By Gregory B. Hladky
5:40 PM EDT, October 30, 2012
Billionaire right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch and other top CEOs are warning tens of thousands of their employees that layoffs are coming if President Barack Obama wins reelection in November.
Theoretically, Connecticut is one of the states with laws on the books to prosecute that sort of voter intimidation. But labor lawyers and some union officials warn more protections are needed, especially in this new era of Super Pacs, unlimited special interest spending, and the growing power of employers to influence elections.
"There is a sort of web of protection in Connecticut," says Dan Livingston, one of this state's top labor attorneys. "But it is an imperfect web."
Livingston believes the phrasing of the Koch brother's warning letter to 45,000 of their Georgia Pacific employees about possible layoffs is just vague enough that there's "a very good chance that employer would skate through" in Connecticut without prosecution.
Georgia Pacific has a subsidiary in Norwalk and another operation in Manchester. But state elections officials say they're not aware of any complaints about workers in Connecticut getting the Koch brothers' anti-Obama "voter information packet."
The Oct. 1 packet included a letter from Koch Industries President Dave Robertson stating that "many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences" if Obama is reelected.
Earlier this month, the president of Westgate Resorts sent out an e-mail to his employees warning of the consequences of an Obama election to everyone at his Florida-based company. "If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company… This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone," multi-millionaire David Siegel told his workers.
Westgate Resorts doesn't appear to have any operations in Connecticut.
State House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. says an employer has every right to "share [with workers] what he or she believes would be the consequences of an election."
Cafero says workers are protected from retaliation by the secret ballot: "They can vote any way they want… and how does the employer know how that worker voted?"
He does agree that the law should prohibit employers from using intimidation to get workers to vote one way or another. "Threats, even if veiled, shouldn't be allowed," says Cafero. "The whole notion of an employer intimidating their employees… is wrong."
Here's the section of Connecticut's law on voter intimidation by employers. The penalties were upped in 2012 to make a violation a Class D felony punishable by 1-5 years in prison and fines of up to $5,000:
Any person who (1) during the period that is sixty days or less prior to any election, municipal meeting, school district election or school district meeting, attempts to influence the vote of any operative in his or her employ by threats of withholding employment from him or her or by promises of employment, or (2) dismisses any operative from his or her employment on account of any vote he or she has given at any such election or meeting shall be guilty of a class D felony.
Av Harris, a spokesman for Connecticut's Secretary of the State's Office, says the law is clear. He says the opinion of the state's election lawyers is that a CEO's warnings about layoffs if Obama is elected would be "illegal and there are some pretty serious penalties."
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill says Connecticut's law has never been used and so it's hard to tell if it would work in cases like this. "Since it hasn't been tested, I'm not sure," she says of the issue of making the law even stronger. "I would hope it would be strong enough."
Another section of Connecticut law prohibits an employer from punishing or firing a worker for exercising his or her First Amendment rights, or freedom of speech.
But there are loopholes.
To start with, if an employer made a threat to lay off or fire workers 61 days before an election, it would apparently be legal. As a criminal statute, Connecticut prosecutors would be required to prove a threat "beyond a reasonable doubt," which would leave the Koch brothers plenty of wiggle room.
Other states have tougher laws.
Wisconsin's statute, for instance, covers not only direct voter intimidation but also implied "threat intended to influence the political opinions or actions of the employees."
"That's much stronger language than Connecticut's law," says Livingston.
John Olsen, head of Connecticut AFL-CIO, is ripshit at the attitude of corporate leaders trying to influence the votes of their workers through intimidation. "I'll tell you one thing," he fumes, "it's un-American!"
"They have the money, they have the power, and it's un-American to try and suppress votes this way," he insists.
Olsen believes Connecticut needs to make it's law against worker intimidation much tougher.
Labor leaders continue to push for a law to protect "captive audiences" of employees from being subjected to the political or religious propaganda of their employers.
Right now, it's perfectly legal for your bosses to order to you sit through hours of lectures or political ads, whether it's for some fundamentalist religious sect or their favorite presidential candidate.
The state House this year passed a bill to protect employees from that sort of employer-required propaganda but it never made it through the state Senate.
Cafero says he opposed that legislation because it seemed way too broad and covered far more than just political or religious issues. He adds he would support a bill that focused strictly on those kinds of propaganda.
And Cafero would "be open to looking at" a stronger state law to deal with the kind of implied threats and intimidation that seem to be at the heart of the letters and e-mails some CEOs like the Kochs have been sending out this year.
Livingston is convinced the state needs to act, particularly at a point in our economic history when so many people are so afraid of losing their jobs.
"One of the great risks is this could be a very effective threat… but something that would not be prosecuted in the courts," Livingston warns.
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