When Walmart sided with gay rights by saying that Arkansas’s religious freedom reformation act sends the “wrong message”, it surprised many. The nation’s largest employer is more commonly associated with low wages and red-state religious values than with LGBT rights.
But in working with Bob Witeck, the DC-based head of the gay and lesbian-focused communications group Witeck Communications, Walmart addressed charges by critics that it ought to put its money where its mouth is, and lobby to avert dangerous anti-gay legislation in its own backyard.
Like most consultants, Witeck doesn’t like to say too much about what he and his clients talk about. But in an interview with the Guardian, he offered some insight into how corporations have evolved in this regard.
Witeck began focusing on LGBT communications about 22 years ago, when he worked with American Airlines. In 1993, as gay activists flew back to Dallas after attending an HIV/Aids march in DC, an AA flight crew wanted to remove the pillows and blankets the activists used, “as if AIDS was transmitted that casually”.
This caused a huge flap, which, he says, “wasn’t just a PR problem, but a problem of all kinds”. In the blowback, he met with AA’s medical director, their legal director and their senior directors to help them better understand HIV and to help them engage their employees to understand what it means to be an LGBT worker in America.
In those days, Witeck says, he had to convince corporate America that “not everyone is Don Draper. Not everyone is a straight, white male executive”. It also meant challenging what “family” meant whenever a company invokes that word for marketing purposes. “Family can be a rightwing codeword,” he says, “or it can be a word that means something to everyone.”
Pointing this out two decades ago meant Witeck had to demonstrate “the risk and reward of any campaign” with LGBT people – with the risks being quite high. Today, family values are not always considered at odds with LGBT values to the American consumer public; indeed, Witeck says, the rewards are increasingly “bigger than the risk”.
When you have Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle and his girlfriend offering to buy out unwanted tickets to a gay-themed baseball promotion night, and wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin giving a profanity-laced tirade for gay rights, the issue is no longer “simply about inclusion of LGBT people, but a matter of value to everyone. This is important to sisters, family members, neighbors” of queer people, Witeck says, “and especially to millennials, who are adamant about this”.
An early reason corporate America waded tepidly into these fights was because they “wanted top talent”, which often includes gay executives. After Massachussets made same-sex marriage legal more than a decade ago, it was an outlier to be able to have a recognized gay union. It “didn’t become palpable until the last five years”, Witeck says of corporate America, that they could be losing talent all over the country to queer families who won’t give up their legal protections easily where they have them.
Corporate America has, improbably enough, been stepping in as state legislatures roll back rights for LGBT workers in increasingly aggressive ways: the “boldest” move, Witeck notes, was Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff offering employees $50,000 relocation packages to move from Indiana if they feel uncomfortable.
But not all LGBT employees, especially Walmart workers who live in Arkansas, are executives who can pick up and move to a new state. Witeck says that when he first started working with corporations on these issues, he had to help them understand LGBT rights don’t affect only gay versions of Don Draper, but “chambermaids”, people for whom English isn’t their first language, and blue-collar workers.
Walmart’s workers, gay and straight, are notoriously known to be among the most economically exploited in the nation. Yet Walmart recently announced it is modestly raising its wages, though not by nearly as much as the Fight for $15 would like. Witeck gives Walmart a lot of credit for understanding this “movement among employees about wages and benefits”. Walmart and McDonald’s are moving, if too slowly, to reflect how voters are acting. “There was big support for wage increases everywhere, during an otherwise Republican wave,” he says.
Witeck’s career has shown that corporate America can change if its customers and employees push hard enough. The first beneficiaries of widespread LGBT rights were married couples and corporate executives in progressive states. The second wave seems to be LGBT workers who happen to live in a state where corporations wield the can of political power a Walmart can flex in Arkansas. Perhaps a third wave – if Americans can demand that all low-wage workers deserve the same civil rights as the American zeitgeist is currently demanding for some LGBT workers – can demand Walmart be pushed to pay its workers a civil wage, as it is pushing on Arkansas to provide its workers civil rights.
This article was written by Steven Thrasher, for theguardian.com on Saturday 4th April 2015 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010