Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bullying Beyond the Classroom: Telling Employees For Whom to Vote

Last week, I wrote about school bullies and giving your children a bit of armor to protect themselves. This week, I wish to consider intimidation as a factor in the outcome of the 2012 election, especially because employers are exercising undue influence over their employees' votes.

I grant that intimidation is a tool in our culture. The arms race is a form of intimidation. The country with the most offensive tools stays ahead of its competition. Athletes step onto the field and into arenas, fully aware that size and an icy glare may win the contest before it's begun. We even coach our kids to stand tall in the face of intimidation and to become adept at intimidation as a means to an end. We also expect college professors, especially in law schools invented in Hollywood, to intimidate their attorneys-in-waiting.

Real teachers, on the other hand, avoid intimidation. They understand that like justices on the bench, they must be impartial and fair as they wield power. What teachers know and how well they share their knowledge will affect future presidents, physicians, attorneys, and long-distance bicyclists. If teachers lack ethics and civility, then their charges learn to be unethical and incivil.

Employers also wield power. Theirs is power over the livelihood and security of their employees. The CEO, CFO, and Chairman of the Board may not become involved in day-to-day operations such as hiring, firing, and work assignments, but no one doubts their clout should they wish to become involved, especially in smaller communities where one’s loyalties, social connections, and off-the-clock activities are more easily and widely known. But in communities large and small, especially now that employers routinely search Facebook posts, an employee can be released if his political allegiance diverges from the company’s.

I repeat: it is legal to terminate a person’s employment if he supports a candidate that the boss does not. If an employee wears a t-shirt imprinted with a candidate's name to work, proselytizes for a candidate in the break room, or knocks on doors after work to hand out campaign literature, he may find himself applying for unemployment benefits

But, you sputter, we have free speech guarantees in this nation. And yes, yes, we do, but 49 (a big 98%) states are at-will employment states. In other words, you serve at the will of your employer’s need and even political whim. Only Montana requires that an employer show cause for terminating an employee (“10 Workplace Rights You Think You Have -- But Don’t” by Donna Ballman, 3 May 2011 at articles/2011/05/03/10-workplace-rights-you-think-you-have-but-don’t).

But, you sputter once more, we have federal protections, don’t we? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules, the Lily Ledbetter law, Affirmative Action guidelines, a Federal Trade Commission. Wouldn’t one of those commissions or laws protect me?

Maybe. But how long do you have? Do you have 17 years lying around to wait upon justice? That's how many years Lily Ledbetter waited upon it. She learned that she was paid less than her male counterparts in 1992. She sued later and pursued her case to the Supreme Court. It ruled against her and sided with Goodyear Tire in 2007 because Ledbetter did not sue within 180 days of becoming aware of the pay discrepancy. Two years later, in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, nullifying the 180-mandate for any and all who follow in Ledbetter's footsteps.

Another Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, and its implementation have provided employers with the freedom to direct how employees should vote, and candidate Romney has taken full advantage of that ruling. In the now often replayed conference call to small business owners, former Governor Romney tells his listeners to advise their employees about which candidate to support and to tell their family members how to vote (http://www.slate. com/blogs/the_slatest/2012/10/18/romney_s_nfib_call_gop_hopeful_tells_employers_to_tell_ employees_who_to.html). He has that right.

But such a right calls into question the rhetoric of some GOP Attorneys General and Governors who have argued against early voting, even going so far as to claim that large groups traveling to the polls together will unduly influence voters to vote as a block? Yet those officials have not expressed concern about any undue influence if employers advise employees for whom to vote. 

Certainly, large groups traveling together to vote may affect outcomes in the same way that folks traveling to national conventions may affect outcomes. The people go because they already share interests and convictions and those undecided among them may even be so grateful for the opportunity to participate that they will allow themselves to be led in this most sacred of citizen responsibilities. Human relationships are complicated, and the reasons for supporting one candidate over another are legion, a truth that campaign strategists prey upon every day. 

Those strategists dance around ethical dilemmas and spin their candidates into the images they believe we voters want to see. They calculate whether direct mailing or robo-calls are effective. They send candidates out to shake hands and kiss babies because close human interaction is powerfully persuasive. They craft messages that will dazzle listeners even if they distort facts and invent outright lies.

I am free, however, to toss the candidates' direct mail in the trash. I can slam the phone down on the latest recorded message. I can stay away from rallies and conventions. And I can read, read, read in order to detect distortions and lies. I can discern the spin and vote according to the best interests of this nation as I understand them.

I cannot, however, easily ignore an employer’s real or implied and legal threat to eliminate my job. My well-being and my children’s well-being depend upon a job. Whatever social nets exist for the unemployed and underemployed, they are insufficient. It’s my duty to hang on to a job that provides for my family, pays my mortgage, and fuels my car.

Thus, when an employer preys upon human relationships and issues real or implied and legal threats to eliminate my job if I support the wrong candidate, he exercises undue influence, and he should be prevented from doing so. He is not different from a classroom teacher who behaves in such as way as to fail a student if the student has the naked temerity to think, write, and reason in ways antithetical to the teacher. And an employer is not different from police officers who bully citizens into confessions regardless of the evidence. We have protections in place because we believe authority figures should not unduly influence students or citizens whether they are seven, seventeen, twenty, or forty-five. We deserve protections for voters, too.

The right to vote must remain sacrosanct.

The right to the privacy of your vote is invaluable.

The right to vote your conscience must be inviolable.

So even if your employer has a legal right to tell you how to vote, that employer is unethical.

Unfortunately, right now, workers must protect themselves. They must keep their convictions to themselves.

Ain’t that a shame in a nation that holds the right to free speech as sacrosanct? Employees ought to be as free as their employers to speak their minds and argue their case.