Corporate reaction to the ultra restrictive abortion law just passed in Texas has been muted at best. The American businesses and business leaders who spoke up in response to the voter suppression laws enacted in the state, and across the southern US, have remained largely silent. Largely. Lyft CEO Logan Green was a notable exception.
Green’s drivers, as well as taxi drivers or even a family member offering a ride, are potentially exposed to the vigilantes the state has enabled. The law prevents officials from enforcing it. Instead, citizens with no connection to a patient or an abortion clinic – the anti choice vigilantes – can sue and recover legal fees from anyone suspected of violating it, with a reward of $10,000 if they win. This also applies to those “aiding and abetting” patients, up to and including a Lyft driver dropping a woman off at Planned Parenthood.
The risk to drivers would appear low. But it’s clearly still there. As such, Green has created a defence fund to assist those who pick up women “exercising their right to choose”. He also kicked $1m over to Planned Parenthood, which helps them do exactly that. I thought that served as a surprising, but very welcome, “f**k you” aimed at the law’s creators.
Uber swiftly followed by announcing similar protections for its drivers. A couple of dating apps aimed chiefly at women also chimed in. But the silence has been deafening elsewhere.
A majority of Americans are pro choice but the minority who aren’t are both highly vocal and influential in Republican circles. The issue polarises far more than the cynicism of that party’s politicians in seeking to restrict the vote to their advantage.
This helps to explain, but not justify, the silence, even from companies that have previously made a big song and dance about their commitment to diversity and gender equality. Not their issue – why should they upset people, ignoring the clear threat to the health and well-being of female employees presented by this law?
But this ignores the fact that companies are political actors whether they want to admit it or not, and especially in the US, where the sway they hold is considerable (and doesn’t serve the country terribly well, though that’s another debate).
It has been that way for years. The low taxes and almost non existent regulation that have made Texas such a corporate draw, even while resulting in terrible hardship and issues such as a lack of medical coverage among its poor, could have been crafted by these companies’ lobbyists and executives. They probably were. They’ve been pushing the same things federally for years, too.
However, on social issues, large parts of corporate America have increasingly leaned liberal, or have at least wanted to be seen to be leaning liberal. It’s because diversity is good for business. Diversity of employees, and in the boardroom, makes for better, more profitable companies and there is empirical research to prove this. As for diversity of custom, well duh. The US census makes very clear that corporate America is dealing with a more and more diverse customer base. It’s a growing part of American life whether conservatives like it or not.
Today’s consumer is also increasingly minded to direct their custom towards organisations they see as in tune with their values and at least trying to do the right thing, although it should be said that there is a lot of PR spin involved in these supposed attempts. The US right-wing, catering for an increasingly extreme corps of committed voters, is in the minority, particularly in its current form. And it has no means of gerrymandering or suppressing the consumer.
Milton Friedman memorably stated that a company’s sole duty is to maximise profits. But you do that by listening to your customers and paying attention to their views. So keeping quiet may not be as clever as it looks in the face of a law that functions as a vicious attack on women’s rights, and on human rights, and on the US constitutional protections women have every right to expect.
Lyft has got the ball rolling. Texas governor Greg Abbott shows no signs of easing up on his attempt to turn his state into the republic of Gilead, not with his eyes on a tilt at the Republican ticket for the White House. There will, then, likely be future opportunities for others to follow Lyft’s lead.