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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.
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 technologye-mail monitoring, Web tracking, and powerful databaseshas 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 originbut 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 reportscompany 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."
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."
But the perceived pressure to back an employer's political agenda can be intense. Marsha Woodbury, an ethicist with the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, says technology has changed the nature of workplace propaganda. If you hang a campaign sign over the watercooler, she says, you can't know who votes your way. When you ask people to call a toll-free number and give their names, you can. "That just sounds incredible to me, especially for something political," says Woodbury, who also works as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "With your job, you would hope that would be a zone where religion and all that stuff would be out of it."
What's more, Woodbury says, the typical guidelines for using company e-mail focus only on what employees may and may not doeverything from swapping dirty jokes to sending personal noteswith no mention of whether the bosses are allowed to spam their own underlings.
That point isn't lost on the New York Life staffer who talked to the Voice. "They were targeting employees," says the insider. "I just thought that was unfair."