By Farron Cousins
November 5th, 2012 10:00am
Recently, news broke that Mitt Romney had held a conference call with corporate leaders, informing them that they should be telling their workers how to vote. Josh Eidelson was one of the reporters covering the story, and he recently sat down for an interview with Ring of Fire’s Mike Papantonio, where the two discussed the story in detail. The following is a transcript of that interview:
Mike: Mitt Romney’s already extracted a lot of support from corporate America but recently it came to the public’s attention that he’s asked for another favor. He wants employers to tell their employees, order, order their employers to vote Republican or lose their job. Joining me to talk about Mitt’s plea is Josh Eidelson he’s a reporter for salon.com, and In These Times. All around, very smart person. He is our go to person on issues like this. Josh, I don’t know how it gets any creepier.
Josh: Thanks for having me back Mike. Absolutely this is something, that when we talk about voter’s suppression, or when we talk about corporate power. People haven’t been thinking about until maybe the past week, which is the power that your boss has, to tell you who to vote for, or to fire you or to come down on you for anything that you do related to politics at work or even at home.
Mike: First of all, I saw your article. I disagree with some of the expert opinions you got. I disagree for example, with the thought that there’s nothing that can be done from the standpoint of lawsuits. The way I look at this Josh and by the way, your article was great. It ties up how the Koch’s are trying to … You know what they’re doing. They’ve had this plan for quite a long time. This just isn’t overnight it’s been developing and so now the plan is to put such pressure on workers that they feel like there’s nothing to do, but most states have a criminal penalty for voter intimidation.
I don’t think Citizens United changes that Josh, I’d take a look at it, for example in Minnesota. They’ve got a voter intimidated statute makes it a misdemeanor to directly or indirectly use any threat of force or coercion to restrain or harm cause loss where it comes with economic reprisal or undue influence where you’re telling somebody that they have to do something. A job is a value rather your under contract or not. Other states that have that are California, Colorado; Louisiana a bunch of states had it. I think there’s still hope and I am looking at … I’m waiting for the calls to start coming in from some of these workers, I intend to bring a civil suit, which I think is more … I think it’s more powerful. It’s like a civil suit much akin to Wal-Mart telling their employees that they have to work after they clock out. What’s your thoughts on that?
Josh: I’ll be fascinated to see what happens with it, I mean certainly as you say, state law in some cases is much better than federal law here. There are four states that explicitly protect anything a worker does outside of work and as you say, some states may have much better protections and restraints. There are very narrow protections under federal law that can apply in some cases. Under labor law, but I do think it’s ridiculous that federal law doesn’t directly protect either your freedom not to be stuck in a captive audience meeting being lectured to about politics or your freedom to be a political person, be a citizen with political opinions outside of work. Now there’s a wedge that can be used at the state level to call attention to this, make some of these companies pay, and back off. I think that would be fascinating. I would hope that the attention to these cases leads to more pressure and push back those in the legal realm. Also on the question of improving our policies so that we don’t just have a patchwork of certain states that give people a little more of the freedom that a lot of Americans think they’ve already have under federal law, but don’t.
Mike: There’s only a few states that have really expressed statutory provisions that would provide a private right of action in a civil case, but there’s other places to go besides, there. For example, private causes of action as I’m looking at this I have I think some of the best researchers in America, legal researchers they’re already able to articulate an extortion statute and blackmail statute and it’s too late. If you’re an employer and you’ve made the call, you’ve given your employee the impression that they must vote a certain way or you’re going to take their ability to feed their family away from them, you’re a target. I just want you to know, listen up, because you are a target and you’re going to be a target by the end of … Whether whoever wins you are still a target because this is going to take place at the state level.
The Koch brothers are already a target and I love the opportunity. I love the opportunity to say that you can’t do this. It’s much akin if you think about it Josh to sexual harassment, you see what you tell an employee is do this or else, do these things that you don’t want to do or else. It’s not even implicit with this it’s explicit, it’s you a must vote Republican no matter how much of a dolt or a creepy freak the Republican might be. You must vote Republican or your job is at risk. That is nothing short of extortion, it’s blackmail. and so you got some … I could name 20 attorneys in this country right now that will take this, they absolutely will take it, and they’ll go after somebody like the Koch brothers or some of these folks and you get them in depositions we’re going to find out a lot more. Murray energy baby standby, were coming after you.
