David Berkowitz/Flickr

Early in January, I took a bus from Pittsburgh to Cleveland for a good friend’s wedding. The events of the weekend were scattered among prestigious locales like the Union Club—a country club whose membership includes five former presidents—and the Velvet Tango Room, nationally recognized for its cocktails. But the morning of the wedding, when I arrived at the Punch Bowl Social for a breakfast event, I observed a different sort of establishment. Punch Bowl is surreptitious in its elegance, though a departure from the wedding’s other venues. It is a new sort of club that requires neither membership nor dues and features bowling lanes and arcade games in place of lawn bowls and golf tees.

While champagne flowed, bowling lanes thundered, and the arcade games were played with impunity. The restaurant bustled, serving weekend brunch to guests seated in sleek, mustard-yellow booths under exposed-filament lightbulbs. The space is meticulously designed. But the detail that most caught my eye would not be found in any interior designer’s portfolio. It was a small, unassuming sign, printed in black letters on white cardstock, hung on a brick pillar in the restaurant’s entryway:

THIS IS A SAFE SPACE

WE VALUE YOUR COLOR, CLASS, CREED, GENDER & ORIENTATION

ANYTHING LESS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED

The proclamation is strong. It suggests that all are welcome at the Punch Bowl Social—unless you’re unwelcoming. Punch Bowl Social—and many other like-minded businesses—are stepping forward to offer folks a night out with limited worry of harassment. The practice of providing a safe space for people of varied backgrounds and identity combinations to learn, work, or simply exist, has become, in recent years, the nearly exclusive province of liberal universities. However, Robert Thompson, CEO of Seasoned Development, Punch Bowl Social’s parent company, views this role for his business as one of potential shelter: “We’re happy to have people consider us safe to the extent that we’re a protector. You’re only going to feel safe if you feel protected, and not everybody needs to feel that way… but if that’s helpful for them in their daily lives, that’s important [to us].”

The wedding festivities ended, I returned home to Pittsburgh and largely forgot about the sign hung in Punch Bowl’s entryway. I filed a photo of it away in my phone, thinking it might be a good pick-me-up on a future day of despair. This was before Inauguration Day.

After Trump took office and rolled out his first absurd, bigoted travel ban, companies across industries (though spearheaded by tech companies) joined together in a steady chorus of statements against it. My favorite local bar joined many other Pittsburgh establishments in hanging a bright yellow sign proclaiming, in a dozen or so languages: “All are Welcome Here.” Microsoft and IBM put out tepid statements, as did Goldman Sachs (via an internally-circulated voicemail) and Koch brothers-affiliated groups. Uber turned off surge pricing during the protests—a move that came to be seen as an attempt to undermine the New York Taxi Workers Alliance—leading an effort spearheaded on social media to #deleteUber and use alternative rideshare services like Lyft, which embraced the media spotlight with a $1 million pledge to the ACLU. Many other companies pledged seven-figure donations or matchings to the ACLU to help fight the ban and, presumably, future chicanery from the Trump White House. Facebook, Google, and dozens of others went so far as to directly challenge the order in court.

American businesses may now have an opportunity to take a moral stand, if they dare to do it. Not every American company has come out against policies proposed or enacted by the Trump administration. Far from it. Many have remained mute, business-as-usual, maintaining status quo, while colleagues around them speak out. As Jerry Davis observed last year in The New Republic, corporations have historically “aimed to be scrupulously neutral on social issues.” This neutrality most often acts as an implicit statement of support for the status quo and ignorance of neutrality’s far from neutral social implications. I contacted half a dozen large corporations about whether or not they see themselves as social actors. One spokesperson told me I was “barking up the wrong tree”—others didn’t return my request for comment. This signals to me that, particularly for many larger companies, the idea of social responsibility is something of an afterthought.

This is the “old school” view, according to economist Klaus Weber, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, whose research deals with corporate responsibility. Businesses have never been politically involved on the scale they are now, he says. But was there a time that businesses challenged the government this directly?

“I think of the 70s and 80s, where there was a lot of economic instability along with political instability: the oil crisis, the demise of American manufacturing, globalization taking off.” Weber’s view is that companies were, then, more concerned with “defending their immediate interest” and would choose to take on social issues that benefitted their bottom lines. This is certainly the case today, but Weber sees the global tilt to right-wing fringe politics as a chance for companies to take “a more active role in responsibility, almost as a compensation for the issues being addressed by policy makers.”

Thompson agrees. The current political moment is a “tremendous opportunity. A unique one, a fresh one, for private-sector companies to make statements and help affect change.”

When we think of corporate activism, we tend to think of bottom-up pressure—the social activists taking to parks and streets during the Occupy movement, for example—rather than pronouncements from the boardroom. But yet, we are seeing unprecedented numbers of CEOs release carefully crafted public statements to challenge—with varying directness—President Trump’s policies and orders they see as un-American, or, at the very least, antithetical to doing business in the global economy. About this strand of CEO activism, Weber observes: “America First works great for the US electorate, but it doesn’t really work so well if you’re Facebook and you’re regulated in [various] countries that all have local sensitivities, and so you have to be a little bit different.” CEOs know that it is in their best interest to manage public opinion of their brands, not only in the United States but everywhere else they operate. “And social responsibility is one of the ways in which they control that,” says Weber.

For Punch Bowl Social’s Robert Thompson, it is important for his company to take “issue-based stances. We don’t make party statements.” Each Punch Bowl Social location around the country flew pride flags when the Supreme Court ratified marriage equality nationwide, in 2015, because, Thompson says, “we thought this was a day to be proud to be an American.”

