The Political Economy of Work: Election Edition

2 Nov

Over the past few weeks a number of stories have appeared about bosses seeking to influence the political views of their employees. For those who missed these stories, here is a brief recap of the main stories

  • A mailer sent to 45,000 employees of Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia Pacific telling them that a vote for Obama would might lead to job losses, and endorsing Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates for office
  • Murray Energy CEO, Robert Murray, forcing employees at his Century Mine to attend a Mitt Romney rally, without pay, and to appear in a pro-Mitt ad. And being ‘encouraged’ to sign up for automatic payroll deductions for the company PAC, with their donations recorded on a company spreadsheet.
  • A major mid-Western retailer, Menard’s, encouraging it’s 40,000 employees to take a civics course, on their free time, heavily skewed against Obama, and linking performance on the course to positive relations with management.
  • The realization that Citizens United makes all of these activities legal.

Numerous commentators have warned that these communications are threatening to the political liberty of workers. The threat that they might lose their job if they vote the wrong way, or if their political opinions are discovered, makes each of these cases something more than mere casual political communication by employer to employee. In a democracy, citizens should be free not only to vote as they like, but to express their views and participate in various political activities, without fearing that they might lose their job, be demoted, or be in some other way economically punished. These are compelling and valid arguments, but critics should not stop there.

The issue here is not just the corruption of political freedom by unequal economic power. It is also a matter of why this unequal power between employers and employees exists in the first place. After all, why are so many workers subject to the will of their employers in the first place? Isn’t that a problem in itself, regardless of whether their employers care about the political views of their employees? Indeed, one suspects that a major reason why employers want to influence the election is because they think they will be more secure in their power over their employees, and their business as a whole, if the vote goes their way. The election is a means. The end is increasing their control over economic life: by reducing the likelihood of regulation and taxation and by limiting the number of pro-labor politicians and officials.

In other words, what is at stake in these stories is not just the political freedom of citizens but the human freedom of workers. Desperation for a job, or to keep a job, or even for the raise that makes life a bit more affordable or lifts them out of the dead-end entry-level work, creates all kinds of dependency of employees on employers. On top of which, there is the familiar point that deciding what counts as the job, its satisfactory performance, and when it can change, is a complex and ongoing feature of work. No labor contract ever specifies all of the terms of employment. That is why there is always a question of who possesses the residual authority to make those judgments. This is no mere intellectual question, but a political struggle over power and authority. In our society, bossess possess most of that power, including whether a person’s political views, willingness to sit through a highly biased civics class, or willingness to contribute to a company’s PAC, count as important parts of the job. The greater the inequality of power between employers and employees with respect to who controls investment, hiring, firing, and the terms and conditions of employment, the more heavily exploited workers are. The ability to intimidate and tacitly threaten workers with respect to political activity is the tip of the iceberg, which extends downwards into the chillier, more intimate, waters of corporations collecting their own taxes, tracking and surveiling workers with iPods, prohibiting newspaper reading during lunch breaks, and regulating bathroom breaks. The paternalism and domination seeping into the electoral process doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It is the natural consequence of the daily relations of subordination and control that characterize wide swaths of the economy.


One Response to “The Political Economy of Work: Election Edition”

  1. Lee Jones (@DrLeeJones) November 5, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Agreed. A good post. It reminded me of CB McPherson’s “Possessive Individualism” and in particular his treatment of the Levellers. Their argument was that only independent men could be expected to exercise free political choices; as soon as a man became dependent on another for his subsistence, he was in thrall to that person, could not be considered free, and was therefore not worthy of exercising the franchise. Hence, they argued for everyone to be provided with their own means of subsistence (meaning a certain amount of land). Today, proletarianisation is now so advanced that hardly anyone is free by the Levellers’ standards. Yet the political repercussions of this economic unfreedom is only rarely discussed. The crude manifestations you cite above, whilst disturbing, are certainly not the only way in which this operates – as you point out.

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