Friday, April 16, 2021

BTRTN: What Can Brown Do For You? UPS, MLB, Delta, and the Role of Business When Democracy is Threatened

Remember UPS's old ad slogan: “What Can Brown Do For You?” Steve thinks citizens in Georgia whose voting rights are being threatened may have an answer. 

Ever wonder why UPS trucks are brown?

Company lore has it that the founder felt that the trucks would look cleaner with a dark shade than with, say, yellow or white.

Later, UPS managers would realize another advantage: brown tends to recede. It is unobtrusive. When city traffic is being choked by double-parked delivery vehicles, it’s a good thing they are brown and not, say, bright blue.

Is this lesson guiding UPS with more than the avoidance of parking tickets?  

UPS, based in the pleasant Dunwoody section of Atlanta, is actually ranked higher on the Fortune 500 than two other Georgia-based companies -- Coca Cola or Delta Airlines -- that have been in most of the headlines when people ask where corporate America stands on Georgia’s new voting law. Major League Baseball and Will Smith’s new film have actually taken strong actions in light of Georgia’s new law. But UPS, an $84.6 billion colossus, seems to be preferring that unobtrusive approach in more than just its corporate color.

When the very people who are supposed to be protecting our voting rights – in this case, the Republican-led legislature in Georgia – are the people taking steps to suppress voting, where can we turn to protect democracy?

UPS used to run flashy ads on the Olympics and other big sporting events with its tag line, “What Can Brown Do For You?” It is suddenly a very pertinent question to many Black Americans who are targeted to be disenfranchised by Georgia’s new voting laws.

So we decided to find out: what is UPS doing about the new voter suppression laws in its home state? More broadly: what should corporate America -- in general -- be doing about the raft of voter suppression laws moving forward in state legislatures all across the nation? Indeed, does corporate America have a role, an interest, and a responsibility to take a stand when the institutions of our democracy are under attack?

The issue is far from simple. At the most basic level, it seems understandable why major corporations try to avoid political issues. There seems to be no upside but plenty of downside.

Take a stand on a political issue, and watch some significant portion of the country call for a boycott of your product or service. Witness political leaders of the opposing stripe try to paste your company with punitive taxes or cancel whatever tax privileges you might have enjoyed. Observe a sizeable chunk of your own employees vent rage about the hypocrisy: odds are that your HR department frowns on political activism in the workplace, particularly for fear that it could lead to a hostile work environment lawsuit.

But it can get uglier. Perhaps some PAC for the other team will take out an ad in The New York Times painting your company as ignorant and biased. Maybe the CEO of one of your biggest clients happens to disagree with you and terminates your contract. Watch the PR sharks for the opposing political stance do oppo research on your company, dredging up minor incidents and turning them into raging scandal in order to tarnish your brand.  And if any and all of the above happens to trigger a hit to your stock price, you are going to feel mighty lonely in your next Board meeting.

The upside? A feeling that you’ve taken a stand, done the right thing? Perhaps. It’s not like the people who support your stance are going to start buying twice as much Coke or take an extra connecting flight through Atlanta to reward you for your guts.

It’s pretty easy for a CEO to connect all the dots and then hide behind the old saw that fiduciary responsibility to shareholders argues for avoiding political controversy.

There’s certainly evidence for the wisdom of that course in what’s unfolded in Georgia since the new voter suppression law was enacted.

Major League Baseball slid into the hot seat when it decided to move its All-Star game out of Atlanta. Of course Republicans politicians were incensed by the action. But leading Georgia Dems Stacey Abrams, John Ossoff, and Rafael Warnock -- all vehemently opposed the new Georgia law -- have all come out in opposition to punitive actions on the part of commercial enterprises, taking the position that removing business only hurts the low-wage workers who stand to benefit from the millions in revenues that your ballgame brings to town. Even pundits on CNN accused MLB of making a rash, ill-thought out decision… but then again, guess what Southern city CNN is based in?

And then there was the full page ad place by the “Job Creators Network” in The New York Times on Friday, April 2, which features an open letter to Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The letter states that “despite urban legend and your previous statement, the Georgia law makes it easier to vote and hard to cheat.” It asserts that the new law “permits no-excuse absentee ballots,” and that “even states like New York, Connecticut, and President Biden’s home state of Delaware require a valid excuse to cast an absentee ballot.” The letter claims that the new law simply requires that existing laws demanding that residents present an ID prior to voting be applied to mail-in ballots. The ad even offers a spirited defense of the most notorious component of the Georgia law -- the part that makes it a crime to bring water to people standing on line to vote:

“And no, it doesn’t ban people from quenching their thirst in line. Poll workers are more than welcome to set-up self-service beverage stations and others can distribute water outside of the pre-designated voting area.”

