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Government and Politics

Bosses can dictate politics in Ohio workplaces, but usually choose not to
Free speech rights don't include the factory floor

Private employers have a lot of leeway when it comes to political speech.
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In The Region:

A recent flap over the Cleveland Indians' firing of a ballpark usher had free-speech advocates crying foul. The usher says he was “let go” because he didn’t follow instructions to wear a sticker endorsing renewal of the county sin tax. The Indians deny his dismissal had anything to do with their support of the tax.

For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN’s Brian Bull reports that such questions of political speech and terms of employment have come up before.

LISTEN: The line between free speech and a job

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In the final weeks leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney accused the Obama Administration of waging a “war on coal.” 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 president’s energy agenda threatened the industry. 

“I got two young grandsons, I’m scared for their future, let alone mine….I support Mitt Romney,” the ad 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 its own.

“They had to take the day off without pay. … and they had a list of who was there and who wasn’t.  And felt they wouldn’t have a job if they did not attend.”

Groups, including ProgressOhio, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission 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 won’t comment.  And the matter is still pending.

Free speech vs. a job
But is the issue all that complicated?


If it’s true the miners were taken off the job to essentially cheer and pose with Romney -- and they weren’t all Romney backers -- doesn’t that violate their guaranteed Rights of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association?

 “That happens all the time, says Joann Brant, a law professor at Ohio Northern University. “People are very quick to think their constitutional rights are offended.”

But “if we’re dealing with private employees, they don’t’ have constitutional rights. By and large, people who work for private employers are what we call employees at will. They can resign for any reason, the employer can fire them for any reason. Public employees have much more significant constitutional rights.”

What the boss says, goes – usually
So, if you work in the private sector and a boss mandates that “Hillary Clinton in 2016” 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 workplace -- even though you are a Democrat – he or she can do that. 

Camille Hebert who teaches at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law agrees, that is the law. 

Still, she says, there are cases where private employees who’ve been fired have taken legal action.

“You could have the argument that discharging someone for their political beliefs -- or their failure to adopt the employer’s political beliefs -- would be a violation of public policy. But generally those claims haven’t been very successful in Ohio.”

A protection repealed decades ago
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, it’s a predicament employees rarely find themselves in. 

That’s because, as Russ Roberts, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says, it’s bad for morale. 

“Most private employers don’t take a political stance on anything, because they don’t want to alienate customers and they don’t want to alienate employees.”


Listener Comments:

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) defines workers' rights in the private sector workplace. If workers take collective action against such overt political pressure and are discharged, they might have good grounds for an unfair labor practice complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Workers do have rights in the workplace, including rights to speak collectively against such actions. Workers are not powerless.

Posted by: A. Wobbly (Akron) on May 26, 2014 10:05AM
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