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Companies Are Stuck Between Their Workers and Politicians

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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.

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 Ms. 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 work force (at Levi Strauss that number is 68 percent) 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 Ms. 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 chief executive, 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 chief executives 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 Mr. 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.

What do you think? Should companies have to pick a side? Let us know: [email protected].

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