Liberals should learn from their conservative peers and bind themselves to corporate activism.
By Jared Keller
Elon Musk speaks to participants at the SpaceX Hyperloop competition in Hawthorne, California, on January 29th, 2017. (Photo: Gene Blevins/AFP/Getty Images)
More than 120 companies have joined a legal brief rebuking President Donald Trump and his executive order barring refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, Reuters reports. Among those companies are some of America’s biggest players — Apple, Google, and Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX—who argued in an amicus curiae brief that the Trump administration’s ban “inflicts significant harm on American business.”
According to Reuters, the brief continued:
Highly skilled immigrants will be more interested in working abroad, in places where they and their colleagues can travel freely and with assurance that their immigration status will not suddenly be revoked. Multinational companies will have strong incentives … to base operations outside the United States or to move or hire employees and make investments abroad.
So much for Trump’s technology summit last December — the tech sector wants reform, and it’s willing to flex its muscle to get it.
And those tech executives aren’t wrong. Restrictions on worker visas like the H1-B program would deprive American tech companies of essential talent. While computer-related jobs are the largest source of new wages in the country (per Code.org), American colleges barely graduate enough skilled workers to tackle the more than 50,000 computing jobs currently open; about 70 percent of tech jobs may go unfilled in 2020, according to the Department of Labor. Beyond tech workers, Trump’s travel order has prohibited hundreds of brilliant scientists and academics and nearly 16,000 university students from re-entering the country. Seven founders and CEOs of the tech sector’s most successful companies are the children of immigrants; Trump’s executive order could create a brain drain that the ever-innovative Silicon Valley obviously doesn’t need.
It would not be churlish to regard tech companies’ benevolence with suspicion. The brief includes Uber, whose CEO Travis Kalanick was a member of Trump’s business advisory counsel until last week, and his ride-sharing app hemorrhaged users after breaking a New York Taxi Workers Alliance work stoppage at the city’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in protest of Trump’s travel ban. It’s worth noting that Lyft, which enjoyed a corresponding boost in users as a result, is also a signatory — and a beneficiary of Trump adviser Peter Thiel’s timely investment.
Tech companies are, at their core, capitalistic enterprises: If business interests happen to overlap with human interests, that’s a happy coincidence that can help a company’s bottom line. This fact is very clear to liberal critics of major corporations, but it’s often lost when the political agenda coincides with left-wing justice. That was certainly the case when corporations boycotted North Carolina businesses last year as a response to the state’s anti-LGBT “religious freedom” legislation. As I asked then: Is it hypocritical for liberals to rail against money-in-politics measures like Citizens United and corporate lobbyists while lauding tech conglomerates for effectively strong-arming elected officials with their economic clout?
In the case of the Trump order, the will of a corporation isn’t just the will of an executive board with fiduciary responsibilities—it’s actually the will of people too. That’s according to reporting in the New York Times on Monday that detailed how organizers and activists like the group Tech Solidarity are pushing back on corporate management from within, holding executives accountable for their dealings with the Trump administration and, occasionally, staging internal protests of their own companies. “I want pressure from below to counterbalance the pressure management is already feeling from above,” organizer Maciej Ceglowski told the Times. “We have to make sure we’re pushing at least as hard as Trump is.”
In the aftermath of the Women’s March on Washington, Jamelle Bouie made a curious observation: Protests actually do work, if only by force of sheer annoyance. This notion that a little complaint, no matter how small, can mushroom into a massive moment on social media has transformed corporate crisis communications in recent years, and these recent events only serve to reiterate how a focused jeremiad of dissent can change the course of those old, impenetrable institutions.
Conservatives have been using corporate power for years to raise money and reinforce ideological battle lines. And while tech companies and their figurehead billionaires have a history of aiding liberal causes, the mobilization of corporate power from the worker up could be a game-changer. Should the tech industry’s response to Trump’s travel ban solider on as a genuine movement, corporate activism may become a new province of resistance in the Trump age.