Shortly before President Trump visited the Royal Dutch Shell plant in Pennsylvania on Aug. 13, thousands of workers received a memo from Shell about the company’s expectations of the event. The memo informed them that their attendance at the speech was “not mandatory,” but that if they did not scan in to work that morning, they would not receive their pay for the day. They also would lose eligibility to receive the 16 hours of overtime pay built into their workweek.
Although some workers chose not to attend, Trump spoke before a warehouse packed with Shell employees. At one point, the president turned to the union leaders and demanded that they support his reelection campaign. Trump told the workers that if the leaders refused to back him, they should “vote them the hell out of office because they’re not doing their job.”
A Shell spokesperson explained to Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who broke the story, that the company considered Trump’s visit a paid training day with a “guest speaker who happened to be the president.” He claimed that it was no different from when athletes and NASCAR drivers came to “share inspirational messages.” In this case, the message was that their employer favored the president’s reelection, and that they should select their union leaders based on their enthusiasm for his campaign.
Shell’s actions were reminiscent of employer coercion in the Gilded Age
By threatening its workers with the loss of their wages unless they attended Trump’s speech, Shell made corporate coercion a nationwide concern for the first time in more than 100 years. The years between 1873 and 1896 involved massive industrial expansion, wage workers teetering close to economic disaster and close political competition. Workers depended on employers for wages in a precarious labor market, and corporations recognized that they could profit by providing an elected official’s margin of victory.
Coercion became epidemic. Bosses gave working people across the nation an impossible choice: their job or their vote. Bosses either threatened to discharge their employees for voting the wrong way — printing political messages on employees’ pay envelopes was common — or they tried to physically control their votes on Election Day. Because there was no secret ballot, bosses could go with their employees to the polls and watch how they voted. For example, in 1878, the son of the owner of the North Star Woolen Mill in Minneapolis marched workers to the polls, handed them pre-folded ballots and explained that they would “lose their means of subsistence” if they refused to vote the way he demanded. These methods were especially effective in company towns, where employers enjoyed autocratic power not just over the workplace but also over housing, stores and polling places.
Economic coercion spread so widely that many Americans worried that it would undermine democracy or industrial capitalism. Politicians feared a socialist coup; employers were concerned that the government would nationalize their industries; and workers worried they would lose their means of subsistence if they spoke up or defied orders.
Enter the secret ballot
Both parties benefited from this kind of electoral coercion. According to congressional records, an out-of-work coal miner named James Hickey explained in an 1879 letter to Congress that "in strong Democratic districts the Erie Company was Democratic, in strong Republican districts Republican, and in doubtful districts both Democratic and Republican.” It took a coalition of socialist politicians, labor leaders and reform advocates lobbying for years to force reluctant politicians to make the coercion stop by introducing the secret ballot.
Voting in secret broke the chain of information that connected employers to their employees’ votes. Enacted in a rush of legislation in most states between 1888 and 1892, the secret ballot made employer coercion nearly impossible in most of the nation. The exception was in the Jim Crow South, where white employers used their economic dominance, violence and disenfranchisement to prevent African Americans from voting.
We’re living in the world that Citizens United made
Since then, coercion has occasionally reappeared as a national issue — most notably, when bosses forced employees to attend “money schools” during their lunch breaks to teach them about the virtues of the gold standard before the 1896 presidential election. Business leaders angry about the New Deal warned employees that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936 could lead to layoffs. But ballot secrecy was such an effective protection against coercion that it became extremely rare and politically illegitimate for corporations to attempt to influence the political behavior of their employees.
That protection has eroded over time. In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling not only unlocked unlimited corporate money for political purposes, it also granted corporations legal cover to make political statements to their employees. Under Citizens United, Shell can argue that it was not illegally coercing its employees, but reallocating a company resource (employee time/salary) to a legitimate political purpose.
The Shell speech is only the most recent example of a corporation exploiting the loophole that Citizens United created to attempt to influence workers’ political opinions. In 2012, a Koch Industries subsidiary distributed an informational packet to its employees strongly encouraging them to vote for Republican candidates, as did several other corporations. In 2018, the adventure clothing company Patagonia endorsed two Democratic Senate candidates.
Ballot secrecy remains a potent protection against employers coercing their employees’ votes. But other forms of political expression — attending rallies, canvassing voters, writing petitions — do not have that level of protection. By re-legitimizing direct corporate involvement in politics, Citizens United has greatly increased the potential that corporations will seek to control the political behavior of their employees.
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The Gilded Age crisis of economic intimidation was halted by protective legislation and transformed attitudes about acceptable corporate behavior. Preventing economic intimidation from again becoming endemic may require revitalized anti-intimidation laws and an organizing effort to again stigmatize corporate coercion as illegitimate.
Gideon Cohn-Postar is a PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University and a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His dissertation examines the nature and policy legacy of economic voter intimidation in the late 19th-century United States.