Corporations Stay Silent on Abortion
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's Monday on The Takeaway. Thanks for joining us after your weekend. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're going to start today in 2016 in the state of North Carolina in the bathroom. Yes, the bathroom, a space of basic necessity for nearly all of us. In 2016, the Republican-led state legislature in North Carolina along with then-governor Republican Pat McCrory transformed the state's public bathrooms into a public battleground with HB2.
That law prohibited transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The law was unnecessary, discriminatory, and frankly, mean. In 2017, it was repealed. What ended HB2 was not a blue wave of progressive voters. It was not the golden intentions of red Republicans. What stopped the HB2 was green, money, cash, dollar dollar bills y'all.
Evan McMorris-Santoro: Economic pressure activated by LGBT rights advocates cost the state $450 million, from the NBA to PayPal, entertainers and companies turned away from North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's more friends at Vice News and it's a pattern. American Airlines, Apple, Cisco, eBay, General Electric, IBM, Intel, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Nike, and Salesforce, they all signed onto an amicus brief supporting the justice department's attempts to block HB2. The NCAA delivered the most consequential blow when it announced it would relocate all college championships set to be played in North Carolina out of the state. These corporate actions made a difference. In 2016, Roy Cooper defeated the incumbent Pat McCrory in the North Carolina gubernatorial election.
Cooper swiftly brokered a deal to end HB2 and bring business investments and college sport back to the Tar Heel State. The HB2 fight ignited a bit of latent corporate activism. Think of summer 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Madison Avenue did not sit out this wave of the movement for Black lives, it branded and marketed it. Earlier this year, some of the biggest players on Wall Street remained willing to mix it up in the arena of state policy. Here's the former American Express CEO, Ken Chenault, back in March speaking out against a restrictive voting rights law in Georgia.
Ken Chenault: We cannot be in the business of creating unjust and undemocratic laws in an attempt to thwart the will of the people. What we're saying is this is fundamentally un-American. Corporations have to stand up, there is no middle ground.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In short, corporate America has established a recent history of clear vocal support of human and civil rights, and decisive action to oppose state policies violating these rights. All of which makes the current corporate quiet about SB 8, the restrictive anti-abortion law implemented three weeks ago in Texas, downright deafening in its silence. Despite nearly 50 years of constitutional precedent establishing the right to abortion, SB 8 effectively bans abortions in Texas. The law allows private citizens to file a lawsuit against anyone who, "Knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets an abortion."
Foundational rights are important no matter how many are immediately impacted, but it's worth noting that fewer than 1% of Americans self-identify as transgender. Still, a broad coalition of profit-seeking entities took a stand for transgender rights in North Carolina. About 12% of Americans are Black, but a broad coalition of profit-seeking entities took a stand for Black Lives Matter. Nearly one in four American women will have an abortion. One in four, but thus far only a handful of corporate entities have taken a position on the abortion restrictions in Texas. For more on all of this, we're joined now by Scott Sonenshein, professor of management at Rice University. Scott. Great to have you here.
Scott Sonenshein: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us as Emily Stewart, senior reporter at Vox. Emily, thanks for being here.
Emily Stewart: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily, what companies have said something about the Texas law?
Emily Stewart: Melissa, is fairly short. Initially what we did see were both Match Group and Bumble, both of which are dating companies based in Texas come out and talk about the law saying that they would create funds to help people obtain abortions outside of the state of Texas that needed them. We also saw a response from Lyft and Uber. This is important because among those who would be considered to aid in abet abortion under this Texas law are Uber and Lyft drivers. Uber and Lyft were put in a position where they needed to speak out. They have said that they will cover any costs for their drivers in the event that they are sued for aiding and abetting abortion.
We saw GoDaddy, which is a website host say that they would stop hosting a website where people could report people who are aiding and abetting abortions. Then more recently we also saw Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, tell their workers that they were going to help them get out of the state of Texas in the event that they wanted to leave the state. Beyond that, the reaction has been, as you've noted, pretty limited.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Scott, help me to understand a bit about that recent story that I just told about. From 2016 on, we've seen corporate activism on issues that frankly still are very much contentious in the public sphere. I think HB2 was a really great example of one that is certainly not a settled set of opinions within the US. Why relative corporate courage in those cases, but not here?
Scott Sonenshein: I think on one point, I'm really surprised about the silence on this issue. On the other hand, I'm not. We have seen in the last five years a trend of increasing corporate activism. Historically, that activism has been much about issues that are very directly tied to the economic impact of the business. What we've seen the last five years is much less of a direct connection. With this bill and the abortion bill, what's really surprising about the silence one is it's countered this trend of speaking out, and we've seen so much activism as you pointed out with the racial justice in the last year or two.
