effectively removing regulations preventing employers from politically manipulating their workers.
In related news, Florida billionaire David Siegel recently informed his 7,000 employees that a vote for Obama would endanger their jobs. Meanwhile, the coal company Murray Energy allegedly coerced its employees into supporting Republican candidates.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by the author of the exposé, Mike Elk of In These Times. His piece is called “Koch Sends Pro-Romney Mailing to 45,000 Employees While Stifling Workplace Political Speech.”
Mike Elk, welcome to Democracy Now! Please lay out your exposé.
MIKE ELK: Well, Amy, what’s really incredible is, as a result of Citizens United, for the first time employers are allowed to talk to the people they employ about who they should vote in elections. Obviously, this is a conflict of interest. If your boss is pressuring you to vote for Romney, you might as well do it just to—just to win him over.
As well, you have a situation here where at the same time that Koch Industries is expanding its rights to talk to its employees about politics, it’s decreasing the rights of employees to talk about politics on Facebook and other forms of social media. Koch Industries has implemented a new social media policy which says that workers can be fired for non-work-related things that affect Georgia-Pacific’s brand or reputation. The Koch brothers, at the head of Georgia-Pacific, have taken that—have interpreted that to mean that if a worker posts something negative about the Koch brothers or their politics, that that worker can be fired. And several workers have been told about posting too much on Facebook.
Last year, Mark Ames and I wrote a similar article for The Nation about how the Kochs were campaigning in the run-up to the 2010 election. In that article, there was a warehouse worker named Travis McKinney who was quoted. McKinney later was pressured by his employers for talking to us and told that he shouldn’t be doing things like that. When McKinney went in for a promotion, he got an excellent score on his evaluation, a 3.7 out of four. But the evaluation itself said that Travis talked too much about politics in the workplace. Obviously, this is quite a hypocrisy. While the Kochs talk about being libertarians who are in favor of expanding free speech rights, even giving free speech rights to corporations, they’re in favor of actually limiting free speech rights for their actual employees.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you come about discovering this story, Mike?
MIKE ELK: I followed it. You know, last year, Mark Ames and I wrote a story in The Nation, and then I stayed with the workers. I talk with them. I kept in touch covering other issues. You know, we’ve kept on this for about eight months. And finally, we were able to get a hold of some documents, which we’re releasing today, internal evaluations that show a worker was disciplined because of what they said, documents that show that Georgia-Pacific is enforcing this restrictive media policy. We were able to get a hold of this through this. But really, the credit for this story getting out there goes to the three brave workers—Jim Pierce, Travis McKinney and Larry Wagoner—who were quoted in the story. All three of these workers could be fired, perhaps even legally, for revealing confidential information about Koch Industries. So, I mean, these are the real heroes of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how that worker was disciplined and the whole social media policy and code of conduct that you discovered?
MIKE ELK: Yeah. Well, Travis McKinney, what happened is, you know, in a lot of different situations, Travis would be told by his boss that they’re monitoring his Facebook, that he’s putting up too much about the Koch Industries and that they don’t like that. When he went for his evaluation, again, like I said, he scored a 3.7 out of four, but he was denied a promotion, and it said in his evaluation that, you know, he talked about politics too much in the workplace. Obviously, you know, for Travis’s sake, it felt like he was being singled out for his views.
With the social media policy, this is really incredibly restrictive, this code of conduct and the social media policy. It says that a worker can be fired for completely non-work-related things. First off, the union feels the social media policy is illegal, because, one, social media policies, as the National Labor Relations Act defines it, have to be negotiated with the union, and this social media policy was imposed unilaterally.
Two, they feel that it infringes upon the right of unions to talk about matters that they need to in order to fight for unions. However, I talked with some legal experts, even pro-union legal experts, that say that this is a real gray area, that, for instance, if a worker posts something about the anti-labor policies about Koch Industries, they would not be fired by that; they’re legally protected. But if, say, a worker wanted to post something about, you know, Kochs’ investing in fracking or the Keystone pipeline, they could be fired. That’s not protected speech. So this is a real gray area.
And the bigger issue is that, you know, the National Labor Relations process, where you hear these cases when workers are fired for engaging in union activity, you know, a worker could be fired and be out of a job for a year and a half before they get their job back. And so, this is a big risk for most workers to take, and most aren’t willing to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike—
MIKE ELK: So a lot of folks keep their heads down.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, last year, the website ThinkProgress.org 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: ’12.
DAVID KOCH: Oh, OK.
SEN. SCOTT BROWN: I’m in the cycle right now. We’re already banging away.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Mike Elk?
MIKE ELK: Well, obviously, you know, the Kochs have a lot of power, and, you know, Scott Brown needed them in order to win. It’s really funny, because in this packet of information, there is an op-ed from Charles Koch in which he talks about how he gets so upset about CEOs who lack courage to pursue public politics, that fold under pressure. And he—you know, he labels as—you know, he says CEOs who abandoned ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing model legislation shop—he says, you know, CEOs that have abandoned that organization in the wake of some of their controversies lack courage, and that he’s willing to have that kind of courage to go forward. And this is what they see. And clearly, you know, the Kochs, in terms of this workplace political intimidation, are starting a trend, as we see with places across the board—we’re going to see more and more pressuring of workers in the workplace directly from their bosses and supervisors, as more—as more employees—employers catch on to the fact that they can do this.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike, the largest privately held coal company in the nation, Murray Energy, has allegedly coerced its employees into supporting Republican candidates. The company reportedly told workers that attending a pro-Romney event would be both mandatory and unpaid. However, Murray Energy Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore denied the charges when speaking to WWVA radio host David Blomquist.
DAVID BLOMQUIST: Let me ask you this: were workers forced to attend this event?
ROB MOORE: David, there were no workers that were forced to attend the event. We had managers that communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend the event. We had a pre-registration list. Employees were asked to put their name on a pre-registration list because they could not get into the event unless they were pre-registered and had a name tag to enter the premises. We had people that did not show up that day, and there were no consequences or repercussions taken against any employee that did not attend the Romney event.
AMY GOODMAN: Murray Energy Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore. Mike Elk, can you expand on this?
MIKE ELK: Yeah. My friend Alec MacGillis at The New Republic did a story where it really disputes this account, and many workers do say that they were forced to attend this event unpaid. But more gravely than that, Alec gets into how the CEO of Murray Energy, Robert Murray, was pressuring workers to donate to GOP candidates. They’re the second-largest donor to the House speaker, John Boehner. And Alec gets into—he reveals documents and letters from the CEO of the company singling out people who aren’t giving money and pressuring them to show up for these banquets. He even has these spreadsheets where they show who doesn’t have money and who does so far that year. And, you know, this is a big trend.
And, you know, sure, maybe Murray Energy isn’t exactly telling people they’re fired, but imagine you work in a workplace and your boss says, “Hey, we’re all supporting this Republican candidate, and we’re volunteering for him this weekend. Are you going to come with us?” Now, if you’re a worker who wants a raise, you’re going to do whatever your boss tells you. So, certainly, there’s nothing to be gained by not going along with your boss on politics, so the idea that an employer doesn’t naturally have coercive power when discussing politics with a worker is just ridiculous.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, we want to thank you for being with us, labor reporter for In These Times magazine. His new article is called “Koch Sends Pro-Romney Mailing to 45,000 Employees While Stifling Workplace Political Speech.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute. We’ll be talking about data mining.