Tag Archives: Kochs

How Could Mere Toil Align Thy Choiring Strings? A Breviary of Worker Intimidation

20 Oct

In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of articles about employers coercing or intimidating workers to vote for their preferred candidates (usually Republican). This is not a new topic on this blog, but the brazenness of these efforts is beginning to get a fair amount of traction elsewhere (in part because of the election).

Anyway, here’s a quick roundup:

1.  Alec McGillis kicked off the most recent round of stories with this report in The New Republic on Murray Energy’s forcing its workers to support Romney. (Though I had already commented on this story back in August, McGillis has a lot of new details.)

2. Mike Elk then broke the story, in In These Times, of the Koch brothers trying to get their workers to vote for the right candidate. (In case you missed Gordon Lafer’s followup on the hypocrisy of the Kochs, check this out.)

3. Mike then followed up—again, in In These Times—his piece with a report on Romney’s own role in encouraging this kind of behavior.

4. George Zornick contributed to the Nation some additional reporting on Herman Cain’s role in all this. (The Nation also ran an additional piece summarizing some of these stories.)

Then there was a bunch of thoughtful analyses of what all of this means…

5. In Salon, Josh Eidelson placed it in some historical context (with some quotes from me).

6. In The New Republic, McGillis speculated that it reveals how vulnerable employers now feel.

7. At Gawker, the inimitable Mobuto Seko Seko—no, not that one—did what only he can do, which includes, in what may be a first, citing a Crooked Timber post at Gawker (the one I wrote with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch last summer.)

8. And last weekend, Chris Hayes had a lengthy roundtable on the issue (though I think most of the panelists, especially Josh Barro, got the free speech implications of the issue almost completely backward.)

But if you really want to understand what this all means, and why it happens, you should buy my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Part II—”Fear, American Style”—explains not only how it is that a liberal democracy can tolerate all this employer intimidation and coercion, but why and how it actually encourages, even requires, it. You also get to see one my favorite lines from Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” —”How could mere toil align thy choiring strings?”—put in the service of political analysis: to suggest how central work and the workplace are to the organization, coordination, and execution of political repression in America.

Update (11 pm)

For some idiotic reason, I forgot this excellent piece from Mark Ames on the same topic. I can’t think of anyone in the media who has devoted as much attention to this issue, throughout the years, both as a reporter and as an analyst. Mark was also one of the very few, from the very beginning, to take notice of my work on this issue, and he’s continually made sure to keep it right there in the spotlight.

Update (11:05 pm)

Steven Sherman, a FB friend, reminds me of this piece in Business Week, just one of several, on David Siegel’s instructions to his employees.

Update (11:07 pm)

Bill Moyers is on it!

The Kochs’ Libertarian Hypocrisy: It’s Worse Than You Think

15 Oct

In response to my last post, Gordon Lafer sent me an email:

Unsurprisingly, there’s a glaring contrast between the standards that the Kochs and other employers insist on for themselves—i.e., they should be maximally free to tell their employees who’s worth supporting for public office— and what they are trying to impose on workers’ organizations around the country.

For instance, Alabama’s Act 2010-761, an “ethics” law adopted in 2011 which banned payroll dues deductions for unions that engage in any type of political activity, also includes this:

Any person who is in the employment of…any…governmental agency, shall be on approved leave to engage in political action or the person shall be on personal time before or after work and on holidays.  It shall be unlawful for any officer or employee [of the government] to…coerce or attempt to coerce any subordinate employee to work in any capacity in any political campaign or cause.  Any person who violates this section shall be guilty of the crime of trading in public office and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined or sentenced, or both…

The law defines “political activity” very broadly, to include: “engaging in… any form of political communication, including communications which mention the name of a political candidate.”

So…school teachers can’t talk to each other about which candidate their union endorsed, or who attacked teachers’ rights, when they’re on lunch break or in the break room or pissing in the men’s room, without fear of fine and imprisonment.  And certainly an administrator or senior teacher can’t tell junior teachers that they hope they’ll be out there at the rally in support of school funding.

When it comes to public employees mobilizing around politics, the law upholds a very strict standard.  But in the private sector, supervisors and owners telling their dependent subordinates how they should vote—which in pre-Citizens United law was treated as implicitly coercive because it would dissuade employees from wearing buttons, sporting bumper stickers or being seen at events of the opposition candidate—is no problem.  Like Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see race,” the Kochs, the Chamber of Commerce, and ALEC “don’t see employer coercion.”

When I asked Gordon to clarify the Kochs’ role in the Alabama law, he wrote back:

The bill was co-sponsored by Alabama Senate Majority Leader James Waggoner, a member of ALEC.  It was trumpeted as a key bill by the National Right to Work Committee and supported by the Alabama Policy Institute, a local ALEC-affiliated think tank.  Both ALEC and the NRTW Committee receive financial support from the Koch brothers.  That’s all the smoking gun there is.  But the Kochs support things like this more explicitly in other states. Americans for Prosperity, the most clear-cut Koch vehicle, doesn’t have an Alabama chapter, but in Arizona was a key backer of another bill banning union dues deductions if those deductions were used for broadly construed “political” purposes.

The Koch Brothers Read Hayek

15 Oct

One of the things Hayek disliked about Social Security was that it gave the government—in this case, the agencies responsible for collecting and dispensing Social Security—a ready-made vehicle for the dissemination of propaganda. Particularly propaganda on behalf of Social Security.

It confers on the organization a power over minds that is in the same class with the powers of a totalitarian state which has the monopoly of the means of supplying information.

As good libertarians, the Koch brothers have naturally read their Hayek. Which is why they do stuff like this.

