On The Daily Show last week, there was a funny, but ultimately dismissive and wrong-headed segment on the logic and effectiveness of boycotts.
In his comedic way, Wyatt Cenac made the case that liberals shouldn’t stop shopping at Whole Foods simply because, as he describes it, “the CEO of a company had the audacity to express his personal opinion about health care in writing.”
Why not? If the head of any company is doing something that you think is morally wrong or advocating for a policy that you think is going to hurt a lot people, why not publicly refuse to give him any more of your money by shopping somewhere else? It makes perfect sense.
Cenac did make a valid point, however, by arguing that it’s nearly impossible to buy anything in our capitalist system and hold on to your morals, because of how interconnected everything has become.
For example, he pointed out that Toyota, the maker of the Prius – the hybrid car that is so popular with those concerned with the environment – also recently sponsored a reggae concert that included an artist with homophobic songs that encourage killing gays.
I think of how the metal coltan, which is at the heart of the brutal civil war in the Congo that has left more than 5 million dead over the last decade, is also in virtually all of our electronics, including our cell phones and laptops. We are truly all complicit.
Nevertheless, while many boycotts go nowhere, others clearly have helped build a more just world. In a recent article on Counterpunch, John Macaray discussed a few examples of the effective boycotts:
By most accounts, it was the economic pressure exerted upon South Africa by the world community that was instrumental in convincing the regime to abandon its apartheid policy.
In 1977, the AFL-CIO launched a national boycott of Coors beer in response to the brewery’s anti-labor, anti-gay, anti-minority policies. Was it successful?
Undeniably, the boycott resulted in loss of stature and revenue for the company. In addition to hundreds of restaurants and bars refusing to serve Coors beer, Hollywood publicly threw its support behind the boycott. Actor Paul Newman not only renounced Coors, he publicly declared that he was switching to Budweiser. Ultimately, the boycott caused Coors to lower its profile and, in fact, to agree to adopt more enlightened policies regarding hiring policies.
Another example was the AWPPW’s (Assoc. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers) boycott of Scott Paper, spanning 1978-79. Launched as part of a protracted labor dispute, the Scott boycott turned out to be very successful campaign, particularly on the West Coast. Thirty years later people are still talking about it.
Indeed, the Scott boycott was so “successful,” a couple of the company’s paper mills were forced to shut down temporarily, resulting in hundreds of union workers losing their jobs. (File that under the Law of Unintended Consequences.)
Here I also think of Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott, or the more recent victory of the Immokolee farm workers, who earned a much needed wage increase from fast food giant Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Long John Silver’s, among other chain restaurants) for picking their tomatoes through a nationwide boycott.