Also that almost two-thirds of people on surveys are indicating that they wouldn't even consider a job in Texas because of this bill, which seems really contra against the economic interest of these organizations. The reason I'm not surprised is that companies have historically, they just don't want to touch religious issues. They really fear alienating any employee's religious beliefs.
There's almost a tinge of irony here because companies for the last 18 months have been talking about the importance of creating an inclusive environment. This bill is embedded in a state that doesn't create a very inclusive environment for many people. On the other hand, they worry about taking a stance on that contentious religious issue will create a divide within their own organizations around religious beliefs which they also want to avoid. They're stuck in a pretty tough bind right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily, I'm wondering if there are particular corporations in Texas who are Texas-based who you would have expected by now to have said something who haven't.
Emily Stewart: I don't know of expected. The other day I was assigned this story by my editor, she said, "You'll look and see which companies are responding to this abortion law." I thought it would be an easy task. I reached out to some big names. American Airlines, AT&T, Exxon, 7-Eleven, Valero, Dell Technologies, Oracle. These are companies that are based in Texas that probably employ a lot of women who will be affected by this one. A lot of these are companies that also have not sat out other issues. Both American Airlines and Dell has spoken out about Texas's voting rights law. They have weighed in on other issues there but on this one, they've been pretty quiet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are those companies primarily led by men, Emily?
Emily Stewart: Yes. That is also part of it. Dan from American Axle is one of the things that he noted, specifically with Match Group and Bumble is that they are led by women. For women, this tends to be more of a personal issue than it is for men and so yes. You think about corporate America what the C-suite generally looks like, who the CEO is, most of the time it is men. There is a sense here that maybe male CEOs even if on paper they support abortion, they don't feel it in the same way that perhaps a CEO who's a woman would feel it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Scott, obviously corporations tend to feel things no matter who they're led by when it impacts that bottom line. That can be both on this question as you were saying about workers not even wanting to work in a state where that company is located, but it can also come from the power of social media pushing these companies. Companies who've had something to say on these other issues in this space. What would it take from a consumer or social media activism standpoint to maybe move some of these companies?
Scott Sonenshein: Companies like to travel in herds. They want the safety of knowing that they're not the first to move on a contentious issue. I think if you start to see more of a groundswell of other companies speaking out-- Right now it still is too small to really create that. If you start to see more companies take action, you're all of a sudden going to just open the flood gates and I think you're going to see a lot more public activism and speaking out. I think that's the first thing. In terms of social media, I think if you can make connections on social media to the implications of what this bill is practically going to mean, I think it's still pretty abstract for people.
People have a hard time processing and thinking about what the implications are going to be when it's just the law. If you start actually seeing some of this law get applied and you have stories, really emotional and difficult stories of people being hunted down by regular citizens to enforce provisions of this law, I think that's going to create a pretty strong emotional climate that's going to make silence increasingly difficult for at least a number of CEOs. As they start speaking out, other companies are going to feel compelled that they need to follow and take a stance too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering, Emily, about efficacy. Again, the HB2 story that I told is demonstrative of absolutely efficacious action on the part of corporations. It is the NCAA rather than a change of heart that changed the HB2 in the state of North Carolina. We haven't, for example, seen the state of Georgia back-peddling on its voter restriction bills. In short, what difference does it make?
Emily Stewart: This is a space that I live in and think about it a lot, which is that actually if American Airlines comes out and says anything, does it make a difference? I do think it's important to draw attention to issues, to talk about these things. At the same time, look at last year, you got into this, how many companies said something about the movement for Black lives. Does that translate to who they're hiring? Who they're elevating within their organization? Not necessarily.
I do think on this to me the big question is if companies start to see an impact here in their workforces that it almost forces them to take a little bit of action. At the end of the day, if you are Tesla and Apple, you've opened up campuses in Texas and suddenly you can't get people to go to work there, that's I think when you start to see maybe companies take more of a stand that actually makes more of a difference. I don't think there's harm in companies saying anything, but it is always tricky to know. Like you just pointed out, in Georgia, the voting law has not been scaled back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily Stewart is a senior reporter at Vox. Scott Sonenshein is a professor of management at Rice University. Thank you both for joining us.
Scott Sonenshein: Thanks for having me.
Emily Stewart: Thanks for having me.
[00:12:56] [END OF AUDIO]
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