Why, read that ad and you’d think that Georgia is leading the nation in its embrace of universal and equal access to the polls, and that their new law is as American as, uh, baseball and apple pie.

The first problem, of course, is that the worst parts of the Georgia law are not even mentioned in the “Job Creators Network” ad.

The most grotesque dimension of voter suppression in the new Georgia law is that part that enables the Georgia State General Assembly to suspend local voting officials and replace them with political appointees. This provision of the law is supposedly intended to allow the state to intercede when local officials are doing an inadequate job managing the process. But the state has the sole power to make the judgment whether such suspension is necessary.

This means that the Republican-majority Georgia Assembly has the ability to place a party hack in charge of a local precinct, and that such an official would have the power to certify the voting in precincts that are Democratic strongholds. We all recall hearing the recording of Donald Trump leaning into a speakerphone and telling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that "I just want to find 11,779 votes.” The new Georgia voting law has just given the Republicans the mechanism to do exactly that. It provides legal cover for overt election-rigging.

Had this law been in place prior to the 2020 election,  Republicans who control the legislature would have had the power to swoop in, remove election officials in heavily Black counties, nullify votes, and – yes – hand the state’s electoral votes to Trump. Instead of Jon Ossoff and Rafael Warnock in the Senate, you’d have Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and – wait for it – Mitch McConnell would still be Senate Majority leader. That means a trickle of cabinet officers approved, no Covid relief bill, no infrastructure bill, and four more years of McConnell bent on destroying a Democratic Presidency.

Yes, there are also despicable provisions in this bill that will suppress the Black vote…limiting access to drop boxes, increasing ID requirements for mail-in voting, and exacerbating the problems of long lines that always plague the Black voting districts in Atlanta.

Perhaps the most thoroughly racist component of the law is criminalizing the act of bringing water to persons standing in line waiting to vote. This acutely punishes the Black communities where the voting lines are longest. Again, the “Jobs Creators Network” shames itself with its response to this element of the legislation: what local election board feels responsible for providing (and paying for) a “refreshment stand?” And if Republicans are appointed to run the election in a Black community, do you think they are going set up a water stand? And sure, voters can depart from the line to go back to their cars and get a water bottle – but you know that the Republican poll watchers will forbid them from resuming their position in line. There is simply no explanation for this provision of the law other than to try to make voting as difficult as possible.

And – in the most colossal irony of all – the most common Republican rationale for this all-new power to legally rig an election is that it is needed to “restore confidence in the electoral system because of the claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.” In 2020, Georgia became the epicenter for refuting Donald Trump’s “Big Lie:” when Trump put pressure on Georgia officials to change the results of the election, it was Republicans Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling who stood their ground, emphatically repudiating Trump’s claims of election fraud.

Yes, Georgia Republicans are using Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 elections were “rigged” as the grounds for new voter restrictions that are all but certain to ensure that future Georgia elections actually are rigged. 

Still, in spite of the brazen deceit of Georgia Republicans and the overt effort to manipulate the election results, Georgia companies are taking very different approaches in their public responses.  

Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastion said that “After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives. That is wrong.” Bravo, Mr. Bastion. I take back everything I’ve ever said about trying to make connecting flights at Hartsfield.

On the other hand, some companies attempted to lay low and take the blandest possible stand on a thorny political issue.

Which appears to be the game plan followed by the United Parcel Service.  Consider how hard the UPS PR department labored to appear to be saying something about the new voting law without saying much at all. Here is the statement from UPS as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 15:

UPS believes in the importance of the democratic process and supports facilitating the ability of all eligible voters to exercise their civic duty. We are committed to voter awareness and engagement. In the last election, UPS ran an education campaign for our employees called “Drive the Vote” to encourage employees to vote. The Drive the Vote campaign was nonpartisan and endorsed no specific candidate or party. Like other businesses in the community, we are working with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber to ensure equitable access to the polls and the integrity of the election process across the state.

For students of the art of saying nothing, this is Shakespeare.

“Facilitating the ability of all eligible voters to exercise their civic duty” is a phrase that UPS hopes sound fair to progressives, but the inclusion and implicit stress on the word “eligible” can be interpreted by Republicans as supporting their efforts to suppress voting by creating greater expectations of proof of qualification.

