You know corporate personhood has gone too far when companies start complaining about their hurt feelings. The charge of “bullying” was once mainly restricted to school hallways and playgrounds, but it now pervades grown-up discourse. If the public wants a company or brand to change a practice, it’s bullying. If a union wants a company to raise wages, it’s bullying. Even a customer demanding protection under antidiscrimination law is bullying. But can these social antagonisms be so easily reduced?
In classic usage, bullying is a varying combination of torture and extortion: Bullies humiliate, intimidate, and beat their victims, and then they take their lunch money. It’s an exercise of power, over the weak by the strong, and once kids reach the age of legal culpability, this behavior has official names like assault, harassment and robbery. This doesn’t share a lot in common with the actions of, say, workers at the North Charleston Boeing plant in South Carolina. They are scheduled to vote on union representation on April 22, but Governor Nikki Haley has called this basic organizing “bully middleman tactics.” The workers are demanding money, but that’s about as far as the comparisons go.
Occasionally unions have engaged in harassment, but does that make them bullies? Last month, producers for the movie “Sharknado 3” complained that the Stage Employees Local was guilty of “cyberbullying, threats … verbal and physical intimidation, staged pedestrian accidents, and mysteriously flattened tires” over a withdrawn contract. But the relationship between employees and their employers is already unequal: Owners profit from workers’ labor, employees use unions to negotiate how much. When a big union comes to organize employees, complaining managers sound like a bully who just found out one of their victims has a brother home from the military.
Unions aren’t the only ones who stand accused of bullying corporations. In a column for CNBC titled “Cyberbullying’s new target: Big companies,” Javier E. David applied the bullying frame to social media users who criticized Starbucks’ ill-fated “Race Together” public conversation project and a gruesome cover for the comic “Batgirl.” No one’s saying consumers are committing sabotage, but by mocking these companies online, they’re forcing the hands of corporate boards. The Starbucks experiment was so roundly denounced that an executive temporarily deleted his Twitter account to escape the haters. Senior VP of Global Communications Corey duBrowa wrote he felt “personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” and the coffee company pulled the campaign.
But there’s another term for this kind of expression: protected speech. The courts tell us that corporations are people, but they’re definitely public people, and we can call them names if we want. When people joining together to collect their voices and try to influence the behavior of larger economic actors, that’s about as close as we have to American democracy. Surely there wasn’t anything gentle about the consumers’ rejection of New Coke, but it’s a big stretch to say the company’s recipe change was bullied off the market. Starbucks wanted to sell Americans on a warm-and-fuzzy idea of race relations over coffee, and we were definitely not buying it.
Conservatives like to pose small businesses as objects of bullying, and the Indiana pizzeria that closed down after they were deluged with negative attention for taking a public anti-gay marriage stance made a perfect victim. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal referenced it when, in an interview with Breitbart.com last week, he called “the left” bullies five times in as many sentences. (“The left are bullies. Look what they did in Indiana, when it came to the fight over religious liberty. They are bullies who try to intimidate their opponents.”) But invoking bullying rhetoric in this situation without reference to the bullying that so many queer Americans experience is disingenuous at best. There’s a difference between the jerk who calls some freshman a homo and the football team who gets together to rough up the jerk because that freshman is also a great placekicker. The ethics of intimidation aren’t uniform; relationships and content both matter.
When it comes to the relationship between workers and employers, it’s clear who the real bully is. Employers are the biggest thieves out there. According to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute earlier this month, just the stolen wages the Department of Labor recovered for workers in 2012 was more than twice as much as the total stolen in regular robberies: $280 million to $139 million. In 2013, Starbucks agreed to pay $3 million to compensate workers for illegally depriving them of meal breaks. The company didn’t stop at stealing its employees’ lunch money, they stole the lunches themselves. And in a tight labor market, the threat of immediate unemployment is more menacing than any union campaign.
If they’re ever hauled into the principal’s office and made to account for their actions, smart bullies know it’s a good move to muddy the waters. The best defense is a good offense, and claiming to be the real victim is Page 1 in the bully playbook. If corporations are people, then they’ve been the biggest, baddest bullies on the American playground for a long time. If the rest of us can come together, whether as unions or hectoring Twitter mobs, and bend them to our collective will, then all power to the people.