FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Boycotts Are Double-Edged Swords

by DAVID MACARAY

Following the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed (at last count) 1,127 factory workers, a group of the world’s leading apparel and retail companies got together to adopt a new set of safety rules, in the hope that future disasters (this was the worst accident in apparel history) could be averted.

While critics are already questioning whether this was more a public relations stunt—giving lip service to a life-and-death problem—than the real thing, it’s too early to say. In any event, several American companies, including Walmart, Gap, Sears and J.C. Penney, have refused to sign on to the reforms, giving credence to the claim that this ambitious and binding safety agreement does, in fact, have teeth.

Because the accident is believed to be the result of shoddy construction and management negligence, these highly profitable companies faced a dilemma. Fearing consumer and investor backlash, do they pull out of Bangladesh all together and set up shop in a more expensive venue, demonstrating to their customers that human life means more to them than making a quick buck?

Or do they weather the storm and stay put, gambling that by signing on to a new “safety manifesto” they can simultaneously demonstrate their humanitarian side while maintaining their lucrative manufacturing base? Although pulling up stakes would be a splashy public relations move, it would prove costly. Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) is nothing if not a source of cheap, reliable labor.

Another fear was the threat of a consumer boycott, which has been discussed by various workers’ rights groups, including some labor unions. These groups believe that the only sure-fire way to get a company’s attention is by hitting them in the pocketbook. But the problem with boycotting a particular brand name or, as has been suggested, any item bearing a “Made in Bangladesh” label, is that you hurt the wrong people.

Bangladesh’s lifeblood is textiles. We’ve all heard of “company towns” (where citizens are so reliant upon one employer, if that employer were to leave, the town dies). Well, Bangladesh is a “company nation.” Without jobs in apparel factories, people’s lives would not only be damaged, they would, without exaggeration, be ruined. And if this proposed boycott were anywhere near successful, factories would be shut down and jobs lost.

During its 1978-79 contract negotiations, the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers) launched a West Coast boycott of Scott paper products, hoping to pry the company off its increasingly hard-line position at the bargaining table. Back in those days, Scott was viewed as an inordinately stubborn negotiator [Note: in the mid-1990s, Scott Paper was absorbed by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation]

Alas, the West Coast boycott worked too well. Scott’s sales soon declined to the point where they were forced to shut down two facilities, resulting in the lay-off of several hundred union members. Even though the plants were eventually reopened and manned-up to previous levels, the economic damage done to working people and their families couldn’t be undone.

Also, let’s be clear. It’s very hard to pull off a successful boycott. Unless, you can present a genuinely compelling narrative, one that has enormous drawing power and resonates with consumers across the board, it ain’t going to work. People simply don’t like to be told what not to buy. They either resent it or remain indifferent to it.

In the 1990s, we launched a boycott of Snapple beverages after learning that it was a major sponsor of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the boycott was, admittedly, poorly conceived and hastily put together, we were nonetheless stunned when people defiantly announced they now intended to purchase Snapple products—even though they’d never bought them before. Why? Because we told them not to buy them. Go figure.

If the question is: How do we insure that Bangladesh textile factories are safe? then the answer is: You get yourself an incorruptible, on-site champion of industrial safety. Someone whose sole concern is the welfare of working men and women. In short, you get yourself a union. Bangladesh desperately needs labor unions. Simple as that.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep. Macaray’s article on the history of Major League Baseball’s powerful players’ union appears in the May issue of CounterPunch magazine.  dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail