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The year is 1880. The place is County Mayo, Ireland. The devastation of the British-induced potato famine 30 years before, which killed a million people and caused a further million and a half to emigrate, is still fresh in the memory of the population. Ireland has been under colonial rule for 700 years and the natives are mere tenant farmers on land misappropriated by English landlords. Risings and rebellions have attempted to overthrow colonial rule in every generation since the country was first invaded. But these are not the only forms of resistance. When landlords begin to increase farm rents and enforce mass evictions, the people are afraid this will lead to another famine and the Land League is formed to bring reforms to the British landlord system. An agent acting on behalf of an absentee landlord, Lord Erne, tries to evict the farmers on his estate. With help from the Land League, the whole community shuns the land agent: farmers and labourers refuse to work the land; local businesses do not take his money; the postman does not deliver his post; not a person breaks breath to him.
The agent’s name is Captain Charles Boycott and the action taken against him was soon to be known as boycotting, that is, to “withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organisation or person) as a punishment or protest”.
Although not the first example of using ostracism as a form of protest, the Land Leaguers were the first time the act was given the name boycott and they achieved modest success using this tactic.
A lot has changed since the days of the Land Leaguers but boycotting is alive and well. It is estimated that at any given time, there are hundreds of boycotts going on in countries across the globe and there have been thousands of them down the decades. Some big, some small; some famous, some obscure; some localised, some global; some successful, some not. The issues driving them have been varied: political, economic, environmental, civic; most have campaigned for the rights of workers, people, animals, and the natural world; some have had targeted aims while others have been used to more widely raise awareness.
In the US, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s was the catalyst for a change to the laws that made it unconstitutional to have segregated buses. The Delano Grape Strike in the 1960s was supported by a boycott of grapes to help secure better wages for Filipino and Mexican farmworkers. The Indian Independence Movement boycotted all British goods and was instrumental in India gaining independence. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida organised a successful boycott of Taco Bell to get tomato growers to pay a penny more a pound to Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian migrant workers; a big part of the boycott’s success was due to the support given by about 300 colleges and 50 high schools around the US who ended contracts with Taco Bell. Whole countries have been boycotted: Israel for its treatment of Palestinians; South Africa for its apartheid system. Multinational corporations have been famously boycotted: Nestle, Nike, Coca-Cola, Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, Amazon, to name but a few, with some of these boycotts going on to this day.
So the boycott is certainly useful and often effective. Without a doubt, it highlights that we have power in our numbers and by joining together we can bring about change.
When it comes to corporations, however, the boycott’s impact is much of the time modest and not long-lasting. Boycotts of Nike led to improvements in their practices, yet the company thrives and many of its practices remain far from ethical even in the capitalist context, much less beyond that. Shell has been boycotted in multiple countries by hundreds of thousands of people but it remains a major player in the oil and gas industry. Nestle is enormous regardless of the boycotts. A straight-up boycott of a corporation may change its behaviour, for a while at least, but the entity itself endures, as does the legal and illegal harm and suffering it causes.
Power and control wielded by multinationals is causing pain
However, the need to curb the power and control enjoyed by multinationals is more important now than it has ever been. The rules of engagement have always meant win-win for them, lose-lose for everybody else. An egregious arrangement in any age, it is intolerable today because those behaviours and practices are incompatible with climate and economic equality goals. They are helping to destroy our environment and the fabric of our society. No, they are not the only culprits but they are among the most powerful institutions in the world. Owned by the wealthiest people on the planet and served by governments that are supposed to serve the people, some are so enormous their revenues exceed the GDP of whole countries.
The crimes and misdemeanours of these companies are endless. They have violated every employee law that’s ever been and even obeying the law, they wreak havoc. They have destroyed communities and abused employees. They have polluted our water and soil and air. They have extracted the earth’s resources and devastated our natural habitats. They have done these things from the beginning. They are still doing these things. They are greedy, parasitic, dangerous.
Wage theft is a common practice in corporations that takes a variety of forms. For example, not paying staff for the breaks they are entitled to or for the full hours or shifts they have worked; hiring more and more workers on temporary contracts, zero hours’ contracts, or agency contracts; not giving any notice when letting staff go; charging workers for uniforms or equipment needed to do the job; not paying holiday leave or travel costs; deducting money for missed targets or being late; forcing employees to work off-the-clock, for instance, to come in early to open a store, to stay afterwards to close it or to work through scheduled breaks; having workers attend training without pay. Corporations can skim millions from their workers in this way. And, of course, even when not violating the law, the wages paid don’t begin to reimburse workers for the hardships they endure.
This exploitation has continued unabated during the coronavirus pandemic. While many small and micro businesses are struggling or facing closure, the warehouse operations of big retail businesses such as Boohoo, ASOS, JD Sports, B&Q, and Amazon have exploded since the pandemic because of the growth in online shopping. Their good fortune, sadly—though predictably—has not translated into better wages or even safe working conditions for their workers and some workplaces have seen extensive outbreaks of coronavirus. Those are the same workers, by the way, who are lauded as the precious “key workers” of the pandemic, the people doing the essential jobs, and keeping basic services ticking over.
