Workplace Now Terrain of Politics

Times Staff Writer

In this week's frenzied competition to boost voter turnout, the quiet effort of companies like Vermeer Manufacturing could prove crucial for the Bush campaign.

Vermeer, a family-owned industrial and agricultural equipment maker, is urging its 1,700 employees to vote -- and is providing them with industry-prepared election guides to help them decide how to cast their ballots.

The guides include candidates' positions on specific legislation and score lawmakers on the percentage of the time they voted with business. Republicans tend to score well in such "key vote" surveys; Democrats do not.

Sen. John F. Kerry received a zero score, for example, a point made repeatedly by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, which encourages Vermeer and its 13,000 other member companies to distribute the candidate summaries.

In elections past, large companies expressed their political preferences in cash, often with "soft money" checks written to parties and advocacy groups running issue ads.

Now, with campaign finance reform limiting those contributions and expenditures, thousands of employers are going grass-roots.

These direct contacts with employees in battleground states could undercut the economic message that Kerry and other Democrats are using to woo working-class voters and boost turnout of those who give the nod to Bush.

The business campaign could prove critical in such states as Iowa, where Democrat Al Gore won narrowly in 2000 but Kerry is struggling. Recent polls show the race there deadlocked.

To elect "business-friendly" candidates, the manufacturers group partnered with the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, four years ago to show companies how to talk politics with their workers. The so-called Prosperity Project had one full-time field staffer.

This year, the project has 80 field organizers in 14 targeted states, including six in Iowa. More than 700 companies and trade groups have joined, up from 184 in 2002. The list includes hundreds of small- and medium-sized companies like Vermeer and more than half of the largest 50 multinational firms in the country.

Separately, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have launched voter education efforts that are equally ambitious and more pointedly critical of the Democratic ticket.

At the AFL-CIO, officials say they are unfazed by the corporate effort to steal a page from labor's get-out-the-vote playbook. Even this year's ramped-up business campaign pales next to union outreach in its scope and credibility with workers, they say.

At Vermeer, a nonunion plant, the company's e-mail and in-house newsletters direct employees to an elaborate website that uses an interactive template developed by BIPAC. The site provides information on voter registration and absentee balloting and detailed descriptions of candidates for state and federal office.

The language and the presentations are evenhanded, reflecting BIPAC's oft-stated commitment to a nonpartisan approach. But the linked voting charts evaluate incumbents' positions on tax, liability reform, free trade, healthcare and other legislative priorities for business and assigns a score at the bottom.

Vermeer, whose chief executive, Mary Andringa, is a National Assn. of Manufacturers board member, was not active in get-out-the-vote efforts in previous elections, nor did the firm donate to parties.

But the 56-year-old company founded by her father has been rocked by an economic downturn that pared about half its workforce a couple of years ago.

"We know our industry and our jobs are dependent on the domestic economy and the overseas market," she says. "We need to do what we can to help get people informed."

Andringa believes the Bush administration "is trying to help business." She won't push her personal views on her employees, she says, but wants them to be informed on issues that affect the company -- and the jobs it offers.

She ticks off a list of federal actions that could benefit Vermeer: passage of energy, highway and tort-reform bills. She cites benefits already accruing from tax credits for research and development and equipment depreciation as well as administration forest policy, which has boosted sales of the company's brush chippers and organic grinders that turn tree stumps and limbs into mulch.

After growing slowly in the two previous election cycles, such employer activism has entered the mainstream in 2004. Companies that do not communicate with workers about political issues have become the exception, amounting to a quiet revolution in the way business conducts itself in the political world.

"If everything goes well, this project will have generated 20 million voter contacts before election day," says John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who was recently named head of the manufacturers association.

Business, he adds, is finally adopting some of the tactics long used by labor but applying them with more subtlety.

"We have registered more than 700,000 new voters, many of them in battleground states. It could be that these new votes will make the difference," Engler says.

The man directing the Prosperity Project, Darrell Shull, says this year's goal "is to increase business turnout by 2%." In Iowa, that meant reaching more than 21,500 new voters who would go to the polls armed with information provided by companies. To reach that goal, BIPAC sought to communicate with at least 215,000 people. That was exceeded in Iowa and 13 other priority states.

Still, Chamber of Commerce officials bemoan the effect of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law on business influence. It is the reason business is not as visible on the airwaves as it was in previous campaigns.

But if businesses haven't been writing checks for broadcast ads this year, they are trying to make up for it in their communication with staff.

Legally, employers can be quite aggressive in talking politics with their workers, but corporate reticence has been a major barrier to making business more of an electoral force, BIPAC says.

The law allows employers to engage in politics, including inviting candidates to the workplace and endorsing them. Companies can urge certain categories of employees to vote for specific candidates.

