Companies cannot claim to be apolitical

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American corporations cannot escape moral responsibility for our nation’s critical human rights issues. Companies cannot avoid politics. For example, in the 19th century, the abolition of slavery was the most pressing human rights issue facing America. Companies have been forced to take a stand on this issue.

Silence equaled support for the status quo that dehumanized and brutalized black Americans. Unfortunately, many Northern businessmen believed that losing trade with the South would create economic hardship. To protect their profits, these companies remained silent or opposed the abolitionist movement. These corporate actions have helped perpetuate sickening levels of violence and brutality against black Americans.

Guillaume Felix [ UNKNOWN | Photo: Courtesy ]

In the 20th century, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa was one of the most central human rights issues of the time. Apartheid, the policy of racial segregation, was practiced in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. Under this system, white people maintained political and economic power over the much larger black population through brute force and obscene levels of violence. Global companies could not avoid politics in their decisions on whether or not to participate in the South African economy. Apartheid survived for so long thanks to the broad external support and corporate investment that the racist government received from foreign countries.

In the 21st century, some of the central moral/ethical issues of our time include protecting suffrage and democracy, fighting climate change, and safeguarding LGBTQ rights. All businesses in the United States have moral duties with respect to these critical human rights issues. Politics infuses action and inaction. To speak or not to speak, to act or not to act, has ramifications on society. Companies cannot claim to be apolitical.

The Republican Party has demonized many companies that attempt to act morally on these issues. Examine the Republican reaction to corporate statements regarding voting rights, climate change and LGBTQ protections.

Right to vote: After imposing one of the largest corporate tax cuts in history, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened corporations in 2017 with a message: “My warning to American business is to stay out of politics”. This anti-corporate stance by McConnell and other Republicans was in response to Delta, Major League Baseball, Coca Cola and other companies criticizing restrictive state voting laws passed in Georgia. Republicans have threatened to punish Delta by repealing a state tax credit for jet fuel. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was particularly furious: “Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites?” These Republicans were upset that these companies were pursuing policies contrary to the far-right agenda. McConnell’s hypocrisy was explicit when he qualified his statement that corporations should “stay out of politics” by remarking that “I’m not talking about political contributions”.

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Climate change: Republican lawmakers are seeking to punish companies that act to reduce greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Fifteen states are pushing legislation based on a new Texas law that bars state pension and investment funds from doing business with companies that boycott fossil fuels. Officials in Utah and Idaho have chastised a major rating agency for factoring in environmental risks when assessing states’ creditworthiness. In January 2022, West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore withdrew about $20 million from a fund managed by BlackRock because the company encouraged companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. tight.

LGBTQ protections: And, as has been widely discussed, when the Walt Disney Co. spoke out in support of its LGBTQ employees and opposed Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ law, the reaction from right-wing Republicans was immediate and fierce. The Florida legislature voted to strip Disney of its special governance structure under which it had operated since 1967.

An alternative approach to corporate social responsibility has been introduced at the United Nations. More than 15,000 companies based in more than 160 countries representing nearly every industry and every size have joined the United Nations Global Compact, described as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. Eight hundred and eighty-five American companies have joined the United Nations Global Compact, including WR Grace & Co., GoDaddy Inc, Bayer USA, Dell Technologies, Enersys, Avis, LG Electronics and Nike Inc.

Through this United Nations program, companies commit to aligning their operations with 10 key human rights principles. Participating companies undertake to support and respect the protection of all internationally proclaimed human rights, to fight against human rights violations, to maintain collective bargaining, to eliminate discrimination, to take a precautionary approach to environmental challenges, undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility and fight corruption, including extortion and bribery. The strategic action plans of these companies to achieve these societal objectives are posted online.

The actions or inactions of American companies help or harm our society. The UN argues that through their business Global Compact can be “a force for good”. Instead of punishing corporations that support voting rights, environmental protections, and LGBTQ guarantees, the Republican Party should demonstrate how their policies toward corporate America could produce “a force for good.”

William F. Felice is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Eckerd College. He is the author of six books on human rights and international relations. He can be reached via his website at williamfelice.com.


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