Companies are stuck between their workers and politicians
By Joe Nocera
A little more than a decade ago, workers started increasingly raising their hands and voices against company policies. Since then, employee activism has been a cultural phenomenon that has demanded that business leaders not only take a strong, public stand on a political issue — something companies assiduously avoided in previous decades — but also take real action.
Then, last month, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, took action that threatened to derail that movement: Angry that Bob Chapek, the CEO of the Walt Disney Co., had spoken out against a Florida law called the Parental Rights in Education act or, by its critics, the “Don’t Say Gay” law, the governor retaliated. In a special session of the Legislature, DeSantis rammed through a bill to strip Disney, one of the largest private employers in Florida, of the autonomous district that it had managed near Orlando for 55 years.
And this week, Politico published a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion showing a majority of the justices voting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion a constitutional right in the United States. There isn’t an issue in U.S. politics more incendiary than abortion, and with some 60% to 70% of Americans in favor of retaining Roe, it seems there would be increasing pressure on corporate executives to take a stance in favor of abortion rights.
In this case, however, there is likely to be a countervailing pressure that will be hard to ignore. Thirteen states have passed so-called trigger laws that will effectively ban or curtail abortion access almost immediately if Roe is overturned. Another dozen or so are poised to follow the same path. Virtually all of these are red states, led by governors who no doubt saw what DeSantis did to Disney. In retrospect, following the lead of employees in standing up for climate action, racial justice and the #MeToo movement was a no-brainer for corporations compared with taking a public position on abortion.
A movement in turbulent times
When the term “employee activism” started to gain popularity in the early 2010s, young workers — millennials usually with white-collar jobs — led the charge. They were fed up with both corporate greed and corporate indifference to issues they cared about. Millennials are now between the ages of 26 and 41, and they make up a large proportion of corporate employees.
“Millennials lean liberal, by an almost 2-to-1 margin over previous generations,” said Charlotte Alter, the author of “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” a book about the millennial generation. “They want to work for companies that align with their values. And they understand how much power they have in the system. They see their job as a lever they can pull.”
It’s not hard to suss out the reasons that employee activism started to rise. With the government seemingly incapable of action on complex issues that affect the lives of Americans, employees started turning to their companies as institutions with the money and clout to affect change. Companies have financial power, and when they threaten to take action on a political issue, they can get results.
The best example of this was in 2017 when united business opposition, stoked by employees, prevented a number of state legislatures from passing bills that would have restricted transgender people from using bathrooms that matched their gender identity. North Carolina, which did pass such a law, known as the “bathroom bill,” wound up rolling back some of it after pushback from businesses.
Another example took place in 2020 when an employee walkout pushed the publishing giant Hachette to cancel plans to publish Woody Allen’s autobiography a month before it was supposed to hit bookshelves.
When I asked Alter whether she thought millennials were worried about losing their jobs for being too outspoken, she said: “If employees are calling for more diversity in their company, are they really going to be fired?” On the contrary: It’s the companies that have to worry about losing valuable workers if they don’t align with them politically.
Business leaders I spoke with were convinced that abortion was likely to generate a wave of employee activism that dwarfed anything that had come before.
Anne Marie Squeo, a former corporate communications chief who now runs Proof Point Communications, said: “The days of ‘We can ignore it’ are over.”
Judy Samuelson, the executive director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, agreed. In an email to me, she wrote: “As Levi Strauss — one company that has already spoken out — points out, women make up most of the employees in the workforce (at Levi Strauss that number is 68%) and this will be personal. Women stepped up on #MeToo — but this is an even more universal and an even greater threat to what we have taken for granted — the right of women to fully engage in the economy and to secure their family’s economic future.”
As Samuelson pointed out, some companies have already made it clear they won’t sit on the sidelines, especially in states, like Texas, that have passed laws banning abortions after six weeks. Citigroup, Apple, Yelp, Levi Strauss, Amazon and Tesla have announced plans to pay travel expenses for employees who have to leave their state to find an abortion provider. Last year, Salesforce told its employees in Texas that it would resettle them elsewhere after the state passed its restrictive abortion law. Bank of America’s CEO, Brian Moynihan, told CBS News on Wednesday that, in his view, Roe v. Wade was “settled law.” He added that the company would meet with employees to decide on a course of action.
But it’s also hard to ignore that this time feels different somehow. Many CEOs seem skittish about speaking out. In fact, some of them seem terrified. It is hard to know at this early stage what other action corporate America may take besides helping to cover costs for employees who need to travel out of state for abortion access.
It’s equally hard to know how and whether red-state governments will try to retaliate, the way DeSantis did, against companies that speak out. Or whether employees from red states even want their employers to take a stand. What is very clear, however, is that the debate is just starting, and business can’t ever be usual again.