Department of Labor officials these past several years haven’t been shy about conveying their political preferences to their own labor force. An ongoing Capitol Hill probe has found out as much. Late last month the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a report concluding that the Obama-era department has spent at least $725,000 on elevator posters, publicity contests and other forms of advocacy intended to boost employee morale. Most, if not all, of this motivational agitprop was the doing of first-term Secretary Hilda Solis. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a longtime critic, noted: “This questionable activity has been going on for some time. As my staff has learned, in 2009 DOL began producing weekly elevator posters for the 23 passenger elevators at DOL’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.” Tax-funded ideology marches on.
It is the nature of any government agency, in ways overt and subtle, to advertise its own necessity to the larger public and especially to employees. Those employees who object may be exposing themselves as less than team players, hence putting themselves at risk of termination. If being part of a captive audience to motivational messages helps keep one’s job, potential dissenters may find it easier simply to go along. The U.S. Labor Department, unfortunately, has been focusing heavily on rah-rah motivation. Formally, the department is apolitical. Its mission is to “foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” But the unofficial mission, especially under Democratic administrations, all too often has been to serve as a stalking-horse for unions and radical allies. Several DOL officials during the Obama years held key legal and political positions with organized labor prior to coming over to the department. Even officials who had not come over from a union, most notably, current Secretary Thomas Perez and his predecessor, Hilda Solis, hold unusually adversarial views of employers. Though careful not to make their advocacy too blatant, they have signaled their view that the interests of union members count more than those of non-members.
Under Secretary Hilda Solis, a former four-term California Democratic congresswoman heavily supported by organized labor, the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) took political advocacy to a new level. A visitor to the DOL headquarters in Washington, D.C. during those years would have been hard-pressed to miss the agitprop posters inside nearly two dozen building elevators. One notable poster contained three photos, one of which showed Secretary Solis locking arms and marching forward with Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and several other radical activists to protest a new Alabama law intended to discourage illegal immigration. Another photo showed Solis yelling into a bullhorn. The top caption reads in capital letters: “WE ALL MARCH IN OUR OWN WAY.” The text elaborated: “Whether we take to the streets or simply do our work with integrity and commitment here at the U.S. Department of Labor…we are all marching toward the same goals: safe workplaces, fair pay, dignity of the job, secure retirement, and opportunities to make a better life. I believe in the power of collective action.” The bottom caption then stated in caps: “WE ALL PLAY A ROLE. WE ALL MARCH.” The message concluded with Solis’ signature. Other posters expressed support for such issues as gay rights.
In tone, if not in policy, then, these posters conveyed a message: “Big Brother (and Sister) is watching you.” National Legal and Policy Center, in fact, had made note of this back in January 2013, the day after Solis’ resignation announcement. Not everyone at the department, however, has been motivated. One employee, understandably preferring to remain anonymous, expressed displeasure over the aura of enforced ideological enthusiasm. “It is propaganda,” said the employee. “This is what being in a Chinese factory during the Cultural Revolution is like. It’s offensive. It’s saying that we’re all on the side of Trayvon Martin, or whatever Sharpton is doing, and the people of [the Department of] Labor should be for it.” This person added there were other DOL employees who felt the same way.
Certain members of Congress haven’t been enamored of this advocacy either. A few weeks ago, on August 25, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Issa sent a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez demanding the release of documents related to the posters and other suspect spending. A committee investigation had concluded that DOL’s Office of Public Affairs spent at least $725,000 on producing posters and various other questionable activities. The posters constituted the largest share of expenditures. “According to documents obtained by the Committee,” noted Issa, “since 2009 DOL has spent $2,627 per week producing new posters, for a total of over $600,000.” The probe also found the department had spent $100,000 on promoting a book club and $25,000 on employee entry fees for public relations contests. Funds also went for publishing an in-house magazine and hiring Washington Nationals baseball team mascot “Screech” for an agency event.
Particularly disturbing to the committee was the reported reaction by an Office of Public Affairs adviser, Carl Fillichio, to evidence of employee whistle-blowing. Rep. Issa’s letter read in part:
Upon learning of media reports concerning OPA’s wasteful spending practices, OPA Senior Advisor Carl Fillichio organized a meeting with OPA employees. In the meeting, Mr. Fillichio used profane language to criticize employees who allegedly contacted the media and threatened to retaliate against employees who brought OPA’s questionable spending practices to light. Mr. Fillichio’s comments are likely to have a chilling effect on OPA employees’ willingness to report waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement – disclosures that are protected by law in many cases.
Fillichio, now a senior adviser for public affairs and communications under Secretary Perez, has not responded. However, DOL spokesperson Stephen Barr did issue a statement. Calling the OPA “responsible stewards of public funds,” he wrote: “We inform the public of our important mission and engage and educate our employees in creative, effective and appropriate ways. Our internal communications efforts make a difference in employee satisfaction, retention and most importantly, performance.” Issa’s investigation had been prompted by a February 14 letter from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to DOL Inspector General Scott Dahl requesting a probe into promotional activities and contracting “irregularities.” Dahl, in a response dated February 27, vowed to review wasteful spending and, in particular, conduct a full audit of a six-figure, no-bid contract to promote the DOL book club. Congressman Issa, meanwhile, had sought a response from Secretary Perez by noon on September 8. A committee staffer told NLPC that though the DOL has yet to issue a formal statement, it has been communicative.
All this congressional exposure actually may serve to produce reforms. According to a recent survey by Deloitte Consulting, the U.S. Department of Labor ranked 17th, tied with the Department of the Army, out of 19 large federal agencies in the area of employee satisfaction. Only the Department of Homeland Security ranked lower. Perhaps the Labor Department will conclude from the survey that political posters haven’t been very effective in promoting team morale after all.