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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

October 14th, 2012 10:09 AM

Koch Sends Pro-Romney Mailing to 45,000 Employees While Stifling Workplace Political Speech

The billionaire Koch brothers have found a new way to influence the 2012 election—preaching to employees.

Crossposted from In These Times

Much has been written about the owners of Koch Industries, brothers David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch, trying to control the political process through hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to right-wing causes and candidates. Now, an In These Times investigation reveals that the billionaires have broken out another tactic to influence the 2012 elections: attempting to control their workers’ votes.

In a voter information packet obtained by In These Times, the Koch Industries corporate leadership informed tens of thousands of employees at its subsidiary, Georgia Pacific, that their livelihood could depend on the 2012 election and that the company supports Mitt Romney for president. The guide was similar to one the company distributed before the 2010 midterm elections, which Mark Ames and I reported on in The Nation last year.

The packet arrived in the mailboxes of all 45,000 Georgia Pacific employees earlier this month. The cover letter, by Koch Industries President and Chief Operating Officer Dave Robertson, read:

While we are typically told before each Presidential election that it is important and historic, I believe the upcoming election will determine what kind of America future generations will inherit.

If we elect candidates who want to spend hundreds of billions in borrowed money on costly new subsidies for a few favored cronies, put unprecedented regulatory burdens on businesses, prevent or delay important new construction projects, and excessively hinder free trade, then many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences, including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.

Enclosed with the letter was a flyer listing Koch-endorsed candidates, beginning with Romney. Robertson’s letter explained: “At the request of many employees, we have also provided a list of candidates in your state that have been supported by Koch companies or by KOCHPAC, our employee political action committee.”

The packet also included an anti-Obama editorial by Charles Koch and a pro-Romney editorial by David Koch. The letter went on to say, “We believe any decision about which candidates to support is—as always—yours and yours alone, based on the factors that are most important to you. Second, we do not support candidates based on their political affiliation.”

In the flyer sent to Oregon employees, all 14 Koch-backed state candidates were Republicans.

The Koch’s in-house campaigning for the GOP is part of a larger trend of corporations exercising new freedoms under Citizens United. The Supreme Court decision overturned previous FEC laws prohibiting employers from expressing electoral opinions directly to their employees.

A culture of fear

Ironically, while the Kochs have been taking advantage of Citizens United to expand political communications to employees, they have also capitalized on weak labor laws to limit the political speech of those employees.

In September, a number of unionized employees at Georgia Pacific’s Toledo, Ore. plant posed for a photo in front of their union hall with Democratic state Senate candidate Arnie Roblan. When the Koch Industries voter information packet arrived in the workers’ mailboxes a few weeks later, they saw that Roblan was not on the list of Koch-endorsed candidates in Oregon.

It was then, says Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) Vice President Greg Pallesen, that he started receiving some of the strangest phone calls from workers he’s fielded in his 30-plus years of union involvement. The unionized workers in the photo were worried that they might be fired from their jobs if the image got out on the Internet, because in the backdrop of the photo, the Georgia Pacific plant could be seen.

Their fear comes not only from the mailing, but also from a new Georgia Pacific social media policy implemented earlier this year that warns, “Even if your social media conduct is outside of the workplace and/or non-work related, it must not reflect negatively on GP’s reputation, its products, or its brands.” Given the policy, the workers were scared to appear next to a candidate the Kochs do not support with the plant in the background.

Georgia Pacific workers say that in general, they are not sure where the boundaries of the social media policy lie. AWWPW Local 5 President Jim Pierce, who works at Georgia Pacific paper mill, in Camas, Washington, is wary of commenting online about the outspoken Koch Brothers’ political beliefs.

“Even if I was at my own home, I can’t put something up [on Facebook] against the Koch Brothers,” says Pierce. “I don’t post anything about the Koch Brothers. I could lose my job.”

AWWPW has filed two unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the Georgia Pacific’s social media policy. One alleges that the policy violates employees’ right to “mutual aid and protection,” <http://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity> which allows workers to join together to advocate better pay and working conditions. The other contends that the social media policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining that was not negotiated with the union, but imposed unilaterally, in violation of federal labor law.

While their speech might sometimes be protected by these laws, few workers at Georgia Pacific’s Camas facility are willing to risk losing their jobs. The plant was downsized from 1,200 workers in 2005, when the Kochs took over Georgia Pacific, to a staff of 450 today. NLRB hearings and appeals can take over a year.

“It’s just they can intimidate people this way and they can make life miserable for you. The law would be strong enough to protect them probably, but you could be looking at being without your job for nearly a year,” says Pierce.

In August, Portland-based Georgia Pacific worker Travis McKinney, a member of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (an affiliate of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union), learned about the social media policy the hard way during his yearly evaluation.

