On March 11, Delta Air Lines dedicated a building at its Atlanta headquarters to civil rights leader and former Mayor Andrew Young. At the ceremony, Mr. Young spoke of the restrictive voting rights bill, which Republicans were running through the Georgia State Legislature. Then, after the speeches, Mr. Young’s daughter, Andrea, a prominent activist, herself works with Delta chief executive Ed Bastian.
“I told him how important it was to oppose this law,” she said.
For Mr. Bastian, this was an early warning that the delta could soon be implicated in another national dispute over the issue of the right to vote. Over the past five years, corporations have held former President Donald J. In response to Trump’s extreme policies, he has never taken a political stance before.
After Mr. Trump’s reaction to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Via in 2017, Ken Frazier, Merck’s black chief executive. resigned Motivating dozens of other top officials to distance themselves from the President, from the President’s advisory group. Last year, following the assassination of George Floyd, hundreds of companies expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But for corporations, the dispute over voting rights is different. An issue that both political parties see as a priority is not easily addressed with statements of solidarity and charity. Taking a side on voting rights legislation pushes companies into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have been proven to be willing to raise taxes and impose deeper rules on companies that pass politically. .
This is a head-spinning new scenario for large companies, which Democrats are trying to focus on social justice, as well as populist Republicans who are unhappy to suddenly break away from business. Companies like Delta get caught in the middle, and everything they do has to bear the political consequences.
“It was very tough under President Trump, and the business community was hoping it could get a little easier with a change in administration,” said Rich Lesser, chief executive of Boston Consulting Group. “But business leaders still face challenges as to how to navigate many issues, and the election issue is the most sensitive.”
First, Delta, Georgia’s largest employer, tried to stay out of the fight over voting rights. But after the Georgia law was passed, a group of powerful black officials publicly called on large companies to oppose the voting law. Hours later, Delta and Coca-Cola abruptly reversed course and destroyed Georgia law. on Friday, Major League Baseball draws All-Star Game from Atlanta In protest, and more than 100 other companies spoke out in defense of voting rights.
The base of support suggests that the black executive’s clarion call will have an impact in the coming months, as Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states pursue restrictive voting laws. But already, the backlash has intensified, with Mr. Trump calling for a boycott of companies opposing such laws and Georgia lawmakers voting for new taxes on the Delta.
“If people feel like this is a week of inconvenience and uncertainty, it should be and it should be,” said Sherlyn Eiffel, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Corporations have to find out who they are in the moment.”
During all of this, the Delta was at the center of the storm. Delta has long played an outside role in Georgia’s business and political life, and ever since Mr. Bastian became chief executive in 2016, he engaged with some thorny political and social issues.
Delta supports LGBTQ rights, and in 2018, Parkland, Fla. After the school shooting in the city, Mr. Bastian ended a partnership with the National Rifle Association. In response, Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted Eliminate a tax break For Delta, the company cost $ 50 million.
Yet 2021 began and Mr. Bastian focused on recovering from his company’s epidemic, an even more partisan issue.
In February, civil rights activists began arriving at the delta, which they saw as problematic provisions in the initial drafts of the bill, which banned voting on Sunday, and the company had to cut its snout to stop the debate and Said to use leggy muscles.
Delta’s government affairs team shared some of those concerns, but decided to work behind the curtain instead of going public. It was a calculated choice to avoid upsetting Republican lawmakers.
In early March, Delta lobbyists pushed Georgia House Republican head David Ralston and government assistant Brian Kemp to remove some of the far-reaching provisions in the bill.
But even publicly opposing the law to create pressure on Delta, Mr. Bastian’s advisers were telling him to shut up. Instead, the company issued a statement endorsing voting rights. Other major Atlanta companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS and Home Depot Followed the same script, Refraining from criticizing the bill.
That passive approach influenced activists. In mid-March, The protesters staged “Die in”In the Museum of Coca-Cola. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential pastor of Atlanta, took to the streets with a calf and called for a boycott of Coca-Cola. Days later, activists massaged at the Delta terminal at Atlanta Airport and asked Mr. Bastian to use his bandh to kill Bill. Nevertheless, Mr. Bastian refused to say anything publicly.
