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An inside look at how one major corporation created an “astroturf” campaign to undermine worker and community demands for racial and economic justice.

Systemic racism infects every single institution in our society, including corporations. In the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, corporations across America have made statements affirming a commitment to anti-racism and racial equity. Some of these corporations have committed to looking deeply at and addressing racial inequity in their ranks, while others have been criticized for their hypocrisy. 

Broadly, experts have identified two paths corporations can follow in response to demands that they do their part to remedy the present day institutional manifestations of longstanding racism and white supremacy. One, the high road, is to give workers a voice by addressing the underlying issues they bring up. The other, the low road, is to engage in a sophisticated marketing campaign to convince the public that the corporation is “doing the right thing,” while taking little action to end institutional injustice, thereby perpetuating it.

New Flyer of America (New Flyer), the largest manufacturer of public transit buses in North America, is a multi-billion dollar corporation that has taken the low road. In the fall of 2019, Black and women workers had, in survey responses and interviews, identified race, gender discrimination and dangerous and unhealthy conditions at New Flyer’s Alabama factory as major concerns. In a more recent report, even greater percentages of surveyed workers raised concerns about discrimination and unsafe working conditions at the Alabama plant.

New Flyer rejected a demand from a coalition of Alabama residents, civil rights groups, and workers to negotiate an enforceable, national “Community Benefits Agreement” to create better jobs, equal opportunity, and healthier communities for the company’s workers. Instead, on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 2020, New Flyer announced a “partnership” with the Transportation Diversity Council (TDC), a New York-based organization, to create a so-called Community Benefits Framework. The Alabama coalition charged that, in reality, New Flyer hired TDC to run an “astroturf” campaign to lend a facade of legitimacy to New Flyer’s refusal to address the concerns of workers and residents.

New Flyer hired a consultant to run an “astroturf” campaign to lend a facade of legitimacy to the company’s refusal to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with
workers and community members.

This report documents how New Flyer’s relationship with TDC follows a well-traveled corporate astroturf low road:

  • TDC has collaborated with New Flyer to produce a vague “framework” that has no mechanisms of enforceability and no means for input by affected workers, instead of an enforceable Community Benefits Agreement created with true worker and community participation that provides meaningful benefits and genuine accountability; 
  • TDC has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees its role as acting on behalf of New Flyer, not representing the independent interests of workers and community members;
  • TDC, as part of its core activities, advocates for transportation businesses and executives and assists their efforts to access taxpayer funds; and
  • TDC has conflicts of interest that likely prevent it from independently representing worker or community interests.

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