Yes, Boss

New York Life Turns Employees Into Lobbyists for China Trade

The message New York Life Insurance e-mailed employees last month was clear: Call your congressional representatives and tell them you support normalizing trade relations with China.

"With just one week until the vote, I am asking you once again to take action to help pass this very important trade bill," read the e-mail, sent with the return address of chairman Sy Sternberg. "If enacted, New York Life will benefit directly from greater access to the Chinese life insurance market."

This was just the latest in a series of pressure tactics from the company. It had already used employee home addresses to generate lists of lawmakers individual workers should contact, and it had asked them to visit a Web site with tips for writing letters. At least one employee says that with each step, suspicion grew among the rank and file that the brass would keep a record of who responded to the electronic pitches.

NY Life to employees: "I am asking you once again to take action to help pass this very important trade bill."
illustration by Limbert Fabian
NY Life to employees: "I am asking you once again to take action to help pass this very important trade bill."

Now the company wanted them to call an industry hot line, which would deliver a constituent form letter to Washington. "CALL THE TOLL-FREE NUMBER, 1-800-842-3030, to send telegrams to your representative," the letter said. "When you call the number, you will be asked to provide your name, address, and company name."

The request for employees to identify themselves directly may have tipped the balance from suspicion to outrage. "Between the phone number and clicking on the links, they can find out very easily" how people responded, says the New York Life worker, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. "I thought it was unethical."

Unethical, perhaps, but not unusual.

Though employers have long asked workers to donate money in support of candidates and issues, in the last decade new technology—e-mail monitoring, Web tracking, and powerful databases—has given executives the ability to determine exactly how cooperative each worker has been. This time, New York Life used its resources to ask staff to support the China trade bill, which was passed last month by the House after an intensive lobbying effort and is awaiting likely passage in the Senate. For New York Life, which last year claimed nearly $10.6 billion in operating revenue, the stakes are high; some observers have speculated that, by capturing just 1 percent of the Chinese market, the insurer could double its customer base.

New York Life's tactics are perfectly legal. The Federal Election Commission, which regulates electoral spending, prohibits companies from threatening to dismiss workers who fail to donate to political causes, but places no restrictions on pressuring employees to adopt political beliefs. Likewise, labor law forbids businesses from firing workers on the grounds of race, sex, religion, handicap, or national origin—but leaves the issue of political leanings untouched.

"Employers have the right to ask employees to do things, unless it's something dangerous, like 'Stand in front of that truck,' " says Department of Labor spokesperson Randy Wilson. And when it comes to asking workers to back bills the boss favors, "the official government stance is that the law is silent."

As a result, the political playing field is wide-open for employers. New York Life was just one of many corporations that appear to have asked workers to support the China trade bill, says Holly Bailey of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group specializing in lobbying, donations, and campaign spending. Already a big spender on Capitol Hill, New York Life has begun looking a little closer to home, making use of an asset that doesn't have to be detailed in campaign-finance reports—company workers. By having staff make calls and write letters as constituents, a business not only escapes paperwork and saves money but also garners more attention from lawmakers, who need the support of people who live in their home districts.

"Increasingly, companies are not asking employees to make contributions, but certainly they're asking them to take on a more politically active role," Bailey says. "It's essentially walking the line. There are ethical questions about it."

The insurance industry disagrees. Herb Perone, a spokesperson for the American Council of Life Insurers, says his group's 400-plus corporate members—including New York Life—merely try to teach workers about important policy issues. The council provides a Web site with advice on contacting legislators and a toll-free number for sending them telegrams. Whether workers get involved is strictly their choice. He admits the council could generate a detailed list of people who call its 800 number, but says companies ask only for general reports on how big a response they're getting. He wasn't sure whether the council has a privacy policy to protect the identities of those who opt in or out, but he argues the issue is moot because "basically this is a situation where it's all voluntary anyway."

New York Life has lobbied employees before. In February, it asked them to contact Congress and oppose a proposed tax on annuities, life insurance, and employee business. Corporate spokesperson Zsoka Taylor declined an interview, saying only that the company does not track whether workers respond to its political overtures. Taylor did, however, release a written statement. "New York Life makes it a practice to keep its employees informed of the company's positions on public policy issues that are important to it," read the release. "The company has found internal e-mail to be a useful tool to convey this information. E-mail allows employees to receive background information on an issue as well as information on how to contact their member of Congress should they choose to do so. Naturally, employees can choose to support or not support the company's position."

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