On March 11, Delta Air Lines built a building dedicated to civil rights leader and former mayor Andrew Young at its Atlanta headquarters. At the awards ceremony, Mr. Young talked about Republicans rushing through the restrictive voting rights bill of the Georgia legislature. Then, after the speech, Mr. Young’s daughter, Andrea, herself was an outstanding activist, which put Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a difficult position.
She said: “I told him how important it is to oppose this law.”
For Mr. Bastian, this is an early warning that the voting rights issue may soon plague Delta in another national dispute. In the past five years, the company has taken unprecedented political stances, usually in response to the extreme policies of former President Donald J. Trump.
But for companies, disputes over voting rights are different. The statement of solidarity and donation is difficult to easily resolve what both parties consider to be a priority. Adhering to voting rights legislation can trap companies in partisan politics and confront them with Republicans who have proven willing to raise taxes and enact onerous regulations for companies that cross the company politically.
This is an exciting new situation for those trying to appease Democrats who are focused on social justice and populist Republicans who are suddenly unwilling to sever ties with companies. Companies like Delta are in trouble, and no matter what they do, they face severe political consequences.
Rich Lesser, CEO of Boston Consulting Group, said: “Under President Trump’s leadership, this is very difficult, and business people hope that with changes in administration, this may It has become easier.” “But business leaders still face challenges in how to deal with a series of issues. The election issue is one of the most sensitive issues.”
Initially, Delta, Georgia’s largest employer, tried to get rid of the voting rights dispute. But after the Georgia law was passed, a group of powerful black executives publicly called on big companies to oppose voting legislation. A few hours later, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola suddenly changed their routes and rejected Georgia’s laws. Last Friday, the Major League Baseball withdrew the All-Star Game from Atlanta as a protest, and more than 100 other companies were vociferously defending voting rights.
The surge in support shows that as Republican lawmakers in more than 40 states propose restrictive voting laws, the call of black executives will have an impact in the coming months. But there has been a strong backlash. Mr. Trump called for a boycott of companies that violated these laws, and Georgia lawmakers voted to impose new taxes on Delta.
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill (Sherrilyn Ifill) said: “If people feel that this has been a week of discomfort and uncertainty, it should be and should be.” He has been pushing the company to participate . “Companies must figure out who they are at this moment.”
Throughout the process, Delta Air Lines has always been the center of the storm. Delta Air Lines has long played a pivotal role in the business and political life of Georgia. Since Mr. Bastian became CEO in 2016, he has been dealing with some difficult political and social issues.
Delta Air Lines supports LGBTQ rights. In 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Mr. Bastian ended his cooperation with the National Rifle Association. In response, Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted to cancel the tax incentives for Delta, costing the company $50 million.
However, with the beginning of 2021, Mr. Bastian began to focus on the company’s recovery from the pandemic, and a more partisan issue is imminent.
In February, civil rights activists began reaching out to Delta Air Lines, marking the rules they considered problematic in the draft bill, including banning Sunday voting and requiring the company to use its influence and lobbying power to control debate.
Delta’s government affairs team had similar concerns, but they decided to work behind the scenes instead of appearing in public. This is a planned choice to avoid disturbing Republican lawmakers.
In early March, Delta lobbyists urged David Ralston, the head of the Republican Party in the Georgia House of Representatives, and his assistant Brian Kemp to delete some of the far-reaching provisions of the bill.
But even though Delta applied pressure to publicly oppose the bill, Bastian’s advisers still told him to remain silent. Instead, the company issued a statement supporting voting rights in general. Other major Atlanta companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS, and Home Depot, follow the same script to avoid criticizing the bill.
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This negative attitude angered the activists. In mid-March, the demonstrators held a “funeral” in the Coca-Cola Museum. The influential Atlanta pastor, Bishop Reginald Jackson, took to the streets with a megaphone, calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola. A few days later, militants gathered at the Delta Terminal at Atlanta Airport and called on Mr. Bastian to use his influence to “kill the bill.” Nevertheless, Mr. Bastian refused to make any comments publicly.
