Some of my relatives were among the thousands of good St. Paul folks who worked for 3M when I was a boy, so I grew up believing that what's good for "the Mining" is good for Minnesota.
I used to believe in the Tooth Fairy, too.
I still believe 3M is an above-average corporate citizen. But the bar has been lowered drastically in an era of widespread business corruption, growing corporate political influence and a troubled jobs climate that gives companies huge economic clout over the lives and, sometimes, the political views of employees.
Last month, 3M sent e-mails to its 30,000 U.S. employees -- including 15,000 in Minnesota -- asking them to forward a company-prepared letter to their representatives in Congress urging them to vote against a public option in the debate over health care reform. Although employees were told they were free to rewrite or modify the letters (addresses for the elected officials were generated automatically), some 3M employees felt pressured to adopt the company line.
The 3M letter was issued Nov. 18 by Angela Lalor, senior vice president for human resources, whose communiqué to employees was labeled as a "Call-to-action on Health Care Reform." The letter that employees were asked to sign and send to Washington expressed general support for health care reform but indicated that the employee opposed a public health option -- a government-run health plan option -- because it "would create an unfair competitive position and shift additional costs to the private sector and those covered by employer-based health plans such as 3M's."
Those claims have been represented well by 3M's robust governmental affairs lobbyists in Washington. But the truth of them is debatable, and also debatable is the responsibility and obligations of Fortune 500 companies in helping make basic health care available and affordable to all. The problem: There has been no debate.
"It's one thing for a company to hold a town hall meeting or forum to let employees hear all sides of an important issue," says Kellie McElhaney, co-faculty director of the Center for Responsible Business at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. "I don't even object if the company outlines its position on an issue, as long as it holds a dialogue and lets employees make up their own minds. But the piece that troubles me is when a company suggests that employees take an action, and then suggests what their position should be. That's very suspect."
Company spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry says the response from 3M employees to the letter-writing campaign has been "overwhelmingly positive." "We sent out the 'call to action' that shared the company's position on an important public policy," she said. "The employees are appreciative of the information and have said they now understand the legislation."
If 3M employees now understand the health care legislation being debated in Congress, I'd like to urge them all to take a few days' vacation and come out and share their expertise with the rest of us poor, confused citizens. But I doubt they have arrived at their miraculous understanding based on a memo from corporate.
I'm not naïve. Other corporations have leaned on employees to wave the company flag and chant in unison. Employees at one Minnesota-based firm have had it suggested to them that a vote for this party or that party might be better for the bottom line. But it violates an old American idea that you can work in a mine, a factory or an office and give the boss 40 hours of honest work without handing him your brain, too.
With the money being spent on corporate lobbying, it's not as if companies don't have a say in how the country is run. They have too much. Sending your employees a summary of the company line and asking them to parrot it is asking too much. Even though 3M allowed as how its employees could choose to exercise a modicum of free will to modify the letter they were asked to send, the pressure to be loyal employees at a time of economic recession (3M laid off more than 3,000 employees over the past year) can be intimidating.
"Most 3Mers don't know enough about health care reform, but they know what they were being asked to do," says one 3M worker who, for obvious reasons, doesn't want to be identified. "Most people did nothing when they got that letter, or just toed the company line. The natural thing to do is to just want to protect the company and do what they ask. But the problem is that what's best for the company is not always best for the community."
Maybe I need to revise my boyhood beliefs. Today's reality, in a climate of increasing corporate influence: What's good for 3M is good for ... 3M.
Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.