When McKinney applied for a foreman job at the plant in May, he says, his supervisor informed him that a higher-up said he wouldn’t get the job because he was “too political.” “They said I should be aware of what I am posting online,” says McKinney. A subsequent August evaluation of McKinney noted that “supervisors feel Travis gets caught up in the politics of the day which can be distraction.”

McKinney says it wasn’t hard to deduce what they meant. He was quoted in the 2011 Nation article I wrote with Mark Ames, talking about how the Kochs pushed their libertarian “Market Based Management” principles on their workers to such an extent that the dictums were even printed on employee time cards. He had posted that article and other political articles about the Koch brothers online.

While Charles Koch has often referred to the Market Based Management system used to run Georgia Pacific as “the science of liberty,” many employees, such as McKinney, feel that their own liberties have been taken away by the company.

In addition to the social media policy, Georgia Pacific also demands that workers seek approval from supervisors before running for local elected office or serving on the boards of nonprofits. Koch Industries claims such approval is necessary to prevent conflicts of interest. These policies could potentially prohibit Georgia Pacific employees from running for local office in communities that seek to more strictly regulate the company.

“I was kind of disturbed that they would infringe on my personal right to run for office,” says Georgia Pacific employee Larry Wagoner of Washougal, Wash. “ I was in the running for City Council this year. I asked someone in the HR department, ‘What if I wanted to run for Congress?’ She said you would just have to stop working here.” Wagoner adds that he is pretty sure this was a misinterpretation of company policy. But it serves as an example of the fuzzy boundaries of the policies and their potential chilling effect.

Corporate free speech

In the new era ushered in by Citizens United, Koch Industries is not the only company seeking to control its employees’ political activities, including speech, lobbying efforts, donations and votes.

This week, Gawker obtained an email from the CEO of Westgate Resorts, Florida billionaire David Siegel instructing his 7,000 employees that a vote for Obama would endanger their jobs. Like Dave Robertson of Koch Industries, he couched this as an economic analysis rather than a threat.

Meanwhile, a new expose by Alec MacGillis of The New Republic reveals that the largest privately held coal company in the nation, Murray Energy, has routinely coerced its employees in to giving to GOP candidates. In the process, Murray Energy workers became the second largest block of donors to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s 2009-2010 coffers. “We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts,” wrote company CEO Robert Murray in a March 2012 letter to employees obtained by The New Republic; attached was a list of employees who had not yet attended fundraisers.

And last year, Talking Points Memo reported that Delta offered free rides, even bumping paying customers, for its flight attendants to fly to Washington, D.C. to lobby for an FAA bill that would make it more difficult for airline workers to organize a union. “A lot of flight attendants told me that their supervisors would encourage them to book a flight to Washington to go lobby,” says Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) spokeswoman Corey Caldwell.

The value of courage

The growing politicization of the workplace is yet another mawwanifestation of increasing corporate power over politics in the United States. The Koch brothers are proudly leading this movement. As part of the packet that went out to employees, Charles Koch wrote a letter titled “The Value of Courage”:

“One of my greatest frustrations in recent years stems from the lack of courage shown by many businesses. Rather than set a good example and stand on principle, far too many successful companies have decided to cave when faced with criticism from the media or the government. … For example, last March, left-wing publications and a cable “news” channel began spreading malicious lies about the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC]. … The bogus charges against ALEC were quickly echoed by various media outlets, bloggers, a labor leader, and other activists, none of whom seemed fully aware of the fact. As result of this ginned up outcry, a few high profile corporate members of ALEC either cancelled their memberships or announced they would let them expire.”

(Ironically, many corporations abandoned ALEC, which crafts model legislation for right-wing state legislatures, over the group’s support of anti-gun control “Stand Your Ground” law. Yet many corporate policies, such as Georgia Pacific’s Code of Conduct, strictly prohibit employees from bringing guns onto company property).

“Several corporations couldn’t throw in the towel fast enough,” Koch continued. “Such lack of courage has become symptomatic”.

But Charles Koch reassures his audience that he is not of those weak-kneed corporate leaders.

 “[Our opposition] figure that if they apply enough pressure, we will cave in,“ writes Koch. “I realize, as do my brother David, our board and other shareholders, that if we slink away, ultimately we won’t have a business. And neither will anyone else—at least one worth having”.

Georgia Pacific’s employees don’t find the Koch’s courage so inspiring.

“I don’t even put down on my Facebook that I work at Georgia Pacific. I put that I work for the Camas Paper mill. It’s embarrassing to let people know that you work for Georgia Pacific because of what the Koch brothers are doing,” says one Georgia Pacific employee who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear losing their job. “They are destroying the planet. They are trying to buy the votes. They think they are so high and mighty. They have their principles. They just think their way is the only way and they think everyone else is wrong.”

“If you don't believe in their philosophy, you can find a job somewhere else. I have worked there for 30-plus years. I have no training; I have worked in a factory. What am I going to do?”

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