Nissan Comes Out Of The Closet Against Anti-Gay Tennessee Law

May 24, 2011

If you didn't already know what Nissan's words meant, you'd likely have no idea what the company was saying in a statement it released yesterday.

So we'll translate.

"Nissan North America, a company with its headquarters (and two factories) in the state of Tennessee, opposes a pair of recent bills in the state legislature that overturn Nashville's law prohibiting companies that do business with the city from discriminating against gay, lesbian, and transgender Tennesseans who work for them."

That's not, of course, what Nissan said. In its entirety, the statement reads:

BACKGROUND: Recently a number of special interest groups in Tennessee and abroad have voiced opposition to HB600/SB632, the "Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act," which is awaiting Governor Haslam’s signature to be signed into law. Nissan is clarifying its position on this piece of legislation and is issuing the following statement:

STATEMENT: "Nissan opposes HB600/SB632. While we believe in a standard State regulatory environment, we share public concerns about this bill‘s impact on diversity and inclusiveness. Nissan is committed to providing a diverse and inclusive environment for all stakeholders.”

There are some words missing from the statement, among them "gay," "lesbian," and "transgender." Because the individuals to whom they apply are the actual target of the bill.

Under the slightly deceptive title of the "Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act," the bills (HB600 and SB632) nullify an ordinance passed on April 5 by the Nashville City Council that requires companies doing business with the city not to discriminate on the basic of sexual orientation or gender expression.

Nissan Smyrna Tennessee

Nissan Smyrna Tennessee

The Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature passed the measure by more than a two-thirds margin last Wednesday.

Yesterday, Governor Bill Haslam (R) signed the bill.

Under current Tennessee state law, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of race, creed, color, national origin, religion, sex, or age. That law does not include protection on the basis of either sexual orientation or gender expression.

Nissan's involvement comes not only because it has $3.5 billion of investment in the state, but because it is on the executive committee of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, which had issued a statement supporting the bill.

Members include both large global companies (Alcoa, AT&T, Caterpillar, Comcast, DuPont, Embraer, FedEx, Pfizer, United HealthCare, and Whirlpool), and hundreds of smaller local companies.

The Chamber said its concern was that any employment requirements that differed from state law would "create an additional burden on companies that are endeavoring to be competitive and provide jobs to all Tennesseans based on their individual qualifications and merit."

Effectively, it raises the specter that the time and cost of not discriminating against gay, lesbian, and transgender Tennesseans who work for them--or apply to do so--might so burden local companies that they become uncompetitive, ultimately close up shop, and put many more Tennesseans out of work.

The Chamber and its members quickly came under criticism from civil-rights advocates who accused it of lobbying to quash the Nashville law. The outcry became so intense during the last week, in fact, that the Chamber reversed itself yesterday.

Gay Flag

Gay Flag

In a statement (issued following Nissan's release), the Chamber's executive committee said that while it supports "a standard regulatory environment at the state level, as opposed to potentially conflicting local regulations covering employment practices," that principle had been its only interest in supporting the bill.

Now, because the bill "has turned into a debate on diversity and inclusiveness principles, which we support," it said, the Chamber is "now officially opposing this legislation in its present form."

To be fair to Nissan, the company had issued a previous and more detailed statement on Friday that expanded on the same thought at more length, saying,

Nissan has a long-standing commitment to providing a diverse, inclusive work environment for all stakeholders, including those who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender.

Nissan strives to develop, promote and recruit at all levels of the organization so that our workforce represents the diverse communities and customers we serve, and to create an internal environment where everyone's background and perspective are respected.

Nissan lithium-ion battery pack plant under construction, Smyrna, Tennessee, Jan 2011

Nissan lithium-ion battery pack plant under construction, Smyrna, Tennessee, Jan 2011

In addition, all Nissan employees who are eligible for and enroll in company benefit programs may enroll a same-sex domestic partner for medical, dental and vision coverage, and same-sex domestic partners are eligible to participate in the company's employee lease-vehicle program.

We believe that consistent statewide employment standards, rather than a cumbersome array of local laws and ordinances, are essential to maintaining our state's economic competitiveness. However, HB600/SB632 has become more closely associated with eroding civil liberties than fostering a strong business climate and this we do not support.

This explicit policy of non-discrimination, on both sexual orientation and gender expression, has long been a part of Nissan's culture, said the company's vice president for corporate communications, David Reuter .

"And it's not only a policy," he said, "it's the way we operate,"

Over the last week, Nissan received increasing levels of feedback (for which read "e-mails and phone calls") that indicated many people believe Nissan supported the goal of the bill that was passed last week.

That, he said, was what led the company to issue its statement. The bill's passage "has not changed how we operate," and won't, Reuter said.

As for politics around such legislation in Tennessee in the future, Reuter declined comment.

Which is probably wise, because bills targeting the lesbian and gay community seem popular in Tennessee at the moment.

On Friday, the Tennessee Senate passed the "Don't Say 'Gay'" bill, which would make it illegal for public school teachers to discuss the existence of gay and lesbian people. The House will take it up next year.

Nissan, if it is lucky, will have no dog whatsoever in that fight.

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