On March 11, Delta Air Lines inaugurated a building at its Atlanta headquarters for Andrew Young, civil rights activist and former mayor. At the ceremony, Mr. Young spoke of the restrictive voting law that Republicans were pushing through Georgia state lawmakers. Then, after the speeches, Mr. Young’s daughter Andrea, herself a prominent activist, cornered Delta’s executive director, Ed Bastian.
“I told him the importance of opposing this law,” she said.
It was an early warning to Mr Bastian that the issue of voting rights could soon embed Delta in another national dispute. For the past five years, companies have taken political positions like never before, often in response to former President Donald J. Trump’s extreme policies.
Following Mr Trump’s equivocal reaction to the violence by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Ken Frazier, Merck’s black executive director, stepped down from an advisory group to the president and caused dozens of other top executives to distance themselves from the president . Last year, after the assassination of George Floyd, hundreds of companies expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
For companies, however, the dispute over voting rights is different. An issue that both parties consider a priority cannot easily be resolved with solidarity and donation statements. The stance on voting rights brings corporations into partisan politics and pits them against Republicans who have proven willing to collect taxes and enact burdensome regulations on corporations that politically cross them.
It’s a stunning new landscape for big corporations trying to appease Democrats who are focused on social justice, as well as populist Republicans who are suddenly no longer afraid of breaking ties. Companies like Delta are caught in the middle and face steep political ramifications no matter what they do.
“It was very difficult under President Trump, and the business community hoped that a change of administration could make things a little easier,” said Rich Lesser, executive director of the Boston Consulting Group. “However, business leaders still face challenges in dealing with a number of issues, and the electoral problem is one of the most sensitive.”
At first, Delta, Georgia’s largest employer, tried to stay out of the battle for the right to vote. But after the Georgian law was passed, a group of powerful black executives publicly urged large corporations to oppose the electoral law. Hours later, Delta and Coca-Cola abruptly reversed course and rejected Georgian law. Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game out of Atlanta in protest on Friday, and more than 100 other companies spoke out in favor of defending the voting rights.
The wave of support suggests that black leaders’ call for clarification will have an impact in the coming months as Republican lawmakers push restrictive electoral laws in more than 40 states. But the backlash was already quick: Trump called for boycotts of companies that opposed such laws, and Georgian lawmakers voted for new taxes on Delta.
“If people feel like it’s been a week of discomfort and uncertainty, it should and must be,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Protection and Education Fund, who urged companies to do so to get involved. “Companies need to find out who they are right now.”
Delta was at the center of the storm throughout the period. Delta has long played an oversized role in Georgia’s business and political life, and since Mr. Bastian became Managing Director in 2016, he has dealt with some sensitive political and social issues.
Delta supports LGBTQ rights and in 2018, Mr. Bastian ended a partnership with the National Rifle Association after the shootings in Parkland, Florida. In response, Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted to remove a tax break for Delta that cost the company $ 50 million.
But when 2021 kicked off and Mr Bastian focused on his company’s recovery from the pandemic, an even more partisan problem emerged.
In February, civil rights activists began reaching out to Delta in what they described as problematic provisions in early bills, including a Sunday voting ban, and asked the company to use its clout and lobbying to sway the debate.
The Delta government team shared some of these concerns, but chose to work behind the scenes instead of going public. It was a calculated decision so as not to upset Republican lawmakers.
In early March, Delta lobbyist David Ralston, Republican head of the Georgia House, and aide to Governor Brian Kemp pushed for some sweeping provisions to be removed from the bill.
But even as pressure increased on Delta to publicly oppose the legislation, Mr Bastian’s advisors urged him to keep quiet. Instead, the company issued a statement generally endorsing voting rights. Other big Atlanta companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS, and Home Depot, followed the same script and didn’t criticize the bill.
April 2, 2021, 3:52 p.m. ET
This passive approach enraged activists. In mid-March, protesters held a “die-in” in the Coca-Cola Museum. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential pastor from Atlanta, took to the streets with a megaphone calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola. Days later, activists gathered at the Delta Terminal at Atlanta Airport and urged Mr. Bastian to use his clout to “kill the bill.” Nevertheless, Mr. Bastian refused to say anything publicly.