Bad as that is, the worst atrocities of all are those perpetrated on workers and communities in the global South. Just some of these include having to work unpaid overtime, being laid off without getting the wages or redundancy owed, suffering discrimination and mistreatment if pregnant, enduring 14-hour work days in extreme heat without breaks or clean water in factory buildings that have no fire exits, a range of physical and sexual abuses, suppression of union organisation, and withholding of passports. The big names are all guilty: H&M, Primark, Gap, Walmart, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, Amazon, Alphabet and Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Samsung, Toyota, Volkswagen, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Saudi Aramco, BP, Bank of China, JP Morgan Chase, AXA, Citigroup, as well as the luxury brands like Prada, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton.
Add to this the disgraceful environmental track record of far too many multinationals. BP was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Over a period of years, DuPont knowingly released toxic chemicals into the water supply in Parkersburg, West Virginia; and further, the chemicals used to make their trademark Teflon products have poisoned the whole world. In 1984, an accident at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, caused tonnes of poisonous gases to be released into the air, resulting in an estimated death toll of around 15,000 and in the births of children with physical and mental disabilities. The Ogale and Bille communities of Nigeria have had their lands destroyed by Shell oil drilling and spills although Shell is not held responsible in the eyes of the law. The agricultural giant, Monsanto—originally a producer of Agent Orange and other assorted poisons—is notorious for the genetically modified organism (GMO) seed and the perverse terminator seed, a seed that can only propagate once. These instances highlight just a few of the headline atrocities and do not touch on the countless “lesser” legal infractions that occur on a daily basis just about anywhere you care to mention.
As a rule, corporations are masters of tax avoidance too, robbing their countries of origin and the countries where they are operational of valuable tax revenue. They are tireless in their quest to pay little or no tax at all, even in countries with regressive tax systems that are rigged so multinationals pay a lower tax rate than someone earning minimum wage. It is estimated that about a fifth of the big corporations in Britain pays no corporation tax and according to the Tax Justice Network, there is at least $21 trillion of unrecorded offshore wealth globally, hidden from legitimate sovereign tax systems. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, Vodafone, Topshop, Gap, and McDonald’s are just some of the names linked to tax avoidance. Apple has a facility in County Cork, Ireland and because of its tax avoidance antics, the treasuries in both Ireland and the US lose out on billions per year. Back in 2013, this facility was the target of a US Senate subcommittee on investigations relating to selling rights.
But let’s linger on Amazon a little while. It has an unusual strategy whereby it forgoes maximum profits for the sake of growth in sales and cash flow. At first glance, this sounds somewhat strange though in fact, it is an even more insidious and damaging strategy than typical behaviours. What this strategy allows Amazon to do is offer consumers the lowest possible prices. That has a knock-on effect on competitors, crowding them out altogether or causing them to drive their prices lower which inevitably means driving down their salary and running costs.
Some will argue that the picture is not as bleak as we are painting here. Proponents often claim that corporations create hundreds, even thousands, of jobs in regions that would have no jobs whatsoever. The aforementioned Apple facility in County Cork employs 5,000 people. Others assert that corporations sometimes pay higher wages than local employers. In one instance, apparel factories in Honduras can pay workers up to $13 per day when nearly half the population lives on less than $2 per day. And there are those who say that child labour is a necessary—even welcome—evil, for parents in places like Bangladesh who are too poor to feed their families. There is even a belief that what these developing countries need is more, not less, sweatshops because they are a necessary element in the economic development of any country. Arguments are also made that corporations do not make the enormous profits everybody thinks.
Apologias such as these tend to apply a twisted logic, disingenuously cherry-picking the data to make their point. For example, applauding a corporation for paying $13 per day when others live on $2 per day does not tell us the full story. This daily rate seems less generous when we realise that people work 10- to 14-hour days; or that $13 a day may still not be enough to live on; or that many of these sweatshops pay as low as 3 cents an hour and demand over 70 hours of work per week. In another distortion of reality, the case is made that it is not fair to compare the 40 cents an hour earned by a worker who makes a jacket that sells for $200. What if the company does not manage to sell nine other jackets? That would mean the real price of the jacket is just a tenth of the selling price, $20, and then all sorts of other corporate costs and overheads must be deducted. Gosh! When you put it that way, these big boys are doing us all a great service at a tremendous personal sacrifice. They are veritable charities. Arguments in this vein also ignore other critical details such as environmental damage, human rights abuses, deaths caused by exposure to dangerous working conditions, and suicide prevention nets attached to the outside of multi-storey factories to stop workers from throwing themselves to their death.
If we choose to dismiss the above, we surely cannot dismiss the tangible fact that multinationals create jobs. It must be better to have 5,000 low-paid, low-skilled jobs than none at all. For political leaders who are bankrupt of ideas about how to create decent jobs or a sustainable economy, a big corporate employer in their area is the only trick in their bag; they have nothing else. And for them, the answer is yes, any job is better than no job—although it is likely that any old job would not be good enough for them and theirs.
