Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Romney Connection: Why Marriott Fired a Candidate Worker

by Nomad

A Florida case poses the question: What happens when the First Amendment rights of an employee comes into conflict with the corporate free speech guaranteed by the Citizens United decision?

Is it legal for an employer to fire  workers who campaign against their corporate-supported candidate?

Raw Story has a story about a Democratic candidate running for Osceola County Commission who was fired for attempting to unseat the candidate her company supports. Viviana Janer's employer, Marriott Vacations Worldwide reportedly gave her the choice of either quitting her campaign or losing her job of 11 years.
Janer told reporters:
“After a decade of accolades and promotions, I was told my job would be abruptly terminated if I did not drop out of the race. Despite my wish to continue working, I felt I could not turn my back on the many citizens of Osceola County who worked so hard to get me elected. I refused to drop out of the race, and on Friday I was fired from a job I loved.”
According to the termination letter from Senior Vice President and Chief Audit Executive Julie Meyer, Janer was fired because she had not received permission to run for office. 
However, as Janer pointed out, company policy actually encourages political involvement in general.  
Here's how the employee guidelines read:
Marriott Vacations Worldwide encourages your personal participation in elections and government processes. However, you must conduct your personal political activities on your own time and without use of the company’s resources (e.g., stationery, copying machines, or office supplies).

The guideline also advises:
You also must refrain from conducting personal political activities in a manner that might suggest sponsorship or approval by Marriott Vacations Worldwide.
(Bookmark the above quote for future reference.)

Apparently the termination made no claim that her political activities had interfered with her work performance. The letter did make the allegation that Janer was not open with her manager about her political campaign, as if she were involved in something illegal or unethical. 

By way of explanation, Marriott Vacations Worldwide spokesman Ed Kinney told local reporters that because the company’s competitors had properties in Osceola, and that "Janer’s election could pose a conflict of interest."
Perhaps but whose interests?
According to a different source, Kinney claimed that the company was not aware of Janer’s candidacy until after the primary vote.
“We found out just like everybody else. We have strict policies in order to maintain the transparency necessary as a publicly-traded company. There was ample time to bring the campaign to the attention of management, and we would have been open to an amicable solution, but that’s all hypothetical now.”
It may not be quite as hypothetical if Janer decides to open a lawsuit, of course. Kinney seems to be saying that employees are obliged to report their political activities and to seek approval at the risk of being fired. As we shall see, this "strict" policy of transparency is a different matter when it comes to the board of directors. 

Janer's Republican opponent, John Quiñones has received political campaign donations from Marriott International (not a significant amount, it should be said.) Quiñones, for his part, claims no involvement or knowledge of Marriott's decision.
A Osceola News-Gazette  article gives us this defiant quote from Janer.  
“The Marriott companies financially support Mr. Quiñones. However, that should not give anyone the power to fire good employees and therefore promote a favored candidate.”
“I believe in what we are doing and I will continue with my campaign. If necessary, I will take legal action to protect the rights of citizens of Osceola County to elect the candidate of their choosing without unfair influence of special interests.”
What The Law Says
It sounds like it would make an interesting legal battle. The law is, surprisingly vague about this issue and is slightly different from state to state. California Labor Code Sections 1101 and 1102, for example, prohibit employers from interfering with their employees' political activities. 
In Nevada and Louisiana, it is unlawful "for any . . . [employer] to make any rule or regulation prohibiting or preventing any employee from engaging in politics or becoming a candidate for any public office in this state." 
The New York law, like states laws in Missouri, Louisiana and Minnesota ,specifically includes running for political office as one of the employee activities that companies cannot discriminate against.
And, though some executives may not be aware of it, Marriott's company policy on transparency doesn't not trump the law.

These laws however all stipulate that political activities must be conducted on the employee's time, not making use of any company materials or equipment and not reflect negatively on the company's general image.
Significantly there is no exclusion for publicly-traded companies and no mention about rules of transparency. 

In Broward County (Florida), it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire or to fire or to otherwise discriminate against an individual in any way based solely on “political affiliation,” (that's defined as “belonging to or endorsing any political party.”)

So, if this information is valid, then it brings up an interesting issue. Did the company fire Janer not simply because she was campaigning but because she was campaigning as a Democratic candidate? Had she been running as a Republican, for example, would the Marriott executives have fired her? Is the policy uniformly enforced regardless of the political affiliation?

In a court of law, they would have to prove that the policy was enforced at all level and regardless of any particular political affiliation.
(As we shall see, that may be a challenge.)

Marriott Closely-Knit with Mitt 
You might recall that poor Mitt Romney was met with jeers and guffaws in Iowa when he famously told the skeptical crowd "Corporations are people too, my friends."  It was more of a plea than a statement of fact.
Nobody was buying it back in Des Moines.

The links between Mitt Romney and the Marriott family were discussed on this blog during his presidential run. (A post about the million dollar contributors to Romney's weirdly-named super PAC "Restore our Future.")

As NPR reported the Marriott brothers, former CEO J.W. Marriott Jr and brother Richard, the chairman of Host Hotels and Resorts have spent a fortune on politics.
Not only did they donate $1.5 million to Restore Our Future, they've also given to congressional campaigns. Most but not all of their contributions have gone to Republicans. The company's political action committee has also been active.
So Romney's defense of Citizens United starts to make a little more sense. But there are even more connections worth mentioning. 
It's the Mormon connection. 

In 1997, John Willard Marriott, Jr. was called by the church to be an Area Authority Seventy and member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy. A Seventy is a kind of regional authority for the Mormon Church and The Quorums of the Seventy "are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world".

Earlier Romney had earlier served as a bishop (equivalent to a pastor) and a stake president (presiding over several area congregations) in suburban Belmont, Mass.
So that link provides them with something to talk about at least. The relationship goes back generations. Literally.
George Romney, MItt's father, and J. Willard Marriott were also good friends. That's where Mitt got his first name.

Actually, Mitt Romney has repeatedly served on the board of Marriott International from 1993 until 2002 but left to run for governor of Massachusetts. and then from January 2009 to January 2011. After his failed presidential run in 2012, Romney returned to the fold at Marriott to serve on its board of directors. 

With a pat on the back, J.W. Marriott, Jr., the company's executive chairman rejoiced in Romney's return in 2012, saying:
"We will benefit from his tremendous energy and capability to guide long-term success in an increasingly complex business environment. We look forward to working closely with him again as a member of our strong, talented and diverse board."
Nobody in the company seemed awfully worried about Romney's conflicts of interests then.

Making it Very Clear
In June 2012, Candidate Romney, in a 30-minute conference call to the National Federation of Independent Business, made his opinion how far an employer could go:
I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.... Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision...
What Romney is advocating is cutting it close to the mark. If a employer tells his workers that their jobs depend on voting a certain way, is that a threat or not? Where does one draw the line when it comes to intimidating employees? 

Even when it comes to employees off duty time, Romney played fast and loose with labor rights. Recall the time in the election when Ohio coal miners complained they were forced to take a day off without pay to attend a political rally for Romney. As one of the managers of the company vaguely said: 
“We had managers that communicated [to employees] that the attendance was mandatory..But no one was forced to attend the event.” 
Mandatory but not forced. See how easily it can be done? Just play around with the words and black is white and wrong is right.

In any case, given the fact that Mitt Romney sits on the board of director of the company, it shouldn't be any surprise that Marriott - the artificial person courtesy of the Supreme Court- wouldn't hesitate to fire candidate Ms. Janer. 
In Romney's world, firing an employee who is also an opposition candidate is just a new way for a corporate person to express its political free speech.