While he laughs and admits personal politics that are unabashedly progressive, he says he refused to “roll out anti-Trump stuff at our locations” because he’s more interested in customers knowing what he is for than against. That allows “people to self-align with us,” he says, rather than to foist a partisan message on unsuspecting customers. It’s a delicate line for a business owner to walk.

Now, faced with flagrantly racist rhetoric from the presidency, restaurants are hanging signs proclaiming inclusion. But mere decades ago, many entertainment and dining establishments hung signs proclaiming their premises “whites only”—a contradiction that places this political moment in sharp relief against American capital’s historical view of itself as amoral.

Woolworth’s, during 1960 sit-ins at their lunch counters across the South, adopted the policy that they would “abide by local custom” and keep their southern lunch counters segregated. This tacitly reinforced the racist status quo until public opinion so turned against Woolworth’s that the chain relented. In Greensboro, where the sit-ins originated, the local Woolworth’s integrated its lunch counters without ceremony, after the initial, highly publicized sit-ins had slowed.

They didn’t want to be seen or heard making the announcement of integration. Even for companies who took social responsibility seriously, those actions were lumped into a category with religion and politics: each to their own, and let’s not talk much about it in polite company. While companies are now forced to contend with consumers and employees that expect them to do business in equitable ways, is there any evidence that CEOs and business owners have begun to see themselves as morally responsible entities?

Hilary Schenker, an illustrator based in Pittsburgh, explained via email that she’s not sure that “business owners are becoming more conscientious. I think the conscientiousness is driven by the people who frequent the stores.” Schenker composed the sign that now hangs in many of the local establishments in the city: “Pittsburgh: City of Bridges—ALL are WELCOME HERE.” She says that the “response we’ve heard has been overwhelmingly positive.” Volunteers have described the process of distributing those signs as “restorative,” and an “elementary school teacher even printed large posters to display in the gym at her school.”

Companies from the local to the multi-national, Weber suggests, are now integrating bottom-line thinking and social responsibility, so much so that it’s often “very difficult to disentangle the two.” He says that not long ago, that responsibility might be limited to philanthropy or warding off “attack[s] by activists.”

So the activism is working? Anecdotal evidence would suggest so. Weber suggests that there are indirect effects of environmental and social activist’s pressure on corporate America. “Companies don’t need to be ‘attacked’ directly. There’s a cultural shift that has happened, where some of those issues have been enshrined in general culture. They’ve been successful in that way.”

Last April, Duke professor Aaron K. Chatterji and Harvard professor Michael W. Toffel published the results of their ad-hoc study on CEO activism in The New York Times. In the study, surveyed thousands of respondents nationwide on their opinions of Indiana’s “religious liberty” law, which would have allowed businesses, unconstitutionally, to discriminate against LGBT clients or potential hires. Each respondent was read the same general statement that expressed a worry that the law would allow that discrimination. That statement was attributed alternately to the mayor of Indianapolis; the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, and the then-CEO of Angie’s List, William Oesterle; or to no one in particular.

The findings suggested that public opinion of Indiana’s new law declined “sharply, and roughly equally,” when the statement was attributed to Cook, Oesterle, or the mayor of Indianapolis, as opposed to remaining unattributed. Rightly or wrongly, the statements of prominent business leaders now carry equal or greater weight in forming public opinion than those of politicians. This does not come as a total surprise, as public trust in government has steadily declined since the beginning of the Vietnam War, to a near-historic low of approximately 20 percent of those polled, the Pew Research Institute reported in May 2017. Many people see CEOs to be far more accessible to average citizens than elected officials, who often disappear after Election Day into ideological pursuits at the expense of constituent concerns. This access—real or perceived—is particularly heightened with the advent of social media and companies’ ever-consuming obsession with creating a customer experience that is collaborative, an experience that gives the consumer a voice in the way they interact with the company. And as the interface becomes more collaborative, it follows that the consumer would expect to be able to exercise influence over companies in a way that may have seemed unimaginable a few decades ago.

From a CEO’s perspectives, there is little doubt that these statements enhance the bottom lines. As Weber says: “There is a sense that companies have a greater need to step in, but there is more in flux and at stake, and so if they don’t take a political stance, then they will not be able to influence the agenda.”

The study went on to show that people surveyed had a higher opinion of Apple after hearing the statement attributed to Cook, and that those consumer gains “outweighed, in our study, the consumer losses incurred by those who opposed same-sex marriage and were put off by Mr. Cook’s advocacy.”

Does this mean that the days of corporate neutrality are over? Perhaps decades of activism have forced companies to pay attention to ideology, though progress is almost always met with resistance, and CEOs see that, too. The boycotts of Chik-fil-A in the aftermath of CEO Dan Cathy’s 2012 statements against gay marriage were matched with a day of support for the franchise.

CEOs know that they are being scrutinized by their customers, and they are making decisions accordingly. But let’s not forget: this year the percentage of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is set to top 5 percent for the first time; a 2016 Economic Policy Institute study suggests that women still earn only 83 cents on the dollar compared with men (up from 64 cents on the dollar in 1980); and legislators are still having debates about whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT clients under the guise of “religious liberty.”

Has the activism worked? It’s begun to. Many CEOs have begun to use their platforms to perform activism, while some continue the pure chase after profit. Will those tides continue to turn? Will social responsibility remain a cost item that benefits American business? From the base of capitalism’s pyramid, the consumer, the worker, the activist may well demand it.

Joshua D. Graber

Joshua D. Graber is a Pittsburgh-based writer, translator, and educator. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and other literary journals.

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