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Bank of America, Wayfair, and the New Age of Corporate Activism

More than ever before, employees are staging walkouts and boycotts to protest their own companies' business operations.
An office building in London.

An office building in London.

On Friday, Bank of America announced that it would stop lending to the operators of private prisons and immigration detention centers following a review of the bank's environmental, social, and governance board. According to Bloomberg News, the announcement sent shares tumbling by over 4 percent apiece for GEO Group and CoreCivic, two major contractors for border shelters and notorious private prison providers. The two groups had already seen a decline of 17 percent in the last year, and major financial institutions like JP Morgan Chase and Well Fargo recently broke off their relationships with the private prison industry amid protests of bank leadership. Last week, GEO Group and CoreCivic shares also slumped after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren proffered her plan to eliminate private prisons entirely.

The Bank of America announcement isn't just a shot across the bow for the operators of immigrant detention centers, but an illuminating moment for American consumer activism. The announcement came on the heels of the highly publicized boycott of Wayfair over the company's contract to make beds for the detention centers for migrant children at the United States–Mexico border where such children were detained in conditions in which they lacked clean clothing and decent food. Over 2,000 employees of the company walked out of work on Wednesday following reports that the company sold furniture in September of 2018 to a BCFS facility in Tornillo, Texas, that was closed the following January amid "serious safety and health" concerns.

While politicians argue about the semantics of the term "concentration camp," American workers are getting things done. Corporations may not be people too, my friend, but those people who work for them are becoming outraged.

"We're walking out in protest of our leadership's decision to sell to reprehensible concentration camps," one Wayfair employee told the Washington Post. "We had hoped that raising awareness would be enough for them to do the right thing, but it wasn't. We want to make it clear that this is not a political issue—it's a humanitarian issue, and we will not back down."

These progressive-oriented moments of corporate activism aren't totally new: After the 2014 ouster of Mozilla's new chief executive officer for his support of a California ban on same-sex marriage, the run-up to the 2016 presidential election saw a significant resurgence in corporate action on progressive issues. In March of that year, entertainment juggernauts from the National Football League to Disney expressed their discontent with Georgia's House Bill 757, a controversial "religious liberty" bill that critics claimed furthered legal discrimination against LGBT Americans. Those actions mirrored similar corporate protests in April of 2016 over other "religious liberty" bills in Mississippi and in North Carolina, where 100 companies authored a letter railing against similar anti-LGBT measures and PayPal showed its discontent with the legislation by pulling 400 jobs.

But the new wave of corporate activism represents something different than the boycotts of the past: As online boycott organizer Sleeping Giants creator Matt Rivitz told the New York Times: "This next wave of protest is not just consumer-oriented, but it's also employee-oriented."

Indeed, a substantial number of protests regarding immigration detention facilities have originated from within companies themselves. Beyond Wayfair, employees at Microsoft and Amazon have vocally objected to contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Although boycotts and other protests organized by outsiders have been around for years, today employees are among the most vocal activists for change," as sociologists Gerald F. Davis and Christopher J. White observed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2015. "Employees at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler persuaded the companies they worked for to adopt domestic partner benefits equivalent to those available to straight employees. Internal activists have pressed companies to reduce their carbon footprints. And Nike cut off ties to suppliers in Bangladesh when they were found to be unsafe, due in large part to employee activists."

The irony, of course, is that corporate influence over legislative issues has gone from the predatory specter it was in the immediate aftermath of 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee to a choice tool of activists, both internal and external, in the service of progressive issues. But that's not a problem, as political scientist Rick Hasen put it in Reuters amid the North Carolina controversy of 2016: "Thoughtful critics of Citizens United don't contend that corporations should have no political rights. Rather, they claim, corporations should be able to take political stands but not to turn their immense wealth into disproportionate political influence."

Since 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that corporations have a First Amendment right to political speech, the American judicial system has been on a 40-year legal slog toward corporate personhood. If anything, the last few weeks have indicated that progressives are waking up to the fact that, in some cases, they can better effect immediate change at their office than at the voting booth, and also that some corporate leaders actually see a genuine interest in adhering to a more socially responsible mode of political influence. Corporate power isn't going anywhere. It's up to socially and morally responsible workers to harness it for good.


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