THE BLOG

Our Corporate Saviors

04/05/2015 09:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

What are we to make of the fact that some big corporations are turning out to be the relative good guys, on issues as varied as same-sex marriage, the environment and even (to a limited extent) workers' wages? Last week, the governors of Indiana and Arkansas were forced to back down and dilute bogus "religious freedom" laws intended to shelter discrimination against gays and lesbians, in large part because their corporate bigwigs told them to stop embarrassing the state and scaring off business.

In Indiana, these included the Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, the Indiana Pacers and even the Indy 500. In Arkansas, the pressure came, among others, from (shudder) Walmart, whose executives urged the hapless governor, Asa Hutchinson, to veto the bill.

Meanwhile, Walmart has been insisting that its suppliers meet green energy standards, and McDonalds' new CEO took out full-page ads announcing that its owned and operated franchises (about one in ten retail McDonalds) will pay a buck over the local minimum wage as well as offering paid vacation and sick leave. Walmart has also announced some (meager) wage hikes.

What gives here? Are big corporations the new custodians of social conscience?

Hardly. If you take these one at a time, a few things are at work. For starters, most big corporate executives are more cosmopolitan than the religious far right, and they also worry mightily about reputational damage.

Corporate executives sometimes internalize changing public values. Outside the South, most large corporate executives are reasonably comfortable with diversity. In the 2003 Grutter v Bollinger case, where the Supreme Court narrowly upheld race-based affirmative action, 65 top corporate executives signed an amicus brief extolling the benefits of racial diversity.

But if you go a step further and ask the source of the corporate change of heart, for example the reputational risk in the case of discrimination against our LGBT sisters and brothers, it's not that corporations were in the forefront of this cause. Rather, gays and lesbians built a movement.

The movement, and its effect on public opinion, came first. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. Once public sentiment had shifted against discrimination, the corporate elite followed.

Courts helped in a few cases, beginning with Massachusetts in 2003, where the state Supreme Judicial Court first legalized same sex-marriage. But mostly, courts followed rather than led public opinion. If the Supreme Court ducks this issue, and declines to overturn state laws allowing same-sex marriage, it will be mainly because the Court doesn't dare put the credibility of the institution at odds with rapidly changing public sentiment.

But the movement came first.

To be sure, it's terrific that corporate leaders do not want to get in front of this freight train. Their role further marginalizes the religious right, and amplifies the tacit splits in the Republican Party (good luck, Jeb Bush.)

And if you compare the rollback of the fake religious alibi for discrimination with, say, McDonalds' token action on wages, you can see just what difference a movement makes. LGBT activism has produced massive change. Labor activism is making a modest comeback from a full-scale assault by organized business.

Labor unions and other local organizers have been making a stink about the dismal wages paid fast food and other retail workers. Lower unemployment rates also make it harder to get good employees to work for a pittance. So outfits like McDonalds decide to make a virtue of necessity and pat themselves on the back for paying a bit more.

They hope that these gestures will take some of the wind out of organizing drives. But moves like these should teach the opposite lesson--namely, that pressure works.

The labor movement, however, has been pummeled for more than three decades, ever since Ronald Reagan made a big symbolic deal in 1981 of firing striking air traffic controllers. A stronger workers' movement, not just of minimum wage workers but of all wage and salary workers, would compel corporations to offer a lot more than an additional dollar an hour.

By the same token, the strength of the environmental movement produces a nice rendezvous with Walmart's cynical desire to change the subject to anything but wages. So Walmart becomes a champion of green supply chains. Once again, the movement came first.

Yes, there are a handful of corporations whose founders are genuine progressives, outfits like Ben & Jerry's or the Body Shop. But for the most part, corporations sometimes pursue decent policies not because CEOs are progressives but because they are responding to pressure--either the direct pressure of campaigns for better wages or LGBT rights or the indirect pressure of changing public opinion. But someone had to go to the trouble of organizing such pressure.

There is one other paradox here. Despite the presence of the occasional corporation using its influence for the social good, for the most part the record of corporate America as a whole is a disgrace. Look at any legislative effort to improve the environment, or wages and working conditions, or to secure rights, and you find organized corporate power on the other side.

If America has become the sort of society where regular people are insecure and the Tea Party rebellion is one of the reactions, the corporate domination of our democracy is one of the major causes. So the corporate big shots get to win both ways. They dominate the process of rule-setting that leads to a very frustrated 99 percent -- and once in a while a few of them get to play the role of enlightened, endearing moderate.

Can anything change this cynical pattern for the better? Well, yes. It takes a movement.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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