Workplaces Face Wartime Politics
Saturday 29 March 2003
SAN FRANCISCO - When board members of the tiny medical equipment company Telectroscan Inc. dialed in for their regular strategy meeting Monday afternoon, chief executive officer David Otten was absent. The police wouldn't let him use his cellphone in jail.
Otten, a 33-year-old scientist who founded the Berkeley-based company, is one of more than 2,000 antiwar protesters arrested for civil disobedience in San Francisco since the US-led coalition opened its offensive in Iraq. His board was none too pleased. In addition to the struggling economy, directors had to worry about a CEO who missed board meetings for political activities.
Across the San Francisco Bay Area, a home to the peace movement since conscientious objectors flocked here during World World II, people who oppose the war in Iraq are struggling to balance their work responsibilities with their sense of social responsibility. And as people across the country raise their voices both in favor of and against the war, some have butted heads with co-workers and bosses over the delicate issue of what is an appropriate expression of wartime politics in the workplace.
''It's corporations against the sanctity of the individual,'' said Michael Nagler, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of its Peace and Conflict Studies program.
Otten tries to balance those two. Carrying a sign that reads ''CEO for Peace,'' he joins at least one morning or evening rally a day and plans to attend a San Francisco march today that, like a similar gathering planned for the Boston Common, is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. But after two arrests, he has stopped missing work because of objections from his board members.
''They're fine with me being against the war, but they don't want me to bring it into the workplace,'' Otten said of his board members, who include financiers from Florida Hospital, part of the California-based Adventist Health System. ''My answer to that is this is one of the few countries that has the luxury of going to war without feeling it in any way. I don't want to participate in that. This is more than an inconvenience for us; this is a humanitarian travesty.''
Others hold similarly strong views. Henry Norr, a technology writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, said Thursday that his bosses handed him a suspension, without pay, of at least two weeks after he took a day off from work to demonstrate against the war and got arrested for civil disobedience. Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein, without addressing the Norr case specifically, said journalists must be concerned with avoiding the appearance of political bias. ''War is a subject that is written about in every section of our paper, and it touches the work of most journalists who work here,'' he said.
The tensions are also being felt in the Boston area. In Cambridge yesterday, a temporary worker with Genzyme, the pharmaceutical company, said she was fired after eight months on the job for confronting a colleague who posted prowar posters outside his cubicle. Sara Bresnahan, 27, said she had e-mailed a co-worker asking him to remove a sign reading, ''Saddam-apoolza: Let the Fireworks Begin, Coalition Forces welcome.'' In an e-mail reply, which she forwarded to a human resources manager, he told her to keep her ''pacifist views'' to herself. She was fired the next day, Bresnahan says, the same week her boss had expressed pleasure with her work.
Marcie Campbell, a Genzyme spokeswoman, would not discuss the reasons for Bresnahan's termination but said, ''It had nothing to do with the e-mail exchange.''
Companies also struggle over whether to let their employees take time off from work to protest. Bay Area philanthropist and software developer Mitch Kapor, who founded Cambridge's Lotus Development Corp., sent an e-mail to the staff of several nonprofits that he now runs encouraging them to ''feel free to act as your conscience dictates'' when it comes to protests, but to notify their colleagues if they planned to miss work.
''As employers we felt it was important to recognize both the strong feelings of individuals about the war, as well as the interdependence of folks [on] one another at work,'' Kapor said.
Josiah Black, a labor and employment attorney for the Boston law firm of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, said a pharmaceutical company client called him recently about a request by one employee wanting to take a few hours off to go into Boston to attend a peace rally. With their lab facing a tight research deadline, his manager didn't want him to go. The company's human resources department wanted to know if the company could legally bar him from going.
Black said that it was legal to say no to the employee, but he made clear that the company must treat all employees the same or risk facing a potential discrimination claim. ''Companies are strapped, and the last thing they want is people to go off the clock, especially if they have a deadline to meet,'' Black said.
But in the Bay Area, many workers say their bosses look the other way when they call in sick or take vacation days to protest the war.
''War makes me sick,'' said Anna Sojourner, a 35-year-old engineering geologist with the state of California, who called in sick March 20, the night after the United States launched its attack. ''I did feel unsettled and nervous and kind of shocked and saddened that this was happening. It was a mental health day.''
Michael Smith, 40, director of engineering at a local software company that he asked not to be identified, said he took a vacation day to protest and was joined by four colleagues in his department.
Smith said he was concerned about the economic fallout from the war.
''That's going to impact our business much more than people taking a few days off,'' he said.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.