Wal-Mart Exercises Its Political Rights—Employees Be Damned

After the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Wal-Mart has been holding meetings with its supervisors warning of the terrible consequences that would follow a Democratic victory in November—specifically, a law that would make it easier for unions to organize—the labor and progressive communities have, justifiably, been up in arms. Groups such as American Rights At Work are calling on the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the giant retailer broke the law in its implicit electioneering.

Whether or not the company violated election laws, it is unfortunately clear that Wal-Mart’s actions were not contrary to employment law. As Bruce Barry details in his book Speechless, the Bill of Rights does not apply inside the factory gate. With the exception of public employees, who retain their First Amendment rights while on the job, Americans generally do not have political freedom in the workplace.

What this means is, first, that workers have no recourse if they are disciplined or fired for expressing their political views. This became clear in 2004, when an Alabama woman sporting a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on her car was terminated by her employer, an ardent Bush supporter.

It also means that a company can, as Wal-Mart is apparently doing, seek to impose its political views on its employees by forcing them to attend meetings on company time during which those views are emphatically expressed. These sessions are analogous to the captive anti-union meetings that employers use during organizing drives—a practice that the legislation Wal-Mart dreads, the Employee Free Choice Act, would greatly neutralize.

Wal-Mart’s workplace electioneering came to light shortly after Ronald Meisburg, General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, issued a memorandum clarifying, among other things, that employers can discipline workers for engaging in political advocacy that does not have “a direct nexus to employee working conditions,” even when it occurs away from the workplace. Meisburg noted, for instance, that nurses who informed state agencies about inadequate staffing levels were protected but those who complained about inadequate patient care were not.

The main problem with Wal-Mart’s anti-Democratic meetings is not that they broke the law, but rather that they make it clear what is wrong with the law: the denial of the rights of private-sector workers to express themselves politically or to organize unions without intimidation. The Employee Free Choice Act would immediately address the organizing issue and ultimately would help with political rights as well, since a union contract would make it much more difficult for an employer to get rid of a worker for ideological reasons. These are the real consequences that Wal-Mart so desperately wants to prevent.