Corporate Activism Undermines People’s Power

Sami Mericle, Opinions Editor

Joining the rush of activism that has greeted President Donald Trump’s first few weeks in office, corporations — particularly those that cater to liberal millennials — have been eager to prove that they, too, support human rights. Perhaps the most commendable of these has been Starbucks, which recently promised to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide. While I am grateful for any action that slows the Trump administration’s agenda or supports the people its executive order is actively harming, I am wary of activism that allows corporations to flex their political power.

Uber recently attracted mass criticism for undermining a strike protesting Trump’s immigration ban by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance by dropping surge pricing during the hour-long strike. The resulting uproar caused Uber’s CEO to drop out of Trump’s business advisory council and form a $3 million legal fund for its drivers impacted by the ban.

In an obvious bid to present itself as the ethical alternative to Uber, competing ride-hailing service Lyft donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union. But Trump opponents should not pat themselves on the back for switching over, as one of Lyft’s major investors is Peter Thiel, a huge Trump supporter and advisor.

I have no desire to criticize a huge donation to the ACLU, which undertakes critical human rights work every day and brought about the initial stay on Trump’s immigration ban. But as Madeleine Davies wrote for Jezebel, “Rather than switching your alliance from Uber to Lyft or any other rideshare start-up, be smart and promise your brand loyalty to no one. … No PR boon is worth your unquestioning support” (“It’s a More Complicated Choice Than Uber Vs. Lyft,” Jan. 30, 2017).

Donations to worthy organizations as a form of corporate activism do not bother me, no matter how transparent the ploy for positive press. But as consumers begin to expect activism from their favorite brands, we should be wary of actions that solidify these companies’ political power.

Take, for instance, the response to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, the legislation that rolled back anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and compelled transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with their assigned sex. The reaction from the business world was severe. Almost 200 business leaders signed a letter to Governor Pat McCrory calling for a repeal of the law. Lionsgate pulled filming and PayPal cancelled planned expansions in the state. Dozens of Silicon Valley companies that had previously eyed North Carolina as a potential place to build new headquarters swore not to develop in the state until the law is repealed or struck down by the courts.

While the corporate pressure has not succeeded in annulling the law, it has had political ramifications. The letter likely contributed to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoing a similar bill soon after in his state. Wired calculated in September that North Carolina had lost $395 million due to HB 2, which likely contributed to McCrory’s re-election loss in November.

As a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights, I appreciate that the actions of these business leaders prevented deplorable laws from being enacted in other states and booted a proud bigot from office. However, I worry that this type of activism provides another platform for corporations to exert political power. Corporations spend billions on political expenditures like lobbying and PAC contributions. Money in politics has long been decried as a corruption of our political system, and it is perilous to commend businesses for boycotting North Carolina on the basis of HB 2 without also recognizing the dangers of such actions. Similar blackmail from corporations has long held up the progress of workers’ rights and environmental protections around the world.

It will take a long time to ease the political power of corporations. In the meantime, we can avoid being overly congratulatory of philanthropic PR stunts and examine how corporations treat their employees, communities and the environment before pledging them brand loyalty. And most importantly, don’t let corporations do your activism for you. Drinking Starbucks frappuccinos will not take down Trump’s immigration ban.