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Companies can now advise employees on how to vote -- and they do

The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 also ended a Federal Election Commission ban on employers advising employees how to vote.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

What’s next, company stores, and company scrip instead of paychecks?

Liberated from Federal Election Commission policies by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, employers that were once barred from advising employees on how to vote are now free to start telling employees how they should vote, and including some “or else” warnings.

And it appears some of them already have.

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In 2010, just after the ruling, the Yale Law Journal surmised that the case could let employers “hold political captive audience workplace meetings with their employees,” and may even be able to “compel their employees to listen” to their political views at those meetings “on pain of termination.”

Isn’t that precisely what happened recently in Ohio? As The Times reported, miners who showed up for an August event with Mitt Romney that wound up in a Romney ad told a local radio host that they were forced to show up for the event at the mine, which is owned by Murray Energy, a big donor to Republican causes.

And they evidently weren’t even paid for doing so. In a double-whammy, the company closed the mine for supposed safety and security reasons on the day of the Romney event, then docked the workers’ pay for that day, after ordering them to show up. Here’s how Murray Chief Operating Officer Robert Moore explained it to WWVA radio; you figure it out: “Attendance was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend the event.”

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Company owner Robert Murray also told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that “nobody was ordered to attend.”

But he threw in this: “Barack Obama is destroying their lives, their livelihoods. These people are scared, and they came out in droves to see Mitt Romney, and that’s what it was all about.” Except in Ohio, although not in every other mining region, the number of miners’ jobs has gone up for most of President Obama’s time in office. And aren’t some of these companies themselves prospering under the economic policies of a president they oppose?

This may not be just some fluke.

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David Siegel, the resort developer and the costar, with his wife, of the documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” sent a letter to thousands of people who work for his company, Westgate, notifying them that if Obama is reelected, and “if any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.”

But he says he is not trying to influence their votes.

And if you’re one of the 45,000 people working for Georgia-Pacific, a paper company owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, who are lining up hundreds of millions of dollars against Obama, you received in an employee packet about civic voter information a letter from the chief operating officer warning: “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.”

Tucked in there too were assurances that voting decisions are “yours and yours alone.” Employees also found anti-Obama and pro-Romney pieces penned by the Koch brothers, who are lampooned as the “Motch Brothers,” played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, in the current slapstick-satire movie “The Campaign.”

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For some good-government folks, this is no laughing matter.

WFMY television in the swing state of North Carolina reported that the owner of a Taco Bell franchise encouraged employees to vote but, in his letter, also noted that the power of one vote is “enormous” and declared that “Obamacare creates a system that will force struggling businesses to cut your work hours to avoid paying for expensive insurance plans or tax penalties.”

The station cited North Carolina statutes saying it’s a misdemeanor to intimidate employees to vote in a certain way.

In Wisconsin, activist groups have filed a complaint against the founder and chief executive of a loading dock manufacturing company, saying Rite-Hite chief Michael White broke state law when he emailed 1,400 employees warning that, among other points, “Every Rite-Hite employee in America should understand the personal consequences to them of having our tax rates increase dramatically if President Obama is reelected, forcing taxpayers to fund President Obama’s future deficits and social programs (including Obamacare), which require bigger government.... The other big impact on Rite-Hite employees, if President Obama is reelected, is the good chance of losing Rite-Hite insurance and being put into Obamacare.... Every opportunity to make up for lost profits to taxes will have to be evaluated.”

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A guest blogger for the Hill, which covers Capitol Hill, noted that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has begun encouraging campaigns to put political ads in employees’ pay envelopes, and that Romney has encouraged employers to “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.”

The writer, University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer, noted that the Bush administration had deplored the fact that observers of a 2003 Armenian election found that teachers and factory workers and others had been ordered to show up for the incumbent’s rallies. (But of course those were public employee unions; perhaps it’s only wrong to make them into political props, and not wrong to do it with corporate employees.)

In spite of Citizens United -- or maybe only until federal law versus state law conflicts are massaged by the courts -- a dozen states prohibit employers from putting political messages in employees’ paychecks, according to the Hill blog. And in Ohio and other states, employers are not allowed to predict that “if any particular candidate is elected … work in the establishment will cease in whole or in part.”

The Supreme Court has said it: In our political system, money equals speech. Did the court thereby open the door to the possibility that moneyed folk in this country might one day believe that the paycheck they sign buys more than your labor -- that it can buy your political voice too?

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes


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