The Myth of the Progressive Capitalist

The same companies that oppose North Carolina's bathroom bill bankroll the politicians who passed it.

Shortly before Charlotte’s city council voted to extend its long-standing nondiscrimination ordinance to cover the LGBTQ community last month, Mayor Jennifer Roberts warned that companies like Apple would only come to cities that enforced such measures.

“We’ve had employers tell us that they feel it’s important for their employees to have these protections to be treated equally,” she said of the ordinance, which was also backed by the Charlotte-based Bank of America. “We want to be competitive. We want to be among those cities that are welcoming to all the talent in the workforce that we can find.”

Roberts’s sole motivation wasn’t to make Charlotte more business-friendly; after all, she came to power by upsetting a centrist dynasty. Her aim was also to convince the North Carolina General Assembly — dominated by ultra-conservative Republicans so zealous that they once wrested control of redistricting from a county legislature when the party lost its seats on the body — that there was an economic incentive to pass the ordinance.

It didn’t work. Legislative Republicans immediately attacked the law for “allow[ing] men [i.e. transgender women] in women’s restrooms” and putting women at increased risk of sexual assault, a long-disproven claim.

They called a special session and, with the backing of ten Democratic representatives, not only gutted the Charlotte law, but ended workplace-discrimination protections claims at the state level. Less than twelve hours after the special session was called to order, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed into law the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, better known as HB 2. (On Tuesday, McCrory issued an executive order that expands nondiscrimination protections for state employees, but leaves intact the entirety of HB 2.)

Corporate America reacted with equal speed. Mirroring the business outcry over Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” last March, an array of businesses lined up against HB 2.

Over 120 “leading business leaders and CEOs” signed an open letter by the Human Rights Campaign, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris, another signatory to the letter, said the company would no longer invest in the state, telling his firm’s partners, “I am not comfortable deploying dollars into startups there until the voters there fix this.” And PayPal withdrew plans to build a $3.6 million “global operations center” in Charlotte that would have employed over four hundred people.

Yet however decisive, these corporations deserve little praise for their supposed benevolence.

Some of the very companies that signed onto the Human Rights Campaign’s open letter are partially to blame for HB 2 passing in the first place. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, thirty-six of the companies donated to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the Republican Governors Association (RGA), contributing over $4.3 million to the RSLC and nearly $6.5 million to the RGA since the 2010 election. The companies include Pfizer ($2.4 million combined to the two groups), Citigroup ($1.5 million), Hewlett-Packard ($1 million), Microsoft ($724,000), Google ($447,000), and Yahoo ($300,000).

The RSLC then turned around and donated over $1.5 million to the North Carolina–based super-PAC Real Jobs NC in 2010 and 2012, and Real Jobs devoted nearly $2.4 million to winning or retaining twenty-seven legislative seats. Eleven of the legislators who first won their seats in 2010 — a year that RSLC funding accounted for 80 percent of the money spent by Real Jobs — voted for HB 2. And in 2012, the RGA shelled out nearly $5 million to help elect McCrory.

It’s unclear whether these corporations will continue to fund the RSLC and RGA going forward. But for the 2016 cycle, Google has already contributed $25,000, and Pfizer has already given $50,000.

So why would ostensibly progressive-minded corporations bankroll the legislators and governor they’re now admonishing? In short, money.

Like other states with conservative governments, North Carolina has attracted businesses with corporate welfare and low taxes. PayPal, for instance, got a $3.7 million tax incentive to set up shop in Charlotte. As for taxes, the state’s 4 percent rate on corporations is now among the lowest in the country. Lawmakers have paid for these massive giveaways (they’ve also slashed personal income taxes) by expanding the number of services subject to the sales tax, shifting the tax burden onto workers.

Novo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical company that recently broke ground with McCrory on a $1.8 billion expansion in Clayton, North Carolina, appears to have a different pecuniary incentive. While the company has also expressed (vague) displeasure at the bill, HB 2 shields it from the kind of legal trouble it’s facing elsewhere.

In New Jersey, the company is battling a discrimination and whistleblower suit brought by Alicia Clark-Unusan, a former sales representative who says she was fired for getting pregnant. If Clark-Unusan worked at the Clayton facility, she would have to file her lawsuit at the federal level, where the statutes of limitations are shorter, the filing fee is higher, and there are fewer courts.

In a state like North Carolina, where public education has been destroyed and unions have been stripped of their power, it might be tempting to rely on the likes of PayPal and Novo Nordisk as a a bulwark against regressive measures. But for corporations, progressivism is always adopted out of expediency. They’re no partners to left movements.

The solution, as always, is to mobilize and build power from below. The day after the legislation passed, #BlackLivesMatter North Carolina held a demonstration outside of the executive mansion (five protestors were arrested). And in reaction to University of North Carolina president Margaret Spellings’s directive to the university’s seventeen campuses to comply with the bill, activists unleashed a cascade of protests.

North Carolina municipalities have also started to fight the legislature’s move, albeit with limited power. Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Asheville, and both the city and county of Durham have all passed resolutions calling for HB 2’s repeal. While these cities can’t flout state law, they can push organizations and business in their jurisdictions to adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies in defiance of the legislation.

As it stands, the Republicans who approved HB 2 have essentially no political incentive to scrap it: their districts — rural, socially conservative, and far from the economic centers of Charlotte and the Research Triangle — are the sorts of places that businesses have no plans to expand to, and radical gerrymandering has rendered their seats entirely safe. Ninety percent of the legislators who voted for HB 2 are all but guaranteed reelection in November; progressives in the state, however, do have a chance to oust both McCrory and at least four Republican House members, which would be enough to sustain a less right-wing governor’s veto.

For the last couple of years, the Moral Monday movement has been trying to change the political balance of power and undermine the legislature’s “regressivism on steroids,” as Rev. William Barber, the movement’s titular leader and the state NAACP head, has put it. In a show of support, Barber has pledged a “mass sit-in” by the NAACP and its allies if the legislature refuses to repeal HB 2 by April 21.

“We cannot be silent in the face of this race-based, class-based, homophobic and transphobic attack on wage earners, civil rights, and the LGBTQ community,” Barber said in a statement. “Together with our many allies, we will coordinate a campaign of nonviolent direct action along with other forms of nonviolent protest that will instruct our legislators with respect to the rights of all people.”

The fight for a progressive North Carolina will have to be forged at the ballot box and in the streets. Only this sort of broad-based, tactically nimble movement will be able to end the state legislature’s assault on people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and workers more broadly. Together, average North Carolinians can achieve what a hundred CEOs never could: genuine social justice.