Josh: I think sexual harassment is a fascinating comparison because the law recognizes with sexual harassment, that something that one random person saying to another is very different, even if the words are the same. That conversation inherently becomes different when it’s a boss talking to a worker, these are asymmetrical relationships and there is inherent coercion in some things your boss can say to you, that someone in a bar might be able to say and it would be kosher. I think there should be more of recognition. Not just at a state level but in federal law, that there is inherent coercion in some kinds of employer speech. The idea that just because someone signs your paycheck, just because they pay for your insurance, they should be able to make it a condition of your job that you sit quietly in a room while they lecture at you, they demagogue you, they tell you who to vote for, who donate to, it is ridiculous.
Mike: Josh listen to this. Minnesota, this is the best example, but this is in many, many states. They have, as I say it’s a misdemeanor directly or indirectly. Here’s the wording. To use or threaten, force, coercion, violence, restraint, damage, harm, loss, including loss of employment or economic reprisals or undue influence to an individual to coerce them to vote against a candidate or for a candidate or a ballot question. I don’t know how much … Now Citizens United does not change that. You see, Citizens United was a free-speech issue that went … It talks about this issue, but it’s not this explicit. Now add to that the right to bring the civil action, which I think is far more important. You can actually allege this criminal, this criminal statute in the civil action against the Koch brothers or Murray energy, or any of these people who have already done it. I love they already done it, frankly, because I look at it differently. This is just an opportunity to make these people toe the line like everybody else, and that is imagine the arrogance, imagine the piggish greed of telling an employee, an employee that they have to do something that they don’t want to do or they’re going to lose their job. It’s no different than sexual harassment.
Josh: I think it will be fascinating to see if these cases develop. I mean, one of the things that we see here, is the tactics that get used in union busting being applied to the political realm.
Mike: Yeah but talk about that. That’s a great dichotomy, talk about that.
Josh: For years and years, part of the nuclear assault that employers have brought, when workers try to organize has been captive audience meetings, where the workers are on the clock, required to sit in a room and be lectured to, by highly paid consultants, about why they shouldn’t be in a union. Maybe it’s the good cop who comes in and says oh my grandfather was a Teamster, but here’s why you don’t need a union here, and maybe it’s the bad cop who talks about well here’s just a story about how these people wait union and the plant shut down.
One of the ways that the law has been really weak is while employers can’t make a literal threat, they can make predictions and when your boss predicts to you that going union is going to mean that your plant will shut down. You’re going to hear that as a threat. Similarly, when all of these companies predict to you, that if you don’t vote the right way and Obama stays in, your job is going to go away, you hear that as a threat and I think if these kinds of lawsuits get pursued more aggressively, we’re going to see how the jurisprudence revolves on it,
Mike: Yeah, the good thing about it Josh is you don’t need an end result. You see that’s what’s interesting about it. It’s been done. You don’t need the end result. You don’t even need to know whether they voted for Mitt or against Mitt. Denetta Cook, D. Cook just sent me a tweet and she says it’s wrong but how would the employer know how their employees voted. If you are in a setting like that vote just the opposite, just to make a political statement, vote just the opposite, just to make a political statement. Nobody will ever know and for the lawsuit that could ensue here, you don’t really need the end result it’s done. I mean it’s already done and so I’m interested to see how this is going to play itself out Josh. I’m optimistic, first of all, if I’m advising an employer what you do here. I’m saying and run away. Don’t ever get close to the flame on this issue.
Josh: I certainly hope that more employers are coming and taking your advice on this, because this is an epidemic. I mean the reporting by Mike Elk, Alec Macgillis, Lee Fong and George Zornick has all shown that this is on the rise, and employers that have that economic power over people, have found this other way to try to turn it into political power. You have candidates like Mitt Romney in June, openly encouraging them to do it, urging them to tell them how to vote, to use that power over someone’s paycheck to control their vote.
Mike: Soon we’ll have required that you name their children after the employer or that the employer have the right to have the new wife for the first night after marriage like they did in old England.
Josh: That’s right don’t put it past them. There was a case where someone was fired because they donated a kidney to their boss and then seemingly the boss felt awkward about it so they fired the worker after they took a kidney.
Mike: Josh Eidelson thank you. Great material as usual.
Farron Cousins is the executive editor of The Trial Lawyer Magazine, a contributing writer at DeSmogBlog.com, and the producer of Ring of Fire Radio.