However, the categories are broad. They include managers, executives and shareholders. At many companies, all workers are shareholders and thus fair game for management's endorsements.

Federal election and tax laws sharply restrict the coordination of political campaigns with the activities of special-interest groups such as business and labor, and both groups -- and the Republicans and Democrats -- declare that they scrupulously follow the rules.

To mobilize local business, the chamber this year hired a record 287 field organizers, concentrating them in presidential battleground states and those with specially targeted races. In South Dakota alone, the chamber has 55 local organizers working largely in support of former Republican Rep. John Thune's bid to unseat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

At the AFL-CIO, spokeswoman Denise Mitchell says the business effort won't compare to labor's plan, which includes nearly 5,000 paid organizers nationwide and more than 100,000 volunteers on election day. The message from a union, she adds, has more credibility with employees at election time than that from an employer.

However, Engler points to surveys showing that employees want and trust information from their employer about state and federal issues. In recent years, BIPAC has emphasized that it is legal and appropriate to talk about these issues with employees. And although organized labor's impact is undeniable, unions represent a mere 13% of the nation's workforce today.

At Vermeer, half a dozen employees who volunteered to talk to a reporter reacted positively to the information they have received from the company.

"Everyone in Iowa is about ready to blow up their TVs. So it is really nice to be able to go to this website and get factual information without all this bickering back and forth," says Jan Anderson, a data entry clerk and administrative assistant at the plant. She said candidates' voting records on manufacturing had a big impact on some of her co-workers.

"They were actually able to see how people voted in terms of manufacturing issues, and it caused some of them to open their eyes and realize there's more out there than what they have been led to believe" in media reports and campaign ads.

Pella, where Vermeer is located, is a conservative town, but there are "hard-core Democrats" at the company who are not pleased with the scores candidates received, one company official says.

The distribution of the information, however, is viewed as positive and many report that it has boosted talk of politics in the plant. Employees say they know of several co-workers who had used the company website to help them register to vote or obtain absentee ballots.

The impact of these personalized efforts by small companies and business field organizers should not be underestimated in the battleground states this year, political analysts say.

"There are sloppy assumptions among Democrats that they have this ground game covered," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "Personal communication is key, and the Republicans and their allies in the business community have made real advances."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Turnout tool

In what promises to be another close presidential election, companies large and small are encouraging their employees to vote and learn more about the candidates. Many are distributing guides that rate the candidates on issues important to business. President Bush tends to fare well in these issue guides, while Sen. John F. Kerry does poorly. Below left is an example of a National Assn. of Manufacturers guide; on the right, part of an 11-page guide prepared by the National Federation of Independent Business.

*--* Sen. NAM* Kerry's The issues position vote Halting changes in air pollution law No Yes Blocking energy development in Alaska refuge No Yes Passing budget resolution Yes No Tax reduction bill Yes No Blocking offshore energy review No Yes Blocking tax increase on top earners Yes No Implementing Kyoto climate treaty No Yes Sinking liability reform No Yes

*--*

The issues: Supports income tax relief for individuals and small businesses?

President Bush: Yes. Signed into law the 2001 Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act that reduced tax rates, and the 2003 Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Act that accelerated individual tax cuts. Also supports making the tax cuts permanent.

Sen. Kerry: No. Voted against both the 2001 and 2003 tax relief acts. Now, as a candidate for president, Kerry supports repealing the income tax relief for families making over $200,000 a year.

The issues: Supports permanent repeal of the 'death tax' (estate tax)?

President Bush: Yes. Signed into law the 2001 Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act that repealed the 'death tax.'

Sen. Kerry: No. In a Senate vote, opposed permanent repeal of the 'death tax.'

The issues: Supports increasing section 179 expensing?

President Bush: Yes. Signed into law the 2003 Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Act that increased expensing to $100,000. He now supports making this cut permanent.

Sen. Kerry: Yes. As a U.S. senator, sponsored legislation to make current expense levels permanent.

The issues: Supports protecting private property owners from excessive regulation?

President Bush: Yes. Pushed hard for the 'Healthy Forest' provision, which included property rights language to protect private property owners.

Sen. Kerry: No. Supports expanding endangered species and wetlands programs that would take thousands of acres of private property through regulation.

The issues: Supports overturning the Clinton administration's OSHA ergonomics rule on repetitive stress injuries?

President Bush: Yes. Signed into law a repeal of former President Clinton's rule.

Sen. Kerry: No. Cast a vote against repealing the ergonomics rule.

The issues: Supports maintaining the small-businesses exemption to the Family and Medical Leave Act?

President Bush: Yes. Believes that small businesses should be exempt from the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Sen. Kerry: No. As a senator and presidential candidate, John Kerry supports legislation expanding the act.

* National Assn. of Manufacturers

Sources: National Federation of Independent Business; Vermeer Manufacturing Co.

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