The law was passed on the second day that Delta Air Lines dedicated the building to Mr. Young. Some of the most restrictive regulations have been removed, but the law restricts access to voting, and it is a crime to water people waiting in line to vote.
The fighting in Georgia seems to be over. However, a few days after the law was passed, a group of powerful black executives who were frustrated with the results quickly acted. Soon, Atlanta’s companies were re-engaged in this battle, and the controversy has spread to other companies across the country.
Last Sunday, William M. Lewis Jr., chairman of Lazard’s investment banking business, sent emails to a handful of Georgian scholars and executives asking what he could do. The group has a simple answer: ask other black business leaders to raise the alarm.
A few minutes after receiving the reply, Mr. Lewis emailed four other black senior executives, including former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and Merck CEO Frazier. Two people familiar with the matter said that ten minutes later, the two had a video call and determined to write an open letter.
That Sunday afternoon, Mr. Lewis emailed the 150 outstanding black executives he recommended. Soon after, these people have collected more than 70 signatures, including Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith. Raymond McGuire, a former executive of Citigroup, is currently running for mayor of New York; former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns (Ursula Burns); former chairman of Citigroup, Time Warner Company CEO Richard Parsons (Richard Parsons).
Mr. Chenault said that some executives who requested a signature refused. He said: “Some people worry about attracting them and their company.”
According to three people familiar with the matter, Mr. Chenault had contact with Delta’s Bastian before the group went public. The two have known each other for decades. On Tuesday night, they discussed in detail the laws of Georgia and what role Delta could play in the debate.
The next morning, the letter ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, and Cheno and Mr. Fraser talked to the media. Cheno told The Times: “There is no middle ground here.” “You either vote for more people or you want to suppress votes.”
Lewis said: “This is unprecedented.” “The African-American business community has never reached a consensus on non-corporate issues and has issued a call for action to the broader business community.”
Two people familiar with the matter said that Mr. Bastian could not sleep on Tuesday night after calling Mr. Chenault. He also received a series of legal emails from Black Delta employees, who accounted for 21% of the company’s employees. The two said that in the end Mr. Bastian concluded that this is a serious problem.
Late that night, he compiled a hot memo and sent it to Delta employees on Wednesday morning. In it, he discarded all pretense of neutrality and expressed his “clear” opposition to the law. He wrote: “All the reasons for the bill are based on lies.”
A few hours later, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey issued a more reserved statement, imitating some of Mr. Bastian’s language and also using the word “transparency”. Mr. Quincy, a British national who had dealt with the crisis at his home in London, then participated in a 45-minute private video conference with Mr. Jackson and Ms. Yiffel and expressed solidarity with their cause.
“A lot of CEOs want to do the right thing, they are just afraid of retreating, they need cover,” Darren Walker said. . “The purpose of this letter is to provide cover.”
But for Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, the impact is strong and direct. Governor Kemp accused Bastian of spreading “false attacks repeated by guerrilla militants.” Just like three years ago, Republicans in the Georgia House of Representatives voted to cancel Delta’s tax cuts. Mr. Ralston, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “You will not feed a dog and bite your hand.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio published a video in which he claimed that Delta and Coca-Cola “woke up corporate hypocrites” and Trump also called for a boycott of companies that oppose the voting law.
Companies that take a more cautious approach are not targeting the same way. UPS and Home Depot, the major employers in Atlanta, also faced early calls against Georgia law, but made a clear commitment to voting rights.
After letters from black executives and speeches from Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, more companies came forward. On Thursday, American Airlines and Dell, both located in Texas, announced their opposition to the state’s proposed voting law. Last Friday, more than 170 companies signed a statement calling on elected officials across the country not to enact legislation that makes it more difficult for people to vote.
This is chaotic, but for many activists, it is progress. “The company does not exist in a vacuum,” said Stacey Abrams, who has worked hard for the black vote in Georgia for many years. “The company will take a nationwide response to prevent what happened in Georgia from happening in other states.”