Koch Derangement Syndrome at In These Times

(That title is a bit dog-bites-man, isn’t it?)

I’m amused, puzzled, and a bit angered by the stupidity of lefty/liberal/progressive hatred for all things Koch. Mike Elk’s ridiculous piece at In These Times is a particularly confused example:

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.

Controlling their workers votes? That sounds bad. Illegal even. How are they doing that?

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.

Elk goes on to quote from the mailing:

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 other words those dastardly Koch brothers are trying to “control their workers’ votes” by talking to them. In this case, by talking to them about political issues — subsidies, regulations, disruption of free trade — that may directly hurt Koch Industries and therefore put employees out of work. The bastards! How dare they keep employees informed about the business environment!

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.

This is what the liberal reaction to the Citizens United ruling comes down to: Fear that business leaders will be able to talk about politics with their employees.

(Note the all-too-typical hypocrisy: In These Times is a progressive magazine that exists entirely to express political opinions. You can be damned sure that its employees know their bosses’ politics.)

Elk isn’t just concerned about what the Koch’s are saying, he also accuses them of trying to suppress their employees’ freedom of speech.

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.

And? And? …Well, nothing, really. If anything bad ever happened to those workers, Elk doesn’t mention it. But, you know, they were worried, so therefore the Koch brothers are evil.

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.”

So, he’s in fear for his job…and yet he feels free to say things like this to reporters. And as far as Elk tells us, nothing happened to him either.

Social media policies are a modern extension of traditional policies controlling who speaks on the company’s behalf. Companies can get in a lot of trouble if random employees start making promises to customers that they’re not authorized to make, or making statements to the press about sensitive internal matters. Companies also don’t want employees doing things that conflict with the company’s business goals and the purpose of the employee’s job. If you sell cars for Lexus by day, you shouldn’t be badmouthing Lexus cars by night on your Facebook page, and you especially shouldn’t be calling your customers idiots for buying them. That’s why employee handbooks include stuff like this.

(This gets more complicated when the issue is one of public policy — can BP employees complain about global warming? — and it can be downright illegal when companies try to keep employees from talking about working conditions, because that would interfere withthe ability of workers to organize and form unions. Elk tells us that the union has two NLRB complaints against the company’s social media policy, so it’s not implausible that that policy goes too far, some of them do. Koch industries could well be doing something wrong if they are trying to suppress such speech.)

Elk also mentions a possible case of retaliation that sounds plausible:

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…

That doesn’t sound very nice. Then again, if you complain to the news media about your employer’s policies, perhaps they are justified in not giving you a job where you would have to implement those policies.

So far, this is all just standard-issue progressive Koch-hate, possibly with some justification if there has been retaliation over labor issues. But then Elk veers off into deranged political hackery:

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.

Provisions like this are also pretty common in employment policies, for exactly the reason given: Conflict of interest. Is Koch Industries supposed to have people working for it that are also holding offices where they can work against it? This is not just about Koch protecting its interests, it’s also about obeying laws about campaign finance and public corruption and avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

You can see how crazy this is. Elk started his article by complaining that the evil Koch brothers were having too much influence over the political process, but he ends it by complaining that Koch Industries doesn’t make it easy enough for its employees should run for elected offices. Obviously, Elk is only imagining non-management employees running for office, people who he assumes are good progressive pro-labor folks like himself. If some Koch VP got elected, people like Elk would be the first ones screaming that he’s a stooge for the Koch brothers.

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