The law passed two weeks prior to the day Delta dedicated its building to Mr. Young. Some of the most restrictive provisions have been removed, but the law restricts access to ballot papers and makes it a crime to give water to people standing in line to vote.
The fight in Georgia seemed to be over. Days after the law was passed, a group of powerful black leaders, disappointed with the results, took action. Soon Atlanta businesses were being drawn back into the fray, and the controversy had spread to other businesses across the country.
Last Sunday, William M. Lewis Jr., chairman of investment banking at Lazard, emailed a handful of Georgia academics and executives asking what he could do. The group had a simple answer: make other black business leaders sound the alarm.
Minutes after receiving this reply, Mr. Lewis emailed four other Black executives, including Ken Chenault, former executive director of American Express and Mr. Frazier, executive director of Merck. Ten minutes later, the men had a Zoom call and decided to write a public letter, according to two people familiar with the matter.
That Sunday afternoon, Mr. Lewis sent an email with a list of 150 prominent black executives he is curating. It didn’t take long for the men to collect more than 70 signatures, including Robert F. Smith, executive director of Vista Equity Partners; Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for Mayor of New York; Ursula Burns, former executive director of Xerox; and Richard Parsons, former Citigroup Chairman and Managing Director of Time Warner.
Mr. Chenault said some executives who were asked to sign turned down. “Some were concerned about the attention they and their company would get,” he said.
Before the group went public, Mr. Chenault reached out to Mr. Bastian of Delta, according to information provided by three people familiar with the matter. The men have known each other for decades and spoke extensively on Tuesday evening about Georgian law and what role Delta could play in the debate.
The next morning the letter appeared as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, and Mr. Chenault and Mr. Frazier spoke to the media. “There’s no middle ground here,” Chenault told the Times. “You are either in favor of getting more people to vote or you want to suppress the vote.”
“That was unprecedented,” said Mr. Lewis. “The African American business community has never banded together on a non-business issue and has made a call to action for the wider business community.”
According to two people familiar with the matter, Mr Bastian was unable to sleep on Tuesday evening after he called Mr Chenault. He had also received a number of emails about the law from Black Delta employees, who make up 21 percent of the company’s workforce. Finally, Mr Bastian concluded that it was deeply problematic, said the two people.
Late that night he finished a fiery memo that he sent to Delta employees on Wednesday morning. In it he gave up any claim to neutrality and declared his “crystal clear” rejection of the law. “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie,” he wrote.
Hours later, Coca-Cola’s executive director James Quincey made a more reluctant statement, imitating part of Mr Bastian’s language and also using the words “crystal clear”. Mr Quincey, a British citizen who has been through the crisis from his home in London, then attended a private 45 minute Zoom meeting with Mr Jackson and Ms Ifill trying to show solidarity with their cause.
“A lot of CEOs want to do the right thing, they’re just afraid of setback and they need cover,” said Darren Walker, who signed the letter and is president of the Ford Foundation and on the boards of three public companies. “What the letter did was provide cover.”
But for Delta and Coca-Cola, the effects were intense and immediate. Governor Kemp accused Mr Bastian of “spreading the same false attacks repeated by partisan activists”. And the Republicans in the Georgia house voted to have Delta cut a tax break, just as they did three years ago. “You don’t feed a dog that will bite your hand,” said Mr. Ralston, the house spokesman.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio posted a video calling Delta and Coca-Cola “aroused corporate hypocrites,” and Trump joined calls for a boycott of companies opposed to electoral law.
Companies that were more cautious were not approached in the same way. UPS and Home Depot, major Atlanta employers, were also urged early to oppose Georgia law, but made non-specific commitments regarding voting rights.
After the letter from black executives and statements from Delta and Coca-Cola, other companies have contacted us. On Thursday, American Airlines and Dell, both based in Texas, announced their opposition to the bill for voting in that state. And on Friday, more than 170 companies signed a statement calling on elected officials across the country not to pass laws that make it difficult for people to vote.
It was chaotic, but for many activists it was progress. “Corporations don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Stacey Abrams, who has worked for years to get the Georgia black vote. “It will require a national corporate response to prevent what happened in Georgia from happening in other states.”