If you are a business owner, Mitt Romney has a message for you. Tell your employees that the future depends on voting for Mitt Romney. You can do that, legally. In fact, tell them—the people whose paychecks you sign—that their futures depend on it, too.
Yesterday, labor journalist Mike Elk posted a 30-minute conference call from June 6, during which Romney addressed the National Federation of Independent Business. (Click here both for Elk's article and the audio.) His message was clear. After 26 minutes of explaining why Barack Obama was bad for business, he encouraged employers to tell their workers what was in their best interests.
These were Romney's exact words:
I hope you 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 elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.... Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision...
If that sounds familiar, it should. It echoes the tone of Westgate Resorts' founder David Siegel in a letter to his employees:
What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration. Of course, as your employer, I can't tell you whom to vote for, and I certainly wouldn't interfere with your right to vote for whomever you choose.... So where am I going with all this? It's quite simple. 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. Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.
While Romney's suggestions are less overtly extortionate than Siegel's, the playbook is the same. Ownership is encouraged to suggest to workers that there is a right vote and a wrong vote in the coming election. The wrong vote will cost them their jobs. The wrong vote is Barack Obama. And, hey, that's not ownership saying that they will fire you if Barack Obama wins the election: that's ownership saying that Barack Obama's policies will fire you. Because of course they will.
There are no alternatives. Ownership—be it stockholders collecting dividends, founding partners or a sole owner—cannot take reduced dividends or reduced percentages of profits. If Obama is elected, inevitably the business will earn less, and that loss of earnings can only be offset by firing one of you—the people who make less, who, in the company, are financially small but electorally large. The many of you must protect the few above you and thus protect yourselves.
Obviously, no owner is psychic, so he or she cannot prevent you from voting as you choose. But announcements and opinions like these have an inevitable chilling effect on employees' free political discourse. Humans are social animals; we like to argue, and we feel good when we persuade. Yet, while you might still feel free to explain to all co-workers in earshot that TOM BRADY IS A WHINING NANCY BOY, you will almost certainly not say the same about Romney, because doing so will only rocket you to the top of the downsizing list if he loses.
Moreover, you are far less likely to put an Obama sign in front of your home or an Obama bumper sticker on your car, for the same reasons. You are less likely to volunteer at a call center or go door-to-door, lest you accidentally reach a co-worker or get spotted by them. While no employer can actually compel you to "vote Romney or else," without following you for every minute of election day, that employer still can significantly abridge your free speech by reminding you of the very real financial punishments that you risk when you exercise it. If your vote can't be coerced, your civic action can be silenced. Or, worse, internal tracking in your workplace can coerce your donating to parties or candidates to look like a team player and a friend to management.
As Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin detail in a long article at Crooked Timber, employers can already punish you for what you say and whom you say it to on the job, for supporting the wrong political candidates or causes off the job, or for failing to void your bladder into an adult diaper, in silent and humiliating acquiescence to your employer's allotted "pee times."
And why shouldn't this process of intimidation already have unequal applications? Remember a truism of hacky "the truth is in the middle!" American politics: sure, there are millionaires who can hire and fire you and hold the future and security of you and your family in their hands and marshal vastly more wealth to contest any lawsuit you might bring against them, but they're probably no worse than unions, or government workers who hold entire cities(!) hostage(!), so it all evens out.
Except, as labor professor Gordon Lafer notes over at Robin's blog, there are already laws preventing any government employees, even on break or in private conversations with fellow employees, from engaging in "political communication," which is defined so broadly that it can mean passing a friend a flyer or reminding him of a rally. The law Lafer specifically refers to, Alabama's Act 2010-761, was drafted by the Koch brothers' American Legislative Exchange Council, whose purpose is to craft uniform legislation that can be imported to any state by using a FIND/REPLACE search to change the state's name. Those are the same Koch brothers who sent an intimidating pro-Romney mailer to 45,000 employees.
Mitt, Siegel and the Koch brothers are merely making the voter intimidation process more efficient. First, you start with vertical integration. Second, you move on to using employee contact information you already have. Third, you use purse strings and team activities you already control. Who is anyone to argue with innovation? These guys must be doing something right!
That's the problem. Not only do these people rely on the hoary myth that they're only trying to level the workplace playing field with a "labor threat" that weakens every decade, they rely on the notion that their wealth—however earned—bespeaks a certain wisdom and privilege justly attained.
It's the same tacky ethos of every luxury-car driving high school reunion meathead: that "more money" equals "better than," that the non-fungibility of something in the world proves its non-value, and that the supreme sacrosanct arbitrage of The Market has deemed them beings of greater luminescence. This is how the phrase "Going Galt" comes to seem to people like anything other than the petulant tantrum of the privileged, whose levels of "More" are somehow still not enough.
When you're a person of greater value than your workers by dint of a checking account, it would be unreasonable for you not to speak for them. It would be unreasonable for you not to correct them, too, because if they were right, they would be your boss, not vice-versa. And if you dislike your take-home pay, it is within your purview to destroy the economy as a shaming lesson to those with whom you disagree. This is the natural terminus of a free-speech argument that reduces the fundamental unit of democracy not to "one vote" but rather "one dollar." This is the natural state of a nation bought and paid for by gilded assholes.
Image by Jim Cooke.