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Let’s give a nod to Wayfair’s bosses for avoiding the empty, feel-good gesture

Wayfair workers walk out over border camp sale
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi / Globe Staff, Video: Mark Gartsbeyn / Globe Correspondent

What’s happening at the border with Mexico is a humanitarian tragedy — regardless of whether you call them refugee centers, detention facilities, or concentration camps.

Our shameless president’s chant of “Build that wall!” has malignantly mutated from a fear-mongering campaign slogan into an inhumane campaign of hate, brutality, and death.

We should all be ashamed. We should all be mad as hell. And we should all be protesting much more vociferously and in far larger numbers than we are.

That’s why I applaud the workers at Wayfair for staging a walkout on Wednesday that was triggered by the company’s refusal to block the sale of $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to a nonprofit organization that operates border camps for the government. Any peaceful action that calls attention to the Trump administration’s racist and xenophobic immigration policies is a good thing.

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But I also applaud Wayfair cofounders and cochairmen Niraj Shah and Steve Conine for not taking the easy way out by canceling the sale, even if their response to concerned employees was far from a model of good corporate communications. It would have been an empty, feel-good gesture that failed to address the real and very tricky issue here: how we as employees, managers, consumers, and citizens should define complicity in behavior that we believe is amoral, or abhorrent, or evil.

It’s worth noting that the Wayfair workers are pushing for more than the cancelation of the sale to the camp operator, called BCFS. They want their company to stop doing business with any contractor “participating in migrant detention camps at our Southern Border (or any other location),” according to the letter they sent to management last week.

They also want the company to set up a code of sales ethics “that empowers its employees to act in accordance with our core values.”

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The code of ethics is a smart demand. Decisions on whom not to do business with shouldn’t be made on an ad-hoc basis. They should be guided by a set of principles and applied with a case-by-case review of the customer.

But just because there is a process, it doesn’t mean that choosing whom to blacklist is easy.

For example, BCFS doesn’t make fighter planes, bombs, or assault rifles. It doesn’t peddle cigarettes to children and in foreign countries.

BCFS bills itself as a network of nonprofit groups providing “health and human services programs” in the United States and globally. Yes, it operates within a multibillion-dollar shelter industry that also includes for-profit prison companies and shady operators. But what if its leaders are sincerely motivated by humanitarianism, not profit? Is it a co-conspirator with the Trump administration? Or is it trying to protect vulnerable immigrants?

I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet BCFS is a more well-intentioned NGO than evil Blackwater, the for-profit US security contractor whose employees shot up a square in Baghdad, killing 17 people and injuring two dozen.

My Globe colleague Janelle Nanos reported that Conine told a company town hall meeting on Tuesday that he objected to the detention centers and noted that Shah was raised in a first-generation immigrant family. He agreed to develop a code of ethics.

But to block a legitimate sale would be treading on a “slippery slope,” Conine said.

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He’s right.

Let’s put aside BCFS, for the moment. What about selling office furniture to a drug company whose breakthrough treatment costs $1 million a year? Or an abortion clinic? Or a nonprofit that advocates for divestment from Israel? What about Trump’s reelection committee? Facebook?

“The level of your citizenship as citizens is really the appropriate channel to try and attack an issue like this,” Conine told the town hall. “To pull a business into it — we’re not a political entity. We’re not trying to take a political side.”

Companies should not take a political side. But its employees should, and that includes managers and senior executives.

If I were in Conine’s and Shah’s shoes, I would have more forcefully denounced Trump’s immigration policies, right from the start. And I would have walked out into Copley Square with my employees.


You can reach me at larry.edelman@globe.com and follow me on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.