Plastics additives manufacturer PPG Industries Inc. last year wanted Congress to pass a bill expanding Medicare's prescription drug coverage. But rather than just gear up its lobbyists or fly its executives to Washington, it decided to try a different approach: ask its employees to voice their opinions.
The company made a short video of President and Chief Operating Officer Charles Bunch talking about the issue and put it on its Web site. PPG sent information to its factories, urging people to fax or write letters to Congress.
The result: more than 7,000 letters from PPG employees and retirees.
PPG contends, based on conversations with congressional offices, that three of 16 Democrats who voted for the bill were influenced by PPG's actions. The Pittsburgh-based company said employees in its Wichita Falls, Texas, plant delivered a ``strong message'' to their local congressman, Republican Mac Thornberry, who had been undecided but voted for the legislation.
``It was extremely successful,'' said Lynne Schmidt, PPG's vice president of government and community affairs. ``The stars were aligned on this particular piece of legislation in a very unique way and we decided to reach out and experiment in a way we hadn't before.''
PPG's effort is an example of the grass-roots politicking that businesses are doing more of, as they try to tap into what they see as a vast underused political resource - their employees.
The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., for example, recently launched a program to bring members of Congress into factories and educate industry employees about issues. As part of that effort, the organization has developed a Web site (www.bipac.net/page.asp?g=spi&content=startpage) where people can find out how their federal elected officials voted on issues important to SPI.
The Arlington, Va.-based American Plastics Council also has a Web site (www.plasticsaction.org) and runs plant tours and other on-the-ground efforts, particularly in California, where the industry has faced the most direct state legislative threats.
The goals of the stepped-up effort at the federal level is straightforward: build the profile of the plastics industry, educate lawmakers about the challenges facing manufacturers and tell the industry's 1.4 million employees more about those key issues in the hope that they will vote for candidates who may benefit plastics.
Industries and groups that are much more organized than plastics - such as retiree organizations or industries that are more unionized - may have been better at getting the attention of politicians, said Peter Jones, president of Wexco Corp. in Lynchburg, Va., and head of an SPI government affairs committee.
SPI President Don Duncan pointed out, ``You can have two ways to influence [politicians]: one is with money and the other is with voters. We know we can do something on the voter side.''
There are limits on what companies can do at the federal level. They cannot legally advocate specific candidates to their rank-and-file employees, nor can they circulate information from campaigns. But they can offer employees information about issues and positions taken by members of Congress and presidential candidates.
Unions also see fertile ground for pressing their points of view, and like businesses, are ramping up their efforts in anticipation of a close election for president and in key congressional races. Like business groups, they say their voter education officially is nonpartisan and focuses on getting out information and encouraging union members and their families to vote.
Two labor groups with plastics industry representation, the United Steelworkers of America and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy International Union, last month kicked off what they said is their largest-ever voter drive. Both unions endorsed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
``We really feel this is the most important election in a generation,'' said USWA spokesman Tim Waters.
Business says it is keeping pace. The main business association organizing employee education efforts, the Business Industry Political Action Committee in Washington, said its members sent 1.5 million political messages to employees in 2000. This year, they expect to send 22 million.
Darrell Shull, executive director of BIPAC's grass-roots organizing wing, Prosperity Project, said employees want information about politics from their employers. BIPAC develops much of the underlying data used by SPI, companies and other business groups.
BIPAC said its surveys indicate that workers consider their companies to be their most credible source of political information, but only 9 percent of firms relayed public policy messages in 2002. He said BIPAC members rarely get negative feedback from employees - ExxonMobil Corp., for example, sent out 3 million messages to its workers and got 18 complaints, Shull said.
BIPAC wants to boost voter turnout by 2 percent in about a dozen battleground states, including plastics-heavy states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Shull said companies that send nonpartisan political messages to employees can boost turnout.
He said BIPAC surveys showed that companies that sent out up to six messages in an election boosted turnout by 14 percent among employees, while those who sent out seven or more boosted turnout by 29 percent.
Companies regularly talk about human resources or production or safety issues with employees, Shull said: ``We think politics should be communicated the same way.''
A lot of the processing industries' efforts have focused on plant tours.
APC's western regional office in Sacramento, Calif., for example, said it organizes about a dozen plant visits a year, and credits the effort with helping to fight legislation in the California statehouse.
``When you look back on a couple of bills we were engaged with in the late 1990s on packaging fees and minimum-content requirements, we spent a great deal of time with companies trying to get their legislators in,'' said APC lobbyist Tim Shestek.
``I think for a few members of the Legislature, that really had an impact.''
SPI has organized nine tours for members of Congress in recent months.
Mid-South Extrusion Inc. hosted a tour for Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., at its Monroe, La., factory, which gave the company a chance to talk about health care, natural gas and rail issues, said Mike Henagan, purchasing vice president.
``I think the congressman came away with a feeling that, `These are constituents of mine who face real issues in manufacturing,' '' Henagan said.
Dart Container Corp., as well, hosted Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., at its Randallstown, N.C., factory in mid-August.
Mike Martinez, Dart's regional manager for government affairs and the environment, said the tours are not about pressing on specific legislation, but more about making sure that the elected official has an understanding of basic challenges facing the company.
``We don't say anything like, `Please vote yes on House Bill 10,' '' Martinez said. ``We just say, `This is our operation; this is how many people we have.' ''
Coble had visited that plant in the early 1990s, when Dart was organizing tours to deal with environmental threats to the polystyrene cups its makes. But the company stopped doing those in the mid-1990s when the issue settled down, Martinez said.
While they said they found the tours valuable, both Martinez and Henagan said they are not doing any formal political communication with employees.
Such efforts currently seem to be confined mainly to larger firms such as PPG and ExxonMobil.
For SPI, the effort is about helping smaller companies expand their government work. By doing that, it hopes to raise the industry's admittedly undersized political profile in Washington.
SPI likes to brag that plastics processing is the fourth-largest segment of the manufacturing industry, but officials acknowledge it has a much smaller presence in Washington than other large manufacturing industries, such as automobile or electronics equipment manufacturing.
``I won't say it's invisible, but [the plastics industry] doesn't have a high visibility at the time among public policy makers,'' said Wexco's Jones.
``Part of the way that you get visibility is by having lawmakers and members of the administration understand that you are an impactful group.''