What do Disney, Bryan Adams, the National Football League, Salesforce, AMC, American Airlines and Bruce Springsteen have in common? They have all threatened to pull their business out of U.S. states that passed or proposed legislation that attacks the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
These bills, claiming to protect “religious liberty” or “privacy,” are widely considered to be attempts to roll back social progress, stripping LGBT individuals of basic protections.
We’re used to citizen-led boycotts, but these corporate boycotts seem new. Corporations have long used their economic power to influence law. The innovation here is the use of that power for social justice, rather than for tax breaks.
But is this democratic? While citizen-led boycotts are a respected form of social activism in the United States dating to before the civil-rights movement, these corporate-led boycotts have a whiff of economic coercion, and are a symptom of America’s pervasive power imbalance when it comes to big corporate money versus democracy. Unelected corporations, accountable only to their shareholders, should not be able to determine whether laws stand or fall. An oligarch is an oligarch, even when he’s on your side.
Religious freedom acts, passed or proposed in more than half of the United States, have become the favoured tool of the conservative right, legislating a conservative Christian backlash to civil-rights protections for LGBT individuals and women under the guise of protecting “sincere religious expression.”
RFRAs aren’t the only bills that attracted threats of corporate boycotts recently. After the passage of a “bathroom bill” in North Carolina, which requires trans individuals using public facilities to use the washroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth, regardless of the gender they identify as, corporations such as Apple, Salesforce and Wells Fargo called the bill discriminatory. A spokesman for American Airlines, which employs 14,000 North Carolinians, was quoted in The Washington Post calling bills like it “bad for the economies of the states in which they are enacted.” Bruce Springsteen cancelled his concert there. Paypal abandoned a planned office that would have employed 400 people.