There's a new type of bullying in the workplace -- and it's coming right from the top. It uses the boss' power to get the boss' way not just at work, but in the theater of national politics.
Last week we learned that Robert Murray -- the CEO of America's largest privately held coal company and a major Republican donor -- bullied his own employees into making personal donations to Big Coal candidates.
Murray constructed a culture where employees of his company, Murray Energy, were under constant pressure to make political contributions to his chosen candidates. "They will give you a call if you're not giving," said one employee according to The New Republic. "It's expected you give Mr. Murray what he asks for." Murray, it seems, is the type who keeps close tabs on those who fail to make "suggested" donations and becomes aggravated when his appeals are not met. "We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts," Murray wrote in a letter to his employees earlier this year. This is the same man who apparently bullied his coal-miners into appearing at a Romney campaign rally on a workday -- without pay.
That style of aggressive political coercion is unfortunately not unique among CEOs. Murray is just the first in a string of corporate strong-arming scandals that have come to light in the past weeks. In the home stretch of the first presidential election since Citizens United -- the Supreme Court decision that extends First Amendment protections to corporations, allowing them to influence elections through direct advocacy, including unlimited donations -- workers around the country are facing increasingly intense harassment.
Sometimes this bullying borders on the bizarre. Gawker recently revealed that David Siegel of Westgate Resorts, one of the nation's largest developers, sent a galling email to his employees. Sounding like the Godfather of real estate, Siegel begins by saying "I can't tell you who to vote for," and ends by nonchalantly mentioning that he'll retire to the Caribbean, "with no employees to worry about," if the political status quo continues.
This is the same man who (along with his wife) was the subject of a recent documentary about his ongoing quest to build the largest house in America -- a 90,000 square-foot reminder that we've entered a new gilded age.
Arthur Allen, the chief executive of ASG Software Solutions, also sent an email with an ominous warning of the danger that might befall employees were Obama to be reelected. And last but not least, Koch Industries President Dave Robertson sent a mailer to Georgia Pacific employees (a Koch subsidiary) warning that all 50,000 of them "may suffer the consequences" if the right candidates don't prevail this election season. The packet included a list of Koch-endorsed candidates, toped by Mitt Romney, and an anti-Obama editorial by Charles Koch. While the Koch brothers have taken full advantage of the First Amendment, spending hundreds of millions to change election outcomes, they have simultaneously curtailed freedom of speech with a social media policy that prevents employees from criticizing them in any way. In this digital age, CEOs can keep an eye on their wage-earners twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Even before intimidating their workforce for political gain, these executives were strong-arming our political process through seven-figure donations. A tiny number of America's super-rich are bankrolling our elections. Only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to a congressional campaign, 0.01 percent of Americans give more than $10,000 in any election cycle, and just 0.000016 percent of Americans -- 47 people, including the Koch Brothers -- have donated nearly half of all super PAC money.
In the pursuit of turning the outcome of an election or purchasing a major piece of legislation, heads of major corporations have decided that no method is off limits. This new order casts a long shadow for many Americans. If you'd like to work at a large corporation that happens to have a bullying CEO at its helm, you're now expected to conform to the political agenda of that corporation with your vote and perhaps even with your own personal finances.
We started unPAC with Lawrence Lessig and United Republic because we believe there's an urgent need to restore American democracy -- what began as "one person, one vote" has, with the Supreme Court's help, mutated into "more dollars, more influence." It takes money to run and win campaigns, but we've entered an arms race in which our two parties fight not to craft policies with greater public support, but to out-raise one another by pandering to the 0.01 percent who make the lion's share of political donations. Politicians now spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising instead of governing, a perverse reality reflected by a presidential election that's on track to cost over $2 billion.
If we're going to prevent a backward slide into the Robber Barron culture of the 19th century, we cannot be shy about describing these practices as overbearing, undemocratic and potentially illegal. Some of the more mafia-esque threats indicate possible extortion and money laundering. There are limits on how much an individual can donate directly to a candidate, a restriction Murray seems to be using his employees to circumvent.
Passing laws to take on the bullies, from disclosure to citizen-funded elections, will be an uphill battle -- one that will require a large, organized, and sustained citizen-led movement. Along the way, we need to uphold existing election law by ensuring the FEC does its job. Over 50,000 people from unPAC, Demand Progress and The Other 98% have signed petitions calling on the FEC to start investigating corruption. It can start now with Robert Murray.
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