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U.S. companies are pressuring their workers on how to lobby and vote

The U.S. Capitol in Washington in December. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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U.S. businesses are cultivating a new political resource: their own workers. When Republicans wrote their tax bill late last year, many companies pushed their employees to support specific policy provisions and to let their lawmakers in Washington know. UPS, for instance, hosted employee town halls with Republican politicians to advocate for the bill. Vice President  Pence even urged a group of CEOs to visit their companies’ cafeterias to get employees to help lobby for the bill.

Episodes like this one have become much more common across companies large and small in recent years. Why do businesses try to turn their employees into lobbyists? And does it work?

Here’s how I did my research

In my new book, “Politics at Work: How Companies Turn their Workers into Lobbyists,” I examine employers’ relatively new — and increasing — efforts to rally their workers on behalf of policies and candidates that companies support. According to one business association’s polling, since 2000, nearly four times as many employees are hearing about politics from their bosses. In my own review of corporate activities, I found that until the late 1990s and early 2000s, companies didn’t commonly try to recruit employees as voters and lobbyists.

That has changed. Roughly a quarter of U.S. employees say that they have heard about politics from their bosses. That’s what I learned from a nationally representative telephone poll of 1,032 non-self-employed U.S. workers, which I commissioned for the book and which was conducted by SSRS Inc. in April 2015. The survey involved live interviews using random-digit dialing of landlines and cellphones; the response rate was 6.7 percent.

I found similarly consistent results in interviews with more than 30 corporate executives from randomly selected large U.S. companies and national business associations involved in government affairs, as well as from a survey of more than 500 business leaders (both conducted over the course of 2015). In the interviews, corporate managers said mobilizing employees offered a lot of “bang for the buck.” On the survey, responding managers ranked mobilizing employees as being about as effective at changing policy as hiring lobbyists — and even more effective than making PAC contributions.  Among managers at businesses with PACs, 17 percent ranked PAC contributions as their most effective strategy; 25 percent of managers ranked mobilization of employees as being most effective.) The bottom line from both data sources: Managers said mobilizing employees was now part of many large U.S. companies’ core political strategies.

So why do companies use workers for political ends?

First, as political scientists such as Lee Drutman, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, and David Vogel have described, businesses today have more to gain (or lose) than they did before from what government does and does not do. A wave of government regulation in the 1960s and 1970s brought big potential costs to many U.S. industries. As a result, businesses have been looking for new opportunities to shape politics — including mobilizing workers.

Second, the costs of communicating with workers about politics have declined. Managers can use software platforms to send requests to workers — and even to track whether those workers take the suggested actions. Nor do employers have to worry about competing messages in the workplace. A generation ago, unions might have been delivering opposing messages on the same policies or candidates. But the private-sector labor movement has collapsed, making that much less likely today.

Third, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) and other trade groups have been pushing executives to recruit their employees into politics. Beginning in 2000, BIPAC and other groups taught corporate managers that mobilizing workers was legal, easy and could yield big political payoffs.

What’s in it for business?

Sometimes managers are trying to elect a particular candidate. During the 2012 election, Wynn Resorts distributed a voter guide advocating for candidates for state and federal office who would support the firm and the gambling industry. Businesses I interviewed also encourage workers to vote for particular state judges — since an unfriendly bench can impose big costs on companies.

Managers also try to cultivate relationships with politicians to draw on in future political contests. A manager at one household-goods manufacturer told me that they would bring politicians into their plants and “give them rallies and that kind of support,” including asking employees to back their campaigns. Later, the company reminded those politicians of that support during a 2015 debate over reauthorizing presidential trade negotiation powers, which the company strongly supported.

Other times, managers try to reorient workers’ thinking about politics more generally. The home improvement chain Menards, for instance, encouraged its 40,000 employees to take an at-home civics course that stresses free-market economics, including the downsides of taxes, minimum wages, and social welfare programs.

Do these efforts pay off?

Examples abound of successful company efforts. In 2014, oil giants ConocoPhillips, BP and ExxonMobil mobilized their workers in a battle over an Alaskan ballot measure to repeal tax cuts on oil production. The companies held mandatory employee meetings, posted signs, sent companywide emails and promoted websites urging workers to vote in favor of the tax cuts. I present evidence in the book that the repeal measure may have failed in part because of these mobilization drives.

Employers can also change how congressional legislative aides understand public attitudes, simply by urging their employees to contact their members of Congress. In 2016, Matto Mildenberger, Leah Stokes and I conducted an online survey of 101 senior congressional aides. These staffers reported taking employee letters very seriously when assessing constituents’ opinions.

Finally, there’s evidence that, when companies endorse candidates, employees tend to contribute to those same politicians. In the 2014 elections, after BIPAC released its endorsements, employees at BIPAC companies gave twice as much, on average, to those congressional candidates than they did before the endorsements were made (according to disclosed federal contribution data). Other researchers have found similar results in previous elections, too.

A new form of business power

Businesses, like other political interests, don’t always get what they want. But this new grass-roots game gives businesses a greater edge in elections and legislative debates. To understand why businesses seem to get what they want so often in politics, we need to look beyond campaign contributions or lobbying and consider why and when employers mobilize their workers.

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, the author of “Politics at Work” (Oxford University, 2018), and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.