Two days after Delta, Delta dedicated his building to Mr. Young. The law was passed. Some of the most restrictive provisions were removed, but the law Ballot access limit And giving water to people waiting in line to vote is a crime.
The battle in Georgia appeared to be over. However a few days after the passage of this law, a group of powerful black executives were disappointed with the results. Soon, Atlanta companies were pulled back into battle, and the dispute spread to other corporations around the country.
Last Sunday, William M., president of investment banking at Lazard. Lewis, emailed a handful of Georgia academics and officials, asking what he could do. The group had a simple answer: Get other black business leaders to ring the alarm.
After receiving that reply, Mr. Lewis emailed four other senior black executives, including Ken Chenault, former chief executive of American Express, and Mr. Frazier, chief executive of Merck. Ten minutes later, people were on a zoom call, and resolved to write a public letter, according to two people familiar with the case.
That Sunday afternoon, Mr. Lewis emailed a list of 150 prominent black executives he curated. Before long, the men had collected over 70 signatures, including Robert F. Smith, chief executive of Vista Equity Partners; Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive running for mayor of New York; Ursula Burns, former chief executive of Xerox; And Richard Parsons, former president of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner.
Mr. Chanoult said that some officials who were asked to sign him declined. “Some people were worried about the attention that it would attract to him and his company,” he said.
According to three people familiar with the case, before the group went public, Mr. Chenault reached out to Mr. Bastian of the Delta. The men have known each other for decades, and on Tuesday night they talked in detail about Georgia law, and what role Delta might have in the debate.
The next morning, the letter appeared in The New York Times as a full-page advertisement, and Min. Chenaul and Mr. Frazier spoke with The media “has no middle ground here,” Mr. Chanelt told the Times. “You either have more people to vote for, or you want to suppress the vote.”
“It was unprecedented,” Mr. Lewis said. “The African-American business community has never accumulated around an unprofessional issue and issued a call to action to the wider corporate community.”
According to two people familiar with the case, Mr. Bastian did not sleep Tuesday night after calling with Mr. Chenaul. He also received a stream of emails from Black Delta employees about the law, which make up 21 percent of the company’s workforce. Eventually, Mr. Bastian came to the conclusion that it was a deep problem between the two people.
Late that night, he pulled out a furious memo, which he sent to Delta staff on Wednesday morning. In it, he renounced all pretense of neutrality and described his “crystal clear” opposition to the law. “The entire argument for this bill was based on lies,” he wrote.
Hours later, Coca-Cola CEO James Quancy issued a more reserved statement, parroting some of Mr. Bastian’s language, as well as using the words “crystal clear”. A British citizen, Mr. Quincy, who has managed the crisis from her home in London, then attended a private 45-minute zoom meeting with Mr. Jackson and Ms. Ifill, and attempted to express their solidarity with their cause.
“Many CEOs want to do the right thing, they are just afraid of a setback and need cover,” said Darren Walker, who signed the letter and is chairman of the Ford Foundation and on the board of three public companies. . “The letter provided cover for what it did.”
But for Delta and Coca-Cola, the results were intense and immediate. Governor’s Accused Mr. Bastian To spread “the same false attacks are being repeated by partisan activists.” And Republicans in Georgia’s home voted to snatch the delta of tax breaks, just like three years ago. “You don’t feed a dog biting your hand,” Mr. Ralston saidHouse Speaker.
Posted by Florida Senator Marco Rubio a video In which he called Delta and Coca-Cola “arousing corporate heresy” and Mr. Trump Joined the call for a boycott Companies speaking out against voting laws.
Companies that took a more cautious stance were not targeted in the same way. UPS and Home Depot, Atlanta’s big employers, also faced initial calls to oppose Georgia law, but instead due to unspecified commitments to voting rights.
In the wake of the Black Executive’s letter and the statements of Delta and Coca-Cola, more companies have come forward. On Thursday, both American Airlines and Dell are based in Texas, Announced their opposition For the proposed voting law in that state. And on Friday, more than 170 companies signed a statement asking elected officials around the country to stop enacting legislation that would make it difficult for people to vote.
It was a mess, but for many activists, it was progress. “Companies don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Stacey Abrams, who has worked for years to eject the black vote in Georgia. “It is going to take a national backlash by corporations to prevent this from happening in other states in Georgia.”