Robert Murray, founder and chairman of Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp.
When I woke up on Nov. 7, the world didn’t feel earth-shatteringly different. Some business magnates felt differently.
Hours after President Obama was re-elected, coal tycoon and CEO Robert Murray fired 156 employees of Murray Energy Corporation, one of the largest independent energy contractors in the United States. But first, he read them a prayer.
“Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corp. for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise.”
The state of the country did not change overnight. Murray’s hand was not forced. Clearly, these layoffs are retaliation. Also, an interesting choice for a company that states on its website that, “Our people are our most valuable asset.”
Many other American businesses have threatened similar action in the wake of the 2012 election. Papa John’s is claiming that it will be forced to raise prices by several cents per pizza and may have to cut back employees’ hours because of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Politico reported this week. This is especially confusing, since Papa John’s is running a campaign this year to give away 2 million free pizzas.
Murray’s workplace politics began well before the election, when he compelled employees to donate to the campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. This Aug. 27 letter, signed by Murray, suggested employees attend a $2,500-per-plate fundraiser. After Perry dropped out of the race, Murray encouraged employees to donate to Mitt Romney’s campaign and was easily able to find out who chose not to. The company asks employees to contribute to its PAC through an automatic payroll deduction, The New Republic reported.
Requests for contributions came frequently, according to The New Republic, which acquired another letter from the CEO, stating, “If we do not win [the election], the coal industry will be eliminated and so will your job, if you want to remain in this industry.”
A few weeks ago, The Atlantic asked whether influencing employee votes is even legal. Probably, it concluded, though employers that do so are operating in a morally dubious area. While coercion may be OK, directly soliciting contributions likely isn’t, it said, calling it “improper pressure on workers.”
In short: Buying an employee’s vote is illegal. But explicitly threatening their future employment isn’t.
Jon Stewart put it best.
“Guys, I get it. Providing health care benefits to employees costs money, and as a group you tend to prefer things that don’t cost that,” he said in the Nov. 13 episode of The Daily Show. “I watch Undercover Boss. But own your layoffs, and your policies … Obamacare is just the latest excuse to wriggle out of the social contract.”
Leaders like Murray need to be held accountable for these retaliatory firings. While a voter’s decision is not explicitly protected under the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s guidelines for discrimination, they must be applied in this case. Murray and other business owners, in holding their employees hostage, are clearly committing discriminatory acts in the workplace.
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