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 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.

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.

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.

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, informing 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) spokesperson Corey Caldwell.

When Libertarians Go to Work…

7 Mar

Yesterday, libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez announced that if the right-wing Koch brothers successfully take over the libertarian Cato Institute, where he works, he’ll resign. (According to most reports, the Kochs want Cato to be a more reliable instrument of the Republican cause.) Today, Sanchez criticizes progressives who can’t help noting the irony of libertarians complaining about wealthy people using their money to buy the kind of speech they like.

If Cato is Koch property, progressives say, doesn’t libertarian theory require that the Kochs be allowed to do with it what they will? Silly progressives, says Sanchez. Libertarians aren’t recommending that the Kochs, assuming they have legal title, not be allowed to do whatever they want with Cato. They’re simply saying it’s not a good idea for the Kochs to do whatever they want with Cato—to transform it from the republic of letters libertarians assume to be into the Republican propaganda mill the Kochs would like it to be.  Nothing in libertarian theory precludes libertarians from criticizing how the wealthy use their money.

I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.

If only Sanchez read his own writing as diligently as he reads his critics’. For what’s noteworthy in his “presignation” letter is not his complaints about the Kochs and what they’re trying to do. It’s the remarkable portrait he paints of himself and his workplace, how the coercion he imagines his new bosses wielding would threaten his autonomy and integrity, his very capacity to speak the truth as he sees it:

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

The mere thought that he might “be summoned to the top floor to explain why [he's] ‘off message'”—with the obvious implication that he’ll be fired if he can’t or if he does it again—is enough, for Sanchez, to compromise his ability to do his job as he understands it, which is to tell the truth. So threatening to his independence and autonomy is the future bosses’ power to fire him that Sanchez believes he must flee it—in advance of it even being exercised.

Ever since the nineteenth century, men and women of the left have looked upon this situation and seen coercion, an unjustified abridgment of freedom. (That’s partially what Marx meant when he spoke of the “despotism…of the workshop.”) Ever since they’ve made that claim, men and women of the libertarian right have said the left is wrong. For a great many reasons, one of them being that the men and women who take such jobs do so voluntarily, and that if they don’t like ‘em, they can leave ‘em.

Sanchez probably thinks he’s saying something like that—he doesn’t like what he imagines the Kochs will do, so he’ll quit—but notice how he describes his decision to leave:

As I said, I’m in no great hurry to leave a job I enjoy a lot—so I’m glad this will probably take a while to play out either way.  But since I’m relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids, I figure I may as well say up front that if the Kochs win this one, I will.

Sanchez’s youth, his lack of a mortgage and kids—all these material factors and conditions make his exercise of freedom less costly to him and thus more likely to occur. (Indeed, this afternoon he tweeted, “As I wrote, not in a huge hurry, but have fine options if it comes to that.”) Presumably someone not so unencumbered would not be so likely to exercise her freedom. That, it seems, is the clear implication—the presupposition, in fact—of his claim.

Ordinarily, most libertarians dismiss such talk as blurring the lines between negative liberty (the absence of coercion) and positive liberty (the capacity to act). The latter, they often add, is not a species of liberty at all, but something more akin to power or ability.

But clearly there is coercion in the workplace; Sanchez readily admits it. And clearly its reach—whether it touches the individual worker or not—is related to, indeed depends upon, that worker’s ability to act, in this case to quit. Again, Sanchez admits as much.

So if liberty is the absence of coercion, as many libertarians claim, and if the capacity to act—say, by enjoying material conditions that would free one of the costs that quitting might entail—limits the reach of that coercion, is it not the case that freedom is augmented when people’s ability to act is enhanced?

More to the point: is one’s individual freedom not increased by measures such as unemployment compensation, guaranteed health insurance, public pensions, higher wages, strong unions, state-funded or provided childcare—the whole panoply of social democracy that most libertarians see as not only irrelevant to but an infringement upon individual freedom?

In one sense, of course, the libertarians are right: such measures require taxation and redistribution, limitations on what people can do with their property, all of which do infringe upon some limited group of people’s freedom. But by providing to others some version of the freedom from material constraints that Sanchez already enjoys—state-sponsored childcare, for instance, being in one limited respect the financial inverse of not having children at all—such measures would also enhance the freedom of a great many more.

That, it seems to me, is the great divide between right and left: not that the former stands for freedom, while the latter stands for equality (or statism or whatever), but that the former stands for freedom for the few, while the latter stands for freedom for the many. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.” That’s why libertarians like Sanchez can sense so clearly the impending infringement of his freedom while remaining indifferent to the constraints of others.

It’s also why he can so easily toggle from sincere concern about the Kochs’ power at Cato to sneery condescension about the left’s critique of the Kochs’ power throughout the United States.

I don’t generally subscribe to the popular caricature of the Kochs as supervillains.  For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans.

It never seems to dawn on Sanchez that the very same money power that would lead him—a fairly independent minded writer, who feels free enough from economic constraints that he can quit a well-paying, enjoyable gig merely on suspicion that he might be forced to hold his tongue in the future—to second-guess himself at Cato might have equal if not more effect upon others. When the Kochs wield their money at Cato, that’s hegemony. But when they do it in Wisconsin, that’s democracy.

So when leftists smirk at Sanchez’s cri de coeur, it’s not because we think he’s being hypocritical or inconsistent. It’s because we think he’s telling the truth. Exactly as he sees it.

Update (Wednesday, March 7, 1:30 am)

James Grimmelman, a professor at New York Law School, has a brilliant post on what this little episode of libertarian practice means for the larger libertarian theory, specifically about contracts.

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