We have the tools to fight back and takeover
So, okay, say we agree that for the most part, corporations, in their current form, are the scourge of the earth. What, if anything, can we do to change that? What, if anything, can we do to change these edifices into something more harmonious with societal and environmental needs?
This is where the tried-and-tested boycott comes in. Used strategically, as part of a wider movement demanding change, boycotting has the potential to be an even more effective weapon. In this approach, rather than organising a boycott that tries to make a corporation see the error of its ways and clean up its act, we can have a boycott that runs in tandem with a workers’ movement within the corporation.
Remember the Delano grape strike? Lasting five years, it was a collective effort between the Agricultural Workers Organising Committee and the National Farmworkers Association—who both merged to form the United Farm Workers committee—and members of the public. The workers organised protests, marches, and non-violent resistance. Simultaneously, the public boycotted non-union grapes. The strike was a big success, resulting in a collective bargaining agreement for the workers and the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.
What is to stop us from developing a similar movement today made up of workers and people organised on a global scale because these multinationals, by definition, exist on a global scale. And how much easier it would be to connect everybody involved no matter where in the world they lived, given all the communications technology we have at our fingertips?
We could, as a first step, tackle Amazon by setting up a worldwide movement of workers and members of the public. The workers across Amazon facilities everywhere could set out their demands of increased wages, secure contracts with reliable and consistent working hours, holiday and sick pay, the right to unionise, and so on. The public would support the workers, joining in protests and strikes, but crucially boycotting Amazon products and citing the demands of the workers when they do so.
And achieving success would be easier than we might imagine. It is widely accepted that a 10% cut in sales is enough for a boycott to make the desired impact. Therefore, coordinated action at this level could have real power and stand every chance of winning. For a change, it would be the owners and top executives who would suffer and not the workers. And this same model, the boycott alongside worker activism, could be easily replicated across other companies.
But why stop there? In the next step, demands could be expanded. We might insist that environmental standards are upheld and even exceeded, or environmentally-sound raw materials are sourced; or non-toxic, non-polluting manufacturing processes are used; or that corporate suppliers have high standards when it comes to the treatment of their workers and the environment.
And let’s push the envelope yet further. What if our movement-wide boycott was to set higher goals, demanding a transition to alternatives such as participatory socialism? In this step, we might want to transform multinationals into worker-owned enterprises that provide self-management, jobs with a fair mix of rote and empowering work, and equitable pay and conditions; that have roots in the communities where they operate; that pay the taxes they owe.
Fanciful? Unattainable? Maybe. Maybe not. Live examples are in place already. The Mondragon Co-operative Corporation in the Basque Country is one of the world’s largest worker co-operatives and employs over 70,000 people. It is by no means perfect and it has to make compromises because it exists within the competitive capitalist system, but it does show that an alternative type of corporation is entirely achievable. And Emilia Romagna in Italy has three movements of co-operatives providing over 80,000 local jobs between them.
The steps proposed above might mean paying a little more. However, when we buy a product at a low price we need to accept that it probably comes at a high cost. Like chaos theory, with the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil—perhaps, ironically, the Amazon—causing a tornado in Texas, a consumer knock-down price in France means a woman working for 60 cents an hour in Taiwan or a river being polluted with toxic chemicals in Nigeria. Multinationals pass on the costs of cutting prices to their workers, their suppliers, the environment. They cut wages and jobs and workplace standards; they use poorer quality, cheaper and unethically-sourced raw materials; they ignore environmental regulations; they take short-cuts with health and safety. Their suppliers will have to do the same if they are to drive down their costs and remain ‘competitive’. Everybody is a loser in this race to the bottom, including us because it is our communities, our natural habitats, that suffer. When we demand better and are prepared to pay a little more to achieve those demands, we stop running in the race to the bottom.
Are these suggestions out of touch with reality? After all, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and social unrest, people are losing their jobs, businesses are closing, a recession is looming and a lot of us do not have much money to spend. Let’s face it, even before the pandemic, people were struggling to get by and finding it difficult to support themselves and their families. Many of us simply cannot afford the luxury of getting involved in a movement-wide boycott.
For anyone in that situation, they should do what they believe is achievable within their means and they should decide for themselves how far they will or will not go. The same goes for any of us, regardless of our situation. We should only be expected to do what we can and there should be no judgement, coercion, or condemnation.
That said, it is worth remembering that Amazon customers have been spending almost $11,000 a second on products during lockdown—according to the Guardian—so while some are facing financial difficulties, plenty of others are spending. This suggests that crisis or not, it is still possible to work towards change. In actuality, a crisis might be all the more reason to do so.
If we want a different world, one that respects people and all life on earth, we should not despair. We have the solutions and a movement-wide boycott could serve as an important vehicle for implementing those solutions. We do not propose it will be easy but even the longest journey starts with a single step.
INITIAL SUBMISSION: Bridget Meehan | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele.