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The Workplace Agenda Engaging Employees in Politics

A Washington advocacy group is attempting to reach millions of potential voters through their employers. Yet bringing politics into the workplace is a perilous proposition, as Wal-Mart learned.

August 31, 2008
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Labor Relations
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Despite declining membership, unions continue to punch above their weight politically by getting their people to the polls.

    Now corporate America is fighting back. A Washington advocacy group, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, is attempting to reach millions of potential voters through their employers.

    Yet bringing politics into the workplace is a perilous proposition, as Wal-Mart recently learned.

    Several labor organizations recently filed a Federal Election Commission complaint charging that the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer told managers and supervisors to oppose Democrats, including presidential nominee Barack Obama, because they support a bill that would make it easier to form unions.

    Employers should not coerce workers or monitor political behavior, says Gregory Casey, president and CEO of the Business Industry Political Action Committee.

    But he urges companies to communicate with employees about policy issues that are critical to the survival of the firms—and the jobs they provide. They will find a receptive audience, Casey says, because bitter partisanship has undermined faith in traditional political institutions such as parties.

    "As economic security becomes the No. 1 issue in the election, [employers] are the agents that people trust to give them information because it deals directly with their paycheck, directly with their family’s security," Casey says.

    His organization has launched the Prosperity Project, an Internet tool that companies can use to educate employees about policy, register them to vote and encourage them to contact elected officials. About 60 of the Fortune 100 companies have signed up.

    The goal of the bipartisan organization is to reach 10 million people in 35 targeted states in what Casey calls "the largest business grass-roots network in the country."

    He is confident that there is a market for the outreach. His polling indicates that 55 percent of workers want to get information from their companies but only 15 percent are receiving it.

    "Employers have not caught on yet," Casey says. "They don’t quite understand the advantage of being proactive in this field."

    By getting their employees involved in the political process, companies can gain allies to keep taxes low on profit and capital gains and promote health care reform and trade liberalization, he says.

    "We have to find a way to re-engage in education on why profit matters, why capital formation matters, why we have to be competitive in the international marketplace," Casey says.

    Organized labor asserts that workers are not getting their fair share of corporate profits. The AFL-CIO has launched a $53 million campaign to reach 13 million people in 24 states, promoting candidates who favor universal health care, workers’ rights and what the union calls a living wage.

    "People understand that this is a historic opportunity to create a political realignment that’s going to support working families," says AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith. "We rely on volunteers at the grass-roots level. It’s worker talking to worker. They respect and trust the union. They trust their fellow worker."

    Although union membership has declined to 12 percent of the workforce, it remains a potent political force.

    "We see a labor movement that is bolder, more aggressive and more effective than it has been in decades," says Steven Law, chief legal officer and general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    The chamber has launched its own political initiative. It is designed in part to build opposition to the proposal at the top of the labor wish list—the so-called card-check bill that would allow unions to form if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing them.

    Currently, companies can demand a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

    "If Obama is elected, that will be one of the first items on the Democratic [congressional] agenda—pass the Employee Free Choice Act and get it to the president’s desk," says Dan Yager, senior vice president and general counsel of the HR Policy Association. Republican nominee John McCain opposes the bill.

    Unions sense the opportunity and are pressing hard for Obama. "Time and again, he’s been to bat for working people," Smith says.

    Wal-Mart stepped on a land mine in opposing the bill. The Wall Street Journal reported in early August that the company warned thousands of supervisors that an Obama victory would bolster the bill and hurt the retailer.

    In a memo to store managers, Wal-Mart COO Bill Simon stressed that the company should not tell employees how to vote.

    "We feel that educating you, our associates, about the bill is the right thing to do," Simon wrote. "However, we are a bipartisan company and our associates reflect the wide range of attitudes and political diversity of this country."

    It’s best not to mention politics in the workplace, says John Remy, managing partner of the Washington region office of law firm Jackson Lewis.

    "An employee may believe, rightly or wrongly, that some future adverse action the employer takes is a result of the political opinion [workers] espouse," Remy says.

    Genworth Financial tries to avoid such pitfalls by allowing employees to opt in on political activism. A government-relations section of the company intranet provides templates for employee e-mails, letters and phone calls to public officials.

    When the company does conduct e-mail blasts, employees can easily unsubscribe, says Kristine Kilbride, PAC and grass-roots leader at Genworth.

    Opposition from Genworth employees helped remove an annuity tax provision from a recent bill in the North Carolina Legislature, Kilbride says. So far, employees have been willing to participate.

    "They like to be part of the process, and they don’t have to put out a lot of effort," she says.

    But the company, which is part of the Prosperity Project, treads cautiously. "We’ll never go out and tell our employees, ‘This is who you should vote for,’ " Kilbride says.

    The HR department helps set the parameters for employee communication.

    "It’s always good to get them involved first and have them be in your communication loop," Kilbride says.

    Done correctly, company e-mails on policy will be read because workers trust the source, Casey says.

    "In an age of information overload, who it’s from determines whether it’s opened," he says. "You’ve just overcome that clutter."

Workforce Management, September 8, 2008 -- Subscribe Now!

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