Companies can expect that up to 40% of their employees will respond to such an appeal, research indicates.
The grass-roots program that is considered the most sophisticated is Arco's, according to those who follow corporate politicking. Arco's "civic action program" has been around since the early 1970s, when the oil crisis bloodied morale in the industry.
Michael Dunn, Arco's manager of political affairs, said the program began as a way to instruct employees on how to answer the Los Angeles-based company's critics.
Grows Over the Years
Over time, the program has become a $500,000-a-year operation that includes 30 employee and 18 retiree chapters in 14 states. In California alone, there are nine chapters with 1,500 employees active in the program.
Arco employees are encouraged to form chapters at each of the company's facilities. The chapters meet once a month during the lunch hours, and they invite speakers to talk about current events.
Last year, Arco employees throughout the country held 200 luncheon forums, during which they ate box lunches while listening to different speakers.
In California, those luncheon speakers included Secretary of State March Fong Eu, as well as those discussing traffic congestion, air traffic safety, health in the workplace, the national debt, the new federal tax forms, and--a pet concern of the company--congressional debates over opening up portions of the Alaskan wilderness for oil exploration, said Yvonne Nix, director of the program.
On March 21, about 270 Arco employees even filled a ballroom at the Los Angeles Hilton during lunch to hear presidential candidate Pat Robertson.
While discussion ranges to controversial topics, Nix said Arco's program tries to make sure that employees are exposed to different viewpoints, even when the speakers may disagree with the company's official views. For that reason, Nix said, the program is not considered a lobbying activity per se but one of employee education.
No Secret of Purpose
But Arco makes no secret that it hopes its employees will befriend their state legislators or become involved in the partisan races of their choice. During the Feb. 29 trip to Sacramento, the first in four years for Arco employees, Arco employees met with 19 Assembly members and 11 state senators.
That kind of face-to-face contact, said Dunn, only helps to bolster Arco's credibility.
"When Arco comes to you on a matter that affects it directly, you might remember that there is this knowledgeable, active, savvy constituency out there," said Dunn. "They (legislators) are more likely to listen and to think seriously about the arguments of a group like that.
"It also takes some of the pressure off the legislator (a company like Arco) is trying to influence because the legislator is seen as responding to grass-roots efforts, as opposed to campaign contributions or lobbyists," said Dunn.
Walter A. Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause, said he sees no problem with Arco's approach, as long as no employees are coerced into political action.
"While I know many people would expect a reformer like myself to react negatively, to say that this is one more way (for companies) to use their undue power, I think it's a much healthier form of political expression than most of the forms of political expression we're getting today," Zelman said.
Has Natural Curiosity
For Dick Lee, Arco's program is just a way for him to follow a natural curiosity about politics. Since he joined the civic action program eight years ago, Lee said he has made connections with local Republicans, helped work on the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Ed Zschau, and is gearing up to help elect a friend to a state Assembly seat from Northridge.
And then there was the recent visit to Sacramento, when he met Moore. Since then, Lee said he has called the assemblywoman's office to request materials for a class he's teaching to juvenile delinquents held in the youth authority.
"I feel very free that if anything else happens in my neighborhood, I can pick up the phone and call her," said Lee. "I know they will pass on the word to her."