Role Reversal

If conservatives are upset about Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s resignation, why aren’t they concerned with protecting ordinary Americans?

Mozilla - Brendan Eich.

If Brendan Eich’s employment should be protected, shouldn’t everyone’s?

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photo courtesy Darcy Padilla/Mozilla Foundation

The Internet is currently worked up over the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who left the company on Thursday following controversy over his support for Proposition 8 in 2008. As my colleague Will Oremus explains, Eich had given $1,000 to the anti-gay marriage campaign, which sparked a minor controversy when it surfaced in 2012, but didn’t affect his standing at the company, where he served as chief technical officer. After he was named CEO, however, this changed, and he was forced out by a combination of internal unrest and public condemnation.

Defenders of the outcome say that it’s a question of public morality; opposition to same-sex marriage is the same as opposition to interracial marriage, and that both are unacceptable opinions for people leading public companies. Critics, on the other hand, see Eich’s forced resignation as a chilling attack on free speech. Writing on his website, Andrew Sullivan calls it a “hounding” and wonders, “Will [Eich] now be forced to walk through the streets in shame?”

National Review takes its outrage even further: “The nation’s full-time gay-rights professionals simply will not rest until a homogeneous and stultifying monoculture is settled upon the land, and if that means deploying a ridiculous lynch mob to pronounce anathema upon a California technology executive for private views acted on in his private life, then so be it.”

Comparing Eich’s critics to a “lynch mob” is a bit much, especially given the actual violence gay people have faced for exercising their rights. Beyond that, it’s hard not to see some irony in these complaints, given National Review’s support of “religious freedom” laws in states like Arizona and Tennessee, and its broad view that the free market is sufficient to punish anti-gay businesses and business owners. The Mozilla situation seems emblematic of what conservatives want when it comes to the relationship between business, public opinion, and public sanction.

But let’s grant that Sullivan and the National Review are right. That Eich’s forced resignation is an attack on speech, and that this is an ugly bout of bullying against someone who hasn’t expressed his views in the context of his job. If that’s true, then Eich is just the highest profile victim of a status quo that threatens countless workers.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act might protect workers from discrimination on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin, but almost everything else is fair game for private employers who want to get rid of workers. Not only can you be fired for your political views—for sporting the wrong bumper sticker on your car, for instance—or for being “sexually irresistible” to your boss, but in most states (29, to be precise), you can be fired for your sexual orientation or gender identification, no questions asked.

Overall, the large majority of Americans have at-will employment, which means that—outside of protected classes such as race or religion—they can be fired for any reason at all. For someone like Eich, this isn’t a huge deal: He will survive his brush with joblessness. The same can’t be said for millions of low-income workers who face termination lest they give their bosses their complete obedience.

For a taste of what this looks like, and if you’ve never worked a retail job, you should read former Politico reporter Joseph Williams on his time in a sporting goods store. For a pittance of a paycheck, he consented to constant searches, unpaid labor, and borderline wage theft. It’s a precarious existence, made worse by the fact that saying the wrong thing at the wrong time—either on the job or off it—could result in you losing your job, with no recourse.

And of course, employment discrimination against LGBT Americans is a real and ongoing problem. According to a 2011 report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, at least 15 percent of gay Americans have faced discrimination and harassment at the workplace on the basis of their orientation, and at least 8 percent report being passed over for a job or fired. A whopping 90 percent of transgender individuals report some sort of harassment on the job. It’s doesn’t minimize Eich’s situation (if you’re opposed to his resignation) to note that gay people are far more likely to face discrimination than opponents of same-sex marriage.

In any case, there’s nothing conservatives can do about Eich’s resignation. But they can join with labor activists and others to push for greater worker protections, like the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. For as much as employer flexibility is important to a dynamic economy, it’s also true that no one should fear firing for the people they love, the identity they claim, or the donations they make.

Simply put, if conservatives are frustrated by the treatment of Eich for his role in Proposition 8, then they should be outraged by the treatment of ordinary people at the hands of the people who employ them.