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Business leaders silent so far on the fate of abortion access in Michigan

The Michigan business community has weighed in on a number of controversial topics in recent years, from voting rights to racial equity. But business leaders have yet to issue statements on abortion access in Michigan. (Dale Young/Bridge Michigan)

Michigan businesses leaders join their peers across the nation in trying to figure out how they should react to often-divisive social and state policies that affect their communities and their employees, with the focus now landing on whether to take a stand on abortion access. 

However, decisions on when and how to weigh in are not easy, Andy Johnston, vice president for government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce told Bridge Michigan.

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One sign of the risk is the fallout to the Walt Disney Co., which initially was criticized for being silent on Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill — and then watched Republican lawmakers take retribution when it came out against the measure.

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“Many of our communities are facing this major polarization and fractious political divide,” said Johnston, who has been part of national business discussions on it. “So many of our chambers are always struggling (with) where do you draw the line of engagement to some of these issues?

“It can almost feel like we can never do enough for either side.”

The result so far, as the state considers how it would respond to the apparent reversal of Roe v. Wade and possible new abortion restrictions, is general silence from the business community.

Both abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates mobilized Tuesday to fundraise, plan their next steps and try to sway public opinion in their direction. A growing part of similar efforts in recent years is enlisting corporate support on watershed moments of public import — such as the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol to halt certification of the presidential election, or the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

The state's biggest employers and business advocacy organizations have yet to comment on a leaked draft of a majority Supreme Court opinion that would, if it holds up, overturn Roe and reactivate a 1931 Michigan criminal law that would make abortion a felony in most instances.

Unclear is whether business will take a leadership role on the issue as the Supreme Court finalizes its decision, likely in June, and both Democratic and Republican leaders and party officials gauge what that will mean for Michigan. 

Abortion, Johnston said, is not an issue that’s been discussed as a business priority. 

To be sure, the issue has significant ramifications not only for women, but for businesses in Michigan, where 51.3 percent of the labor force was female in 2021 — about 1 percent higher than pre-pandemic.

Addressing abortion is “a weird tightrope,” said Alexis Wiley, principal at Moment Strategies, a strategic communications firm in Detroit.

Speaking up could lead to backlash. However, Wiley said, staying silent may carry its own repercussions, particularly if a business caters to women and already advocates for women’s issues.

Wiley’s advice to businesses considering whether and how to state a position as Michigan prepares for a ballot issue this November to change the state Consitution to allow abortions is to understand that controversy is likely to follow. 

“Those who speak need to be committed to meaningful action,” Wiley said. “The big concern … is being viewed as hollow. This is a movement where platitudes are not wanted.”

Wiley continued: “If you’re interested in being vague, this is not the conversation for you.”

When it comes to reproductive rights, “every business has to make their own decision,” said Arn Tellem, vice chair of the Detroit Pistons and this year’s chair of the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Making those decisions has sometimes been fraught for companies in an increasingly polarized political climate.

The National Association of Manufacturers was among the first advocacy groups to react to the January 6, 2021, insurrection by calling it “mob rule” and “sedition.”

Michigan business leaders urged the state Legislature not to disenfranchise voters when Republican lawmakers proposed a 39-bill package that would tighten voting rules in April 2021. That followed a show of corporate support in the fight against similar bills in Georgia.

Business voices also expressed concern and support for the nation’s racial reckoning following the police killing of Floyd, and urged state Republican and Democratic leaders to unite over COVID-19 safety measures that often divided the business community itself.

“Business leaders have felt more of a responsibility to speak out on public policy issues than certainly any other time in my lifetime,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, during a media gathering to outline Mackinac Policy Conference.

The theme of this year’s conference, planned for May 31-June 2 on Mackinac Island, is “The business community’s changing civic role in polarizing times.”

Tellem said business leaders recognize that there are “certain issues where we have a responsibility to speak out,” including the 2021 state voting rights controversy.

That, he said, “was one issue that galvanized the business (community) because that is essential to part of our American values, of our American democracy.”

While many spoke out at that time, Tellem said, “You can’t speak out on everything.”

Yet, Baruah said, many employers are trusted to provide factual information to their employees and the public. Figuring out their roles amid social change is important so that they can maintain that trust, he added.

But reaction to public statements on social issues can leave businesses gun shy about weighing in on divisive topics due to harsh reaction from the side that disagrees, Johnston said. 

Some business leaders are consulting more with their workers about how that message should be delivered, he added, particularly on issues like  racial equity that have the potential to affect recruiting. 

This year’s goal of the Mackinac Policy Conference, Tellem said, is for business leaders on both sides of the abortion decision to gain understanding of other viewpoints. Other issues also will be discussed.

“It’ll help inform us, too, so when the next crisis or next issue comes up, businesses will be better suited and better able to make (their) decisions.”

In Texas, which made its abortion laws more restrictive in fall 2021, some national businesses altered employee policies. Amazon, for example, told its workers in across the U.S. that it will reimburse them for trips for abortion services or other non-life threatening medical services. 

Amazon’s decision followed similar moves in Texas by Citicorp, Yelp! and Apple, all of which experts said were initiated to retain employees. Uber and Lyft told drivers that they would pay for legal bills if drivers are sued for transporting people to abortions.

Those companies conveyed their moves to employees in staff-only emails or company meetings, not in public statements — such as the ones by the Walt Disney Company when it criticized Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in schools. 

Disney made the statements after impacted members of its workforce and their supporters complained about the lack of support as Republicans moved legislation unfriendly to the LGBTQ community. When it did speak out against the school bill, the Republican Legislature initiated tax bills impacting the company. 

Following the bombshell story Tuesday on the Supreme Court’s likely abortion ruling, Levi Strauss & Co., became the first major company to address the issue, telling the New York Times that restricting abortion access could have “far-reaching consequences for the American work force, the U.S. economy and our nation’s pursuit of gender and racial equity.”

With some issues, companies may feel like there’s no way to win, said Johnston of the Grand Rapids chamber. Their workforce may expect one action, while the community could anticipate another. 

Business chamber groups often try to stay “the sane center” in a controversy, Johnston said, but that only goes so far today.

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The Grand Rapids chamber must prioritize its most pressing business policy issues for its advocacy.

Today, its members are concerned about the labor force and finding enough workers, a critical issue made worse by the pandemic. Unclear so far is what changes in abortion laws in Michigan will mean, so for now it’s not a chamber priority, Johnston said. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is in a similar position, a representative told Bridge, as it isn’t hearing abortion access being addressed by members.

“We’re supposed to be a place where a bunch of people can live (even if) they don’t agree on a lot,” Johnston said, “but we live together peacefully and we agree on big-picture ideas.

“It’s gotten a lot harder.”

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