Voters are largely free to ignore the wave of television and direct mail ads aimed in their direction every election cycle. But what if the person trying to influence your vote is your boss?
Business groups are increasingly using the workplace as a staging ground to shape the outcomes of elections.
Last month, supervisors at the Phoenix corporate headquarters of the truck rental business U-Haul were told to bring their respective teams to an internal company town hall to hear from Steve Ferrara, the Republican candidate for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, who ended up posting a picture of his talk with the workers on a campaign Facebook page. An umbrella group of mining companies, according to its own social media postings, has pushed workers to embrace candidates endorsed by company lobbyists — a list that is overwhelmingly Republican.
It’s not a new dynamic. Every year, companies are taking more and more liberties in attempting to influence workers’ political behavior.
“It used to be that voting was more private,” said Paula Brantner, the executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit employee rights group. Brantner said that increased political polarization intensified employer messages to workers: “Now, the environment is much more fraught with debate and tension and conflict.”
Those efforts by bosses to push employees to certain choices at the ballot box are not just aimed at pushing particular candidates: Businesses are taking brazen steps to coerce workers into taking positions on ballot measures that align with the companies’ corporate interests. The Intercept collected accounts from both publicly available information and employees of several companies.
This year, employees of Western National Group, a privately held apartment building developer, received a letter — which was obtained by The Intercept — from chief executive Michael Hayde to “please join” him in opposing Proposition 10, a California ballot question to allow the expansion of rent control. And nurses at a health care provider, who asked not to be named, told The Intercept that they were bombarded with messages through their employee portal about the importance of voting against Proposition 8 — a California measure that would limit profits at dialysis treatment centers.
In Colorado, ConocoPhillips posted messages through a publicly available employee portal about the importance of opposing the state’s Proposition 112, which calls for banning drilling wells within 2,500 feet of schools, water sources, and other sensitive areas. Similarly, in Montana, mining industry associations are organizing opposition to a ballot measure that would enact new regulations; a source with knowledge of the rallies to support the effort told The Intercept on the condition of anonymity that miners had been pressured into attending.
Many large companies maintain internal political affairs departments devoted to mobilizing employee engagement. Workers are frequently pushed into efforts to help companies lobby lawmakers, influence public opinion, or sway a close election.
In previous elections, companies such as Westgate Resorts, Koch Industries, ASG Technologies, and others have sent messages to employees, warning of dire consequences if Republicans are not victorious on Election Day. But not all such efforts favor Republicans: In his close re-election effort in 2010, then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., allegedly received assistance from allied casino companies to bring workers out to the polls for him.
Some companies are pushing back against the moves. Hundreds of them, in a bid to present a more friendly corporate image, have signed up to a nonpartisan effort called “Time to Vote,” designed to encourage voter participation among employees. Some are closing retail outlets early or allowing any worker to get paid time off to vote.
And yet, stories of intimidating workers to vote a certain way persist.
In U-Haul’s case, the company said it was merely providing a platform for its workers to engage in the political process. “U-Haul does not and has not encouraged Team Members to vote for any party or candidate – but rather to exercise their right and duty to vote,” said Jeff Lockridge, U-Haul’s spokesperson. “Attendance for any such event is purely optional, and space only allows for a limited number of Team Members to attend those events. Politicians from both major parties have visited our headquarters.”
One U-Haul employee, however, contacted The Intercept to say that the company has leaned on workers to support Republicans. The worker, who asked not be named for fear of workplace reprisals, said the company provided a bonus after the 2016 election, along with a message that it was doing so because of “all the good work Trump was doing for American business.”
The worker said U-Haul did not tell its employees how to vote in this election, but their intention with the Ferrara event seemed clear. The employees were expected to hear out the Republican candidate and were given free food and drinks if they attended the event.
Coercive political activity in the workplace is illegal in many states. In Arizona, for example — home to the U-Haul headquarters — employers may not “display any notice within 90 days before an election that directly or indirectly attempts to influence employees to support or not support a candidate.”
Brantner of Workplace Fairness said that these laws are well-meaning but give the employee little recourse. “It’s more that we hear about stories as opposed to a developed case law,” she said. “Is someone going to go to a lawyer and take the case and pursue it over the next several years? It’s unlikely.”