Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, one among many scenes where tensions between companies and the Texas legislature are playing out.
Despite its firm foothold in the fossil energy industry, Texas has emerged in recent years as a national leader in wind power. Becoming a clean technology hub will take the state a while, however. To start, the state’s long-term ability to attract companies and marquee brands, not to mention achieving growth in next-generation industries, is at risk by conflict over anti-science policies including moves to ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Bans on vaccine mandates are only the start in Texas
Along with the Texas governor’s recent attempt to ban vaccine mandates, lawmakers in the Lone Star State have worked over the years to restrict reproductive rights. Such efforts culminated with the passage of a new law that bans almost all abortions on grounds that do not align with medical science, say multiple physicians who specialize in reproductive health.
That lack of support for the personal rights of women stands in sharp contrast to the state’s position on proven strategies for preventing sickness and death from COVID-19. Rather than supporting businesses that require masks and vaccinations, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot and the state legislature have championed the personal rights of anti-mask, anti-vaccine individuals over workplace safety and public health. Texas is also one of many states to pass legislation that restricts access to the ballot box.
The voting rights restrictions, the abortion ban and the COVID-19 response all make it more complicated for companies to do business in Texas — at least for those working to promote gender diversity and employee wellness as key elements in their corporate profile.
Sleeping corporate giants are waking up
The clampdown on voting rights in Texas sparked a corporate uproar that many say amounted to all noise and no action. The corporate reaction to the new abortion ban was even less effective and barely raised above a murmur. Last month dozens of corporations with a footprint in the state signed on to a letter of protest, but many of those were small- or medium-sized companies. Many were also women-led or associated with womenswear and household products, indicating that activism on reproductive rights has failed to cross over into the mainstream of corporate thought.
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However, Gov. Abbott’s proposed new ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates seems to have stirred several top leaders in the corporate world into action.
Last week Abbott issued an executive order that bans companies from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees or customers. He also called the Texas legislature into session in order to pass a law aimed at exposing businesses and other organizations to lawsuits if they impose vaccine mandates on employees.
The executive order was swiftly challenged by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which cited its responsibility to maintain workplace safety under its federal contracts. American Airlines, based in nearby Fort Worth, similarly brushed off the executive order, arguing that the federal vaccine mandate supersedes Abbot’s order.
Meanwhile, much of the corporate world of Texas rallied against the effort to expose organizations to legal action if they mandate vaccines. As a result, the state house's version of that proposed legislation failed to make it out of committee last week. The state senate version, SB51, limped into the full chamber on Monday and was promptly killed.
The Texas Tribune listed “several chambers of commerce, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, and the Texas Trucking Association” among the business organizations opposing the legislation. Along with public health concerns, they cited bottom-line impacts on small businesses and companies that rely on federal funding.
Big guns go to bat for vaccine mandates
Also throwing its weight against the legislation was the business group Greater Houston Partnership. The organization’s short list of executive partners includes BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil, along with several leading energy companies and the firms Accenture and JPMorgan Chase — and that’s only the start. Greater Houston Partnership also counts a long list of corporate members including leading national and international brands like PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch along with scores of employers in energy and other key Texas industries.
On Oct. 12, Greater Houston Partnership CEO and President Bob Harvey issued a statement against Abbott’s executive order. Emphasizing that his organization has supported vaccine mandates from the beginning, Harvey explained: “Businesses have a duty to maintain a safe work environment, and many have deemed vaccine requirements an important step to get back to business safely and necessary to grow Houston’s economy.”
Harvey noted that Greater Houston Partnership supports exemptions for religion or health as required by law, but he also suggested that offering the alternative of frequent testing is weak tea compared to universal vaccination. “The governor’s executive order does not support Texas businesses’ ability and duty to create a safe workplace,” he wrote in the statement. “Vaccinations are our path out of the pandemic, and the Partnership remains focused on supporting steps that lead to improving the rate of vaccination in our community.”
Now that corporate muscle has been flexed, what’s next?
The failure of SB51 is at least a partial vindication for companies that have affirmed their vaccine mandates, despite Abbott’s executive order, and it’s clear that corporate giants have the power to flex their muscles on matters of public policy outside of their direct business interests, when they choose to do so.
Image credit of DFW airport: Javier Vinals via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.