The Front

Pulling for the Boss

LAST SPRING, GENERAL MILLS conducted meetings to show a company-made video strongly urging workers to call Congress and speak against any health care bill requiring employers to pay for coverage. In letters sent to 70,000 Safeway Inc. employees the first week of August, chief executive Steve Burd pleaded with workers to do the opposite:" Please help yourself and your family by helping convince Congress to pass legislation that would guarantee health insurance provided at the workplace." In August, IBM sent electronic memos to its 100,000 employees opposing the Mitchell and Gephardt health care bills and urging workers to contact Congress.

These companies are among a growing number of employers which are using a tactic that became popular during the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - enlisting workers to lobby Congress on behalf of a company's interests.

But as companies increasingly use workers as political foot soldiers, critics are challenging the propriety of the practice.

It is inappropriate for an employer to ask workers to support its political position, contends the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Employers shouldn't conduct themselves that way," says Milind Shah, assistant to the director of the ACLU's National Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace in New York. "Not only is it unethical, it detracts from the political process. Employers should not use their position of power in the employment contract to force employees to take their political views," Shah says

"The boss is the boss, and the employment relationship is such that you do what he asks you," says Greg Denier, spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, about corporations' efforts to enlist workers in their political lobbying. "Introducing politics into that relationship causes us some concern."

But employers say what's bad for the company may also be bad for employees, and there's nothing wrong with telling them so. "You try to go to workers when it's an issue of general interest to them and will affect them," says Austin Sullivan, vice president of public affairs at General Mills. "I think it's absolutely appropriate to do that as long as you treat [workers] with respect and don't expect them to walk lock-step with you."

Sullivan says the company is simply another information source on important legislation. "Why shouldn't we be one of those sources? No one would have a better idea about what will affect our company than us."

But worker advocates and civil libertarians worry about the potential fallout for workers who don't toe the company line. In contrast to legal prescriptions on discrimination based on age, sex, race and religion, U.S. law does not clearly protect workers with dissenting political beliefs from being discriminated against or even fired, although government workers' political views are protected by the First Amendment. And some states do have anti-retaliatory statutes that cover harassment, discrimination, demotion or dismissal on the basis of political views. Even in states with minimal protections, employers maintain a great deal of discretionary power. For example, legal experts say employers can probably force workers to attend meetings about, say, health care, even if workers do not want to. "As long as the employer makes it very clear they will tolerate dissent and that they will not coerce you to take their view, they can [call the meeting]," the ACLU's Shah says. "It's not like a religious discussion," Shah says. "Your political beliefs can be openly debated in the workplace."

If an employer makes a political meeting mandatory, says Charlotte, North Carolina attorney Margaret Errington, "I think it's grossly offensive, but I'm not sure it's illegal." Errington, an employment discrimination attorney at Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter, says workers may be protected by case law, or precedent-setting court judgments, however.

Business ethics professor R. Edward Freeman says it's impossible to separate politics and business. "The political life is already there," says Freeman, director of the Olssen Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. "There isn't a company that isn't involved in the political arena. ... Politics affects business. To say that we ought to keep it separate or private is not realistic."

When the issue affects the company as well as the worker, it's entirely proper to ask workers to take on the cause, he says. An example of that was when tobacco companies enlisted workers to protest the cigarette tax, says Freeman.

Freeman adds that the workplace can be a marketplace of ideas where workers and employers can exchange political views. There is no harm, he says, "as long as I have an option to refuse [the opinion] and there is no coercion."

Employers say they encourage workers to support their position on various issues, but do not coerce them to do so.

IBM's health-care memo was the second time the company asked workers to call Congress. Last fall, IBM asked employees to call legislators in support of NAFTA. In both cases, "We said, ŠIf you agree, please contact your representative,'" says IBM spokesperson Loula Kontoulas. "It was voluntary."

Like IBM, General Mills says it doesn't force workers to take the company's side. The company has a history of sending letters and holding meetings to air the company's positions on legislation from taxes to NAFTA, Sullivan says. Sullivan, who oversees General Mills' communication to workers on political issues, says the company employs experts to study all sides of an issue. "We're going to give them our very best shot at everything, and we add our opinion," Sullivan said. "We will not hide our opinion."

General Mills employs 126,000 workers - 100,000 of them in its restaurant division, which has 1,101 Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants. Its restaurants operate with mostly part-timer workers who do not receive health-care coverage.

Besides showing the video during the voluntary employee meetings, General Mills' restaurant division provided workers with postcards opposing an employer mandate to send to Congress.

Sullivan says there are no ways of measuring the effectiveness of these tactics. However, he says, "My sense is that it is effective in getting people interested in subjects that they might otherwise not have time for."

-Tawn Nhan  Reprinted by permission: Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service