Whatever you think of Chicago’s and Boston’s attempts to prevent Chick-fil-A from setting up shop in those cities because of its president’s anti-gay views—there’s been a great discussion about this issue among progressive, led by Glenn Greenwald, who’s got the better of the argument, it seems to me—one thing is clear.
No matter how much of a threat to Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s freedom of speech Chicago and Boston’s actions pose—and for the record, I don’t think it’s much (there’s little evidence to suggest Cathy’s fortunes would be so altered by these two individual actions as to compel him to change his positions; that’s not to say, however, that these actions don’t set bad precedents, which is why they must be opposed)—it’s miniscule in comparison to Chick-fil-A’s infringements upon the freedoms of its employees.
As Josh Eidelson makes clear in this must-read from Salon:
It’s now common knowledge that Chick-fil-A wears its brand of Christian conservatism on its sleeve. In a 2007 article, Forbes’ Emily Schmall described how that ethos infused the company’s employment policies. It meant extensive vetting of franchise operators, including interviewing their children and asking about their involvement in “community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.” “If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” Chick-fil-A founder and chairman S. Truett Cathy told Schmall.
But operators weren’t the only ones being judged on their private lives: Schmall wrote that Cathy “says he would probably fire an employee or terminate an operator who ‘has been sinful or done something harmful to their family members.’”
In 2002, Houston restaurant manager Aziz Latif allegedly was fired the day after he declined to take part in a prayer to Jesus during a training program. He sued Chick-fil-A for discrimination and reached a settlement whose terms have not been made public. Last year, Aziz’s attorney, Ajay Choudhary, told The Collegian that his client had been fired “for not conforming.” “Prayer,” he added, “should be, if anything, a private purpose, not a corporate purpose.” (Choudhary did not respond to a request for comment.)
Praying to Jesus isn’t the only activity Chick-fil-A employees claim has been illegally imposed on them. Brenda Honeycutt, who was hired by a Georgia Chick-fil-A in 1991 and promoted to general manager in 1997, charges that last year her franchise owner/operator began excluding her from management meetings and then fired her so that she would be home with her kids. In May, Honeycutt filed a Civil Rights Act lawsuit against the owner/operator and Chick-fil-A, Inc. The suit alleges that the owner told Honeycutt and three other witnesses “that he terminated the Plaintiff so she could be a stay at home mother.” In the period prior to firing her, it states that he “routinely made comments” to her “suggesting that as a mother she should stay home with her children.” It says she was replaced by a man.
In California, workers charge they were retaliated against for exposing abuse. In a pair of lawsuits, six current and former workers allege a multi-year pattern of sexual harassment by their supervisor. Their attorney, Fernando Tafoya, told Salon that the supervisor has been “using his authority as a manager to abuse the women in the workplace,” including “forcibly kiss[ing] the women, the manager putting his hands down the bra of some women as they’re getting ice from the ice machine, grabbing their genitalia, slapping them on the ass, constantly rubbing up against them when he passes by them.”
“I want this to come to an end,” one of the women, Norma Duarte, told a San Diego CBS station, “and I don’t want him continuing to harass other women in the future like myself.”
Tafoya said that when workers brought complaints to the franchise owner, she “basically just ratified the conduct,” telling them the supervisor “was just playing around, or not taking it seriously.” Tafoya also said that appeals to Chick-fil-A’s corporate office “basically fell on deaf ears.” Now that the lawsuits have been filed, Tafoya said that the national company, through its attorneys, has claimed “that the women are lying, and they’re in a conspiracy to gain money from the employer.” The women range in age from 18 to 40; some speak English, some Spanish.
According to Tafoya, the supervisor called immigration authorities and tried to have two of the six workers deported in retaliation for speaking up: “These are women who have worked loyally for Chick-fil-A, for some [up] to six years, and it wasn’t until they complained about the sexual harassment that suddenly there was an immigration issue.”
Tafoya said he was “shocked” that, when employees raised the issue internally, “the initial response of the corporation wasn’t to order their local franchise to resolve this problem immediately.” In contrast, he said, “The Chick-fil-A national headquarters keep a very strong arm in terms of making sure that Chick-fil-A operates in a certain manner and is putting out a certain message.” The case is currently in discovery, which Tafoya said will determine whether the national corporation becomes a named defendant.
Let me be clear: I very much agree with Greenwald and other liberals that governments cannot punish corporations because of the views of their CEOs. That seems obvious and straightforward.
But let’s be equally clear about two other things:
First, while many of us on the left were made quickly aware of Boston’s and Chicago’s actions against Chick-fil-A and spoke out against them, how many of us had ever heard of these actions against Chick-fil-A’s employees and said anything about them? That’s not an accusation: I myself had never heard of them, and I try to keep up with these things. It’s just a commentary on the state of our discourse where government infringements upon our rights rightfully get attention while the private sector’s don’t. Once upon a time, that wasn’t the case on the left.
Second, while we are right to protest Boston’s and Chicago’s actions, we need to be mindful of the power differentials. People with lots of money and power can withstand infringements upon their livelihoods; people with not so much money or power can’t. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest Boston or Chicago (and the precedents those actions might set). But it does mean that we need to restore some sense of sociological realism to our analysis of rights and power.
If we think that a wealthy CEO’s freedom of speech can be restricted by putting constraints upon his livelihood—and that, we should remember, is what Chicago and Boston were threatening to do (as opposed to more traditional modes of censorship)—how much more so is that the case when the victim in question is a low-wage employee?
The fact that the offender in the one case is the city of Chicago while in the other it’s a corporation is neither here nor there. As libertarians never stop reminding us, employees who don’t like their employers can take their labor elsewhere. Well, so can Chick-fil-A.