Activism

6 Companies That Stand Up for Gay Rights (Now If They Only Had Good Labor Practices Too)

These companies figured out that support for marriage equality is good for business. When will labor rights be good for business?

Last week brought two big wins for marriage equality: Washington is poised to become the seventh U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, while a federal appeals court declared California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional. Though we still have a long way to go in the fight against systemic LGBTQ discrimination, these successes were appropriately heralded as big steps forward.

Last week we also saw JC Penney, one of the most popular department store chains in North America, stand up for its new spokesperson, Ellen Degeneres, after the anti-gay group One Million Moms launched a boycott against the chain.

These incidents illustrate an important trend in, of all places, corporate America. Penney's stood up for DeGeneres, while major companies like Starbucks and Microsoft voiced their support for marriage equality. In doing so, the companies showed us that the right-wing culture war against homosexuality is losing not only in the courts, but in the court of public opinion.

As we know, corporations are all about the bottom line, and virtually no company would publicly back a social or political issue unless it -- to put it bluntly -- saw it as a business opportunity (or at the very least not a bad business decision). Tina Dupuy wrote about this phenomenon for AlterNet recently:

Advertisers put out an image or an idea -- the greater public concurs by buying those products. Successful ads equal agreed upon ideas. Marketing is, after all, the definitive pandering.

And here is what the culture is saying through advertisements: We like racial diversity. Why can I say that? Because commercials not only have racially diverse groups of friends and co-workers, they now regularly feature biracial couples in ads. In a Budweiser Super Bowl spot this year, there were black men flirting with white women sans scandal. If those spots are moving widgets it means consumers agree with the message. It's a type of voting. Even if some viewers don't notice or don't have a visceral reaction one way or another, it's an indicator of a new cultural norm.

As Dupuy mentions, the same goes for gay rights. JC Penney will support Ellen Degeneres as its spokesperson because polls show that most Americans (and, by extension, JC Penney shoppers) disagree with the bigots over at One Million Moms. Even more importantly, the market has shown that consumers will pay for products -- American Express cards, Covergirl cosmetics -- that Degeneres shills.

Nearly 15 years ago, when Degeneres famously came out of the closet in an episode of her sitcom, JC Penney likely would not have taken the stance it did this week. But now, in the year 2012, gay rights is starting to move into the mainstream. (One can only imagine that for Degeneres, the past decade and a half has been quite a journey, albeit one that is far from over.)

Several other companies that have actively supported recent gay rights battles are listed below. Beyond throwing their weight behind gay rights, these companies share something in common: each has a dubious track record with regards to workers' rights. It's clear that while the tide has turned for corporate support of gay rights, the same cannot yet be said for fair labor practices.

There is evidence that labor issues are getting more notice these days. For instance, Apple is seeing increased scrutiny over the poor treatment of Chinese factory workers, as evidenced by some popular online petitions and buzz-worthy news stories. Yet, we aren't seeing Apple or any other corporation take a meaningful stand against sweatshop conditions. (Many corporations say they oppose unfair worker treatment, but few really do anything about it.)

Part of the reason for this, surely, is that improving labor conditions would hurt the bottom line of the Apples and the Nikes of the world; they rely on cheap labor to make hefty profits. But also, it may be true that we haven't reached the tipping point at which consumers' support for labor rights becomes as mainstream as their support for gay rights. Ellen Degeneres fans spoke with their dollars, promising to shop at JC Penney moreafter the company brushed off One Million Moms. Whither the hordes of angry Apple users threatening to shun the next iPhone upgrade?

Here are several of the companies that came out in support of gay rights, but have yet to address their own dubious labor practices.

1. Starbucks

In late January, Starbucks announced its support for marriage equality in its home state of Washington. The company issued a statement noting that it was "proud to join other leading Northwest employers in support of Washington state legislation recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples" and that "[t]his important legislation is aligned with Starbucks' business practices and upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners." Although some right-wing groups launched a boycott of the company over its marriage equality stance, Starbucks didn't care because it recognized that the gay rights detractors were in the minority of its customers.

