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Can Employers Force Workers To Support Political Causes?
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A recent flap over the Cleveland Indians’ firing of a ballpark usher has free speech advocates crying foul. The usher alleges that he was â€œlet goâ€ because he didnâ€™t follow instructions to wear a sticker endorsing renewal of the county â€œsin tax.â€
The Indians deny that his dismissal had anything to do with their campaign in support of the tax, but it’s still brought back a question: Can employers force workers to support a particular candidate or cause?
In the final weeks leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused the Obama Administration of waging a â€œwar on coalâ€.
Romney appeared in an attack ad, flanked by grimy, helmeted miners from Ohio coal company Murray Energy.
In the ad, one of the miners said the presidentâ€™s energy agenda threatened the industry.
“I got two young grandsons, Iâ€™m scared for their future, let alone mine, I support Mitt Romneyâ€ he said.
As it turns out, some of the miners used as the backdrop for the ad say they were pressured to attend the Romney rally. The Obama Campaign shot back, with an ad of their own
â€œThey had to take the day off without pay,â€ says the narrator. â€œThat they took a roll call, and they had a list of who was there and who wasnâ€™t. And felt they wouldnâ€™t have a job if they did not attend.â€
A number of groups, including ProgressOhio, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) against Murray Energy.
They charged that the Ohio-based company made an illegal contribution to the Romney campaign by coercing the miners to attend the Romney event without pay.
The company says the allegations are baseless.
The FEC wonâ€™t comment. The matter is still pending.
But is the issue all that complicated? If itâ€™s true the miners were taken off the job to essentially cheer and pose with Romneyâ€”and they werenâ€™t all Romney backersâ€”doesnâ€™t that violate their guaranteed Rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association?
â€œThat happens all the time. People are very quick to think their constitutional rights are offended,â€ says Joann Brant. Sheâ€™s a law professor at Ohio Northern University.
If weâ€™re dealing with private employees, they donâ€™tâ€™ have constitutional rights. By and large, people who work for private employers are what we call â€˜employees at willâ€™. They can resign for any reason, the employer can fire them for any reason. Public employees have much more significant constitutional rights.
So, if you work in the private sector and a boss mandates that â€œHillary Clinton in 2016â€ t-shirts be worn in the office, they can do that regardless of your political preferences.
Likewise, if your boss orders you to appear at a John Kasich campaign rally in the workplaceâ€¦even though you are a Democrat— they can do that.
Camille Hebert who teaches at Ohio State Universityâ€™s Moritz College of Lawâ€¦agrees, that is the law. Still, she says, there are cases where private employees whoâ€™ve been fired have taken legal action.
â€œYou could have the argument that discharging someone for their political beliefs – or their failure to adopt the employerâ€™s political beliefs would be a violation of public policy,â€ says Hebert. â€œBut generally those claims havenâ€™t been very successful in Ohio.â€
There was an Ohio law that prevented employers from forcing workers to display or proclaim political endorsements, but it was repealed more than 40 years ago.
As surprising as this form of employer coercion might be, itâ€™s a predicament employees rarely find themselves in.
And thereâ€™s a good reason for that.
As Russ Roberts, a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, says â€¦itâ€™s bad for morale.
Most private employers donâ€™t take a political stance on anything, because they donâ€™t want to alienate customers and they donâ€™t want to alienate employees.