Sunday, October 24, 2004

Experts: Leave politics at home



By James McNair
Enquirer staff writer

Office politics - which typically takes the form of backstabbing by ambition-driven employees - has taken a partisan twist during the hotly contested presidential campaign of 2004.

At some companies across the region, supporters of Democratic challenger John Kerry are resisting lobbying attempts by Bush-backing bosses and co-workers. Meanwhile, defenders of the president are shrugging off their colleagues' sales pitches on behalf of the Massachusetts senator.

The problem is, the sparring can sometimes go beyond words - damaging relationships among workers, supervisors and their companies.

A political clash at work ended in unemployment at an Alabama factory last month, where a worker was fired for refusing to remove a Kerry sticker from her car. In other places, the pressure takes a different form. For example, the 3,000 or so officers of Fifth Third Bancorp are solicited for contributions that go mostly to Republican candidates - regardless of their personal political leanings.

So it goes in the politically charged workplace of 2004. With nine days until Election Day, workers are sporting pins on the job, slapping on bumper stickers for all to see in the company parking lot and talking about rallies taking place in Greater Cincinnati.

The presidential fervor is having an impact that sometimes pits employee against employee.

Dave Elliott, who works for the city of Hamilton's Finance Department, says he remains a Bush supporter despite exhortations by his boss for the Democratic platform. The 17-year city employee is stationed at the city garage, where he said he is surrounded by union members, some pro-Kerry, but many pro-Bush.

"It's just come to the point that politics is not spoken about. That's the only way we're going to be able to work together," Elliott said. "I feel politics has no business there. Who I vote for and how I feel is my business."

Deb Keary, a director for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., said the boiling over of political views at work will subside after Nov. 2. Still, she said, she winces at tales of political intemperance on the job.

"We feel there's no place for politics in the workplace," Keary said.

"Politics is like religion: It is intensely personal," she said. "While you may share your beliefs with others, you do not force them on others. And certainly no one's boss should be trying to sway his workers one way or another."

Fired for Kerry sticker

One of the strongest intrusions of politics into the workplace this year took place last month at Enviromate, a cellulose insulation company in Moulton, Ala.

Lynne Gobbell operated a bagging machine at the plant, clocking 50 to 60 hours a week. On Sept. 9, her manager allegedly told her the company's owner, who supports President Bush's re-election, wanted the Kerry sticker removed from her Chevrolet Lumina - or else she would be fired. Gobbell, 41, wanted to hear it first hand. She went into the owner's office, but was ordered to leave. Later, her manager broke the bad news.

"He said, 'I reckon you're fired. You could either work for him or John Kerry,' " Gobbell told the Decatur (Ala.) Daily News. "

Gobbell balked and was terminated.

Five days after she was fired, Gobbell received a phone call from Kerry. He praised her for standing up for her beliefs. Then he flew her to a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., pecked her on the cheek in front of a cheering crowd and gave her a job on his campaign staff. She works at the Democratic Party headquarters in Decatur.

Giving to PACs

At Fifth Third Bancorp, parent of Cincinnati's biggest bank, company officers are asked to contribute to the campaign coffers of selected candidates.

Fifth Third isn't the only corporation that does this, but it is a seasoned practitioner. The company formed a political action committee in 1993. Every year, Fifth Third - in consultation with its executives in several states - raises money for candidates with pro-business and pro-banking agendas.

Last year, the PAC gave $295,000 to federal, state and local candidates, organizations and tax levy campaigns. It has donated $261,000 through the first nine months of 2004.

In the current two-year federal election cycle, Fifth Third has served as a GOP fund-raising machine.

Of the $70,790 donated to federal campaigns in 2003 and 2004, 95 percent went to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group in Washington, D.C. The bank's PAC gave $5,000 to Bush, $10,000 to U.S. House candidate Geoff Davis, $3,500 to Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, $3,000 to Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning - and nothing to their Democratic opponents.

Why the Republican tilt? Tom Ruebel, the bank's director of government affairs, said Republicans tend to be more aligned with banking industry interests - and they hold most positions of power.

"With limited resources, we need to target where the money goes," Ruebel said. Republicans have "controlled Congress since 1995, and the majority party is going to set the agenda and will have the committee chairmanships. We're entrusted with these employees' dollars and we try to do the best we can with it."

Some employees bristle, but Ruebel emphasized that the bank doesn't strong-arm its employees into making contributions. The e-mails from Fifth Third CEO George Schaefer, in fact, ask that they "consider" making contributions to designated recipients. Specific dollar amounts are suggested in the e-mails.

"We solicit about 3,000 officers and we have about 2,000 who have given to date in 2004," Ruebel said. "That's about a 68 percent participation rate, and we're delighted with that. So that means 30 to 35 percent of the officers chose not to give."

Ruebel said that if an officer did not want to give to a particular candidate, the bank would suggest candidates in other races.

Dubious complications

David Torchia, a Cincinnati lawyer who represents workers in employment cases, said he believes employees have constitutional protection from retaliation should they not go along with political fund-raising campaigns.

Craig Aaron, a senior researcher with Public Citizen, the non-profit consumer advocacy group in Washington, said corporate solicitation of employees is legal, but can cause complications.

"It creates a very uncomfortable situation," Aaron said. He added it sends a message that if you want to get ahead, you may have to follow the company's political leanings.

Most companies don't hammer their employees with politics.

Kathy Groob runs the 89-employee building maintenance and services division for Paul Hemmer Cos. in Fort Mitchell. She is also the Democratic candidate for the Kentucky Senate's 23rd district. Generally, she doesn't mind her employees pulling for one candidate or another on the job.

"I don't have a problem with someone exercising his right to support his candidates," Groob said, "but if they're meeting with a customer and we don't know the customer's political persuasion, I would discourage campaigning. It can hurt business."

Frank Catanzaro & Sons and Daughters, a Lockland-based food wholesaler, has to be one of the ultimate practitioners of political tolerance in the region. Members of the Catanzaro family are Republicans, but in 2000 they permitted Vice President Al Gore to huddle with a group of business owners in one of the company's warehouses.

"You have to respect whether they're Democrat, Republican or whatever they are," said Sharon Catanzaro Ledonne, the company's president. "Al Gore was the vice president of the country at the time, and it didn't matter if he was a Democrat or Republican."

E-mail jmcnair@enquirer.com




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