The statement goes on to boast about UPS’s internal communications effort to support voting, which comes complete with the mandatory corporate cute name. Given the gravity of the issue, this comes off as a bit underwhelming. Here at UPS, we are taking action! We put up posters in our hallways!

The final sentence is what happens when a logic nerf ball is hurled into a vat of tapioca pudding. “Like other businesses” seems to be saying, “please don’t single us out, we are the same as everybody else.” “We are working with…” is to be interpreted that UPS is actually taking action, without offering the slightest clue of what that action is. “Ensure equitable access” appears to be endorsing the Democratic position, while ensure “the integrity of the election process” endorses the Republican effort.

You see, it actually takes a lot of carefully crafted phrases to precisely articulate pretty much nothing.

Annoyed by this corporate posturing, I contacted UPS to ask them to comment, requesting an interview. I received a response saying “thank you for asking about an interview, but we are not doing any on this topic right now, in addition to it being part of our quiet period before earnings.” When I asked if I would be granted an interview after the earnings release, I received no answer.

I was referred to the statement about the election laws on the company website. I will say this: the text from the statement on the UPS website was a real improvement from the one that had been quoted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution weeks before. It was more definitive in its stance, and “new” statement eliminated the reference to “eligible voters:”

“UPS believes that voting laws and legislation should make it easier, not harder, for Americans to exercise their right to vote. UPS will continue to work with elected officials across the country to strengthen our democracy by facilitating equitable poll access and voting.”

The remainder of the statement reiterated some of the bland points that had been in the newspaper, but there were references to funding for non-partisan voter registration efforts and enabling opportunities for UPS employees for volunteer to aid the voter registration and voting process. The statement on the website was stronger.

But the main problem was not really what it said, it was where the message was located: three clicks down the navigation from the home page… and that’s if you knew where to look for it.

Does UPS – and other corporate giants – have a responsibility to step out of its corporate shell and participate in a debate in the society at large on matters that have enormous impact on their business, their community, their employees, and on the very health of our democracy?

When must companies take a public stand that involves risk?

Recently, we’ve heard about very significant steps being taken by the private sector to sound the alarm about the danger of voter suppression in a democracy.

Last Saturday, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Organization and Management was one of the organizers who convened a ZOOM gathering of some 100 CEOs and business leaders to discuss what concrete measures business can take to stop the enactment of voter suppression legislation. Separately, a group of progressives based in California is urging business leaders to recognize and take action based on their own self-interest: a healthy democracy is crucial to a vital economy, entrepreneurship, and a thriving capitalist system.

In short, there appears to be increasing recognition that the crippling polarization of our politics is rendering government ineffective, unable to solve problems, and – now – has finally arrived at the point where certain of our elected officials are actively undermining our democracy.

What can companies do? Turns out there is a good deal.

Start with the fact that many major corporations announced back in January that they were cutting off – or “suspending” the campaign donation spigot to the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the Electoral College results that led to Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President. American Express, Verizon, MasterCard, Disney and a host of other companies announced that they were suspending donations, with many specifying a time period. Dow noted that it would not make contributions for the full terms of these Republicans – two years for members of the House and up to six years for Senators. Multiple that by the Fortune 500, and you make an impact. Of course, it will be important to monitor donations and see just how long these companies withhold donations.  

Following this precedent and cutting off the funding spigot to elected officials who favor voter suppression initiatives would be an excellent step in the current debate.

Threatening to move offices, regional headquarters, or future business conferences is another step business can take. It does risk triggering the question of whether the companies are effectively only punishing themselves, their own employees, or the working classes in these states who rely on large business for jobs. But there’s little doubt that the intense squeeze that major national businesses put on North Carolina following its passage of its repressive LGBTQ measure in 2016 led to the compromise legislation the following year. Then, companies threatened to withhold building expansion projects in North Carolina, and both the NBA and the NCAA moved major events out of the state. These hardball tactics led by business worked.  

This past Wednesday, we saw a step in the right direction in the role companies can play to fight voter repression legislation: a two-page ad in the Washington Post and The New York Times with the headline “We Stand for Democracy.” Brief body copy spoke of the importance of the right to vote, and included this sentence: “We all should feel a responsibility (italics mine) to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.” Yes, we should all feel this responsibility.