Unfortunately, it seems that fair labor standards are not"aligned with Starbucks' business practices" in the same way, since the company has been known to be anti-union and illegally suppresses organizing efforts.

2. Nike

Nike signed a letter co-written with several other Washington-based companies in support of the state's marriage equality bill. Addressed to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, the letter stated simply, "We write you today to show the support of our respective companies for SB 6239 and HB 2516 recognizing marriage equality for same-sex couples."

Nike saw no financial risk in stating its support for marriage equality. On the labor front, the story is different. Nike is the poster-company for sweatshop abuse, and according to reports from as recent as 2010 the company's reliance on sweatshop labor continues today.

3. Microsoft

Microsoft joined Nike in signing the pro-marriage equality letter to Governor Gregoire. What's interesting about Microsoft, though, is that the company has in the past come under fire for not vocalizing its support on the issue. Obviously, those criticisms were loud enough that Microsoft changed its mind, saying in a statement, "Microsoft's greatest asset is a talented workforce as diverse as our customers. As other states recognize marriage equality, Washington's employers are at a disadvantage if we cannot offer a similar, equitable and inclusive environment to our talented employees, our top recruits and their families. This legislation would put Washington employers on equal footing with employers in the six other states that already recognize the committed relationships of same-sex couples. Passing the bill would be good for our business and for the state's economy."

Microsoft stood up for the rights of its workers in Washington state. Unfortunately, the company's commitment does not extend to the workers who make its products overseas. The company has been accused of breaking Chinese labor laws and allowing workers in the country to be treated "like prisoners."

4. American Apparel

Hipster clothing chain American Apparel likes to position itself as a progressive company, and has long supported gay rights, among other forward-thinking issues. A page on the company's Web site reads, "With many of our employees and customers identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, we are a company that is vocal about our support for the protection of gay rights."

But as I've reported in the past, American Apparel also has a history of treating many of its workers, particularly women, very poorly. The company's founder and CEO, Dov Charney, has been sued by more than a dozen employees for sexual harassment. But most of the cases haven't made it anywhere due to the arbitration and confidentiality agreements that new employees are required to sign.

5. Apple

Apple made headlines last fall for donating $100,000 to fight Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California. The company stated, "Apple was among the first California companies to offer equal rights and benefits to our employees' same-sex partners, and we strongly believe that a person's fundamental rights -- including the right to marry -- should not be affected by their sexual orientation. Apple views this as a civil rights issue, rather than just a political issue, and is therefore speaking out publicly against Proposition 8."

However, it's well documented that Apple relies heavily on the Chinese factory Foxconn, which treats its workers terribly and where more than a dozen workers have committed suicide. Apple says it has addressed the labor issues at Foxconn, and yet widespread reports indicate that the problems persist. Does the company not believe as strongly in Chinese workers' fundamental civil rights?

Incidentally, Apple has also come under fire from gay rights groups in the past for approving anti-gay iPhone applications.

6. Amazon

Earlier this month, Amazon became one of the latest major companies to get behind Washington's marriage equality legislation, saying that "[t]he spirit of these bills is consistent with our longstanding employment practices."

Also consistent with Amazon's longstanding employment practices is treating the employees in their warehouses "as disposable as the products they're shipping," Mac McClelland reported in Mother Jonesthis past holiday season. Amazon's warehouse employees are chronically overworked and underpaid and made to stuff boxes in sweltering temperatures.

In a related blog post, McClelland noted that "every one of Amazon's millions of customers should write them a really angry letter demanding change. Except we won't. Because then our shipping wouldn't be free."

That sentiment gets to the heart of why all these companies will profess their support for gay rights while treating many of their workers poorly. If we, as consumers, don't show them that stepping up their labor practices makes smart financial sense, they will never do a thing. But we shouldn't find that depressing. Instead, we should recognize that we hold tremendous power to encourage companies to do the right thing. The next step is wielding that power.

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Change.org, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.