Corporate America has discovered a new breed of lobbyist: its own employees. Instead of relying solely on professional lobbyists, several large companies—including Arco, Hallmark, and Pfizer—are encouraging their employees to meet, write to, and generally hobnob with their elected representatives. The goal, in the words of one company spokeswoman, is to cultivate a sizable group of "people who will go to bat" for their employers.
But the sight of big business doing the kind of grassroots lobbying that public interest groups have been doing for years incenses people like Ralph Nader. He claims the tactic is unfair and distorts the political process by making campaigns of letter writing, phone calling, etc., look like "spontaneous expression." Too bad he doesn't see the process for what it is: an inducement for employees to take an interest in issues that directly affect their livelihood and to speak out on those issues for themselves.
Nader takes the worker-as-helpless-pawn view, which envisions a company forcing its employees to lobby for anything it wants. But employees are people—thinking people, in fact, who have to be convinced that what they're asked to support is good, or at least not harmful to them—as consumers and taxpayers as well as workers. Any company that tries to punish an employee for not toeing its political line will forever alienate that employee and expose itself to one hell of a discrimination suit.
And if Nader opposes grassroots lobbying by all organizations that have power over workers, he's got quite a battle on his hands: grassroots lobbying "has paid such handsome dividends," according to the Los Angeles Times, "that even labor unions, traditionally far ahead of companies in getting behind political candidates, have begun to train their members on how to be part-time lobbyists."
It's interesting that Nader can say with a straight face that he opposes grassroots activities by large corporations. For years he's been trying to require utilities and other companies to stuff their bills with flyers encouraging customers to join consumer advocacy groups. Corporations, he argues, have a moral responsibility to educate the public and should be forced to do free advertising for him.
Maybe Nader is afraid employees might take points of view he thinks are wrong. For example, Nationwide Insurance recently urged its 22,000 employees and agents to shower Congress with letters opposing legislation that would mandate leave time for births, adoptions, and family illnesses. An estimated 500 employees responded in the first week alone.
We Americans are told all our lives to care about politics. "You can make a difference," say our parents, our civics teachers—and our employers. We shouldn't criticize them for encouraging us to put our powers to use.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Minding Their Own Business".