Below this copy were the names of well over 500 individuals, corporations, law firms, and non-profits, including Apple, United Airlines, Facebook Ford, Microsoft, Salesforce, Starbucks, and Goldman Sachs. Spoiler alert: no UPS, and no Coke or Delta, either. Perhaps these companies were not asked.  

Yes, there is strength in those numbers, but individual companies must take this on in the states where they do business. That’s where the legislation is being enacted. That is where the rubber meets the road.

Indeed, local business leaders have the unique perspective of being able to shame politicians on the issue that is always at the top of every voter’s list of concerns: jobs, and the health of the economy. Publicly communicating to local leaders that their voter suppression tactics are poisoning their municipalities as desirable locations for commerce is a potent message for local businesses to deliver.

Perhaps private sector leaders are finally realizing that if Republicans successfully choke off the right of many Americans to vote, the result will be an increasingly authoritarian state in which the government will be permanently run by the same idiots who ignored the coronavirus and left our economy in a shambles. In an increasingly authoritarian state, companies that align with the authoritarian leaders would be favored, and corporations would no longer be competing on a level playing field.

My favorite reason for urging corporate America to step up to the plate?  Mitch McConnell thinks it’s “stupid.” Here’s the full quote from McConnell: “It’s quite stupid to jump in the middle of a highly controversial issue. Republicans drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly and we like baseball. It’s irritating one hell of a lot of Republican fans.” McConnell’s statement reveals the logic of a man whose entire approach to life is based on transactional calculation rather than principle: you are “stupid” to have an opinion on something that is “controversial.”

Hey, Mitch: people of principle understand that the only time having an opinion matters is precisely when the issue is controversial. That’s exactly when we want to hear what real leaders think.

Come on, Corporate America: Take a stand. Take a stand for the principle that we should be making it as easy as possible for every citizen to exercise their right to vote.

And if not for the principle, then how about for the practical? What’s good for authoritarians is bad for business. What’s good for democracy is good for business.

Had I had the opportunity to actually talk to someone at UPS, I would have tried to explain that this issue actually represents a branding opportunity.

Imagine, if you will, that UPS simply took the words that exist on their “press statement,” and used them as the body copy for a thirty-second television ad. Literally do not change a word of the current statement that is already there for anyone to read on their website – but simply put those words over visuals of the company’s diverse workforce going about its business. And then put this message on television:

“UPS believes that voting laws and legislation should make it easier, not harder, for Americans to exercise their right to vote. UPS will continue to work with elected officials across the country to strengthen our democracy by facilitating equitable poll access and voting. UPS will also take the following action steps to support equitable poll access and voting: continuing to provide voter education resources to employees through its Drive the Vote program, including information such as registration and voting deadlines, printing absentee ballot request forms for UPSers at its facilities, where permitted by state and local laws, dedicating funding support to nonpartisan nonprofits that organize voter registration and engagement activities, having UPS volunteers facilitate voter ID and registration efforts at UPS facilities for employees, working with Secretaries of State to identify locations for UPSers to volunteer as poll workers.

Then, just to make the point, perhaps UPS could add this:

“At UPS, we believe that the more people vote, the more our government will reflect the true will of the American people. And that will be good for our citizens, good for business, and good for our common belief in the American dream and a more equal society.”

Hey, UPS… we are not asking you to say anything that you are not already saying.

All we are suggesting is that burying your message several layers down in your website navigation makes it look like you really don’t want people to know how you feel.

Taking the exact same words and putting them on television would suddenly make you the leading voice in America on this extremely important topic.  With a leading company setting the example, others would follow. All I know is that UPS can’t keep leaning into that “unobtrusive” part of its DNA when it is taking in $84.6 billion a year.

Call me crazy, but I think that would be a great television commercial… and it would be terrific for the UPS brand.

And it would be a pretty terrific message to bring to the Republicans in your state house, to the people of Georgia, and to all of the legislatures across America considering these pieces of legislation.

Corporate America can bring a great of leverage to bear on government if it chooses to do so.

Which brings us to the question of what we can each do as an individual.

Do you work at a big national company, or a major regional or local company in one of the states considering voter suppression laws? It might be interesting to find out exactly what your company is saying – and doing – on this issue. If the answer is nothing, or a bland statement in the back pages of a website, ask why.

Sure, we'd like to ask UPS what Brown can do for you if you are a Black American in Georgia.

But the bigger question is what corporate America can do to step in where government failing, to ensure that every citizen’s right to vote is being protected. 

As the ad says: “we should all feel that responsibility.”


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