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The Utility of Boycotts

As hit and miss as boycotts can be, some of them actually work.  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?  Predictably, Coors declared it wasn’t.  Following the lead of companies that are shut down by strikes, but who claim, almost reflexively, that the strike, no matter how lengthy or debilitating, had no negative effect whatever, Coors pretended the boycott was harmless.

But there was ample evidence to the contrary.  While the boycott didn’t result in a miracle—turning Coors from a bigoted, reactionary company (it was Papa Joe Coors who provided the seed money for the right-wing Heritage Foundation) into an open-minded, progressive one—it did change some things.

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.)

Boycotts that are too ambitious or all-encompassing usually don’t work.  For example, if the AFL-CIO, as part of its organizing drive, were to mount a boycott against Wal-Mart (asking people not to shop there), the effort would almost certainly fail.  Expecting people to stay out of Wal-Mart—to not set foot in the store until the boycott is lifted—is strategically sound, but tactically flawed.

However, if the AFL-CIO were to launch a boycott of the tires sold through Wal-Mart’s automotive division, the results might be different.  Arguably, the tire manufacturer, responding to a precipitous drop in sales, would exert enormous pressure on the giant retailer to get off the dime.

The same principle would apply to important product lines of virtually any large retailer.  The reason the Coors and Scott Paper boycotts succeeded was because they were narrowly focused campaigns:  one product, one target.  But in order to move a retailer, you don’t go after the retailer; you go after the influential venders of that retailer.

As to the efficacy of potential boycotts, union membership itself presents one of those classic glass-half-filled vs. glass-half-empty dilemmas.  Yes, union membership has shrunk dramatically; yes, union members don’t seem to be as “committed” as they once were (as in the 1930s); and, yes, solidarity isn’t as conspicuous as it once was.

But while we all lament the fact that union membership was once a mighty 35-percent, back in the 1950s, and now hovers at approximately one-third that (as of 2008, New York was highest, with 24.9-percent union membership; North Carolina was lowest, with 3.5-percent), comparative percentages can be misleading, especially for the purposes of national boycotts.

Consider:  In 1983, with national membership at 20.1-percent, there were 17.7 union members in the U.S.  Today, with membership at only 12.4-percent, there are 16.1 million union members.

Instead of dwelling on that 7+-percent drop, we should focus instead on those 16 million dues-paying members who are out there right now, with their shoulders to the wheel.  Shrinking numbers or not, 16 million of anything is formidable.

As modestly successful as those Coors and Scott boycotts were, there’s a remarkable new propaganda tool available today that wasn’t available back in the 1970s, one that could make all the difference in the world:  The Internet.

If even half of those 16 million union members got involved, think of the leverage they’d have in a boycott.  Think what 8 million engaged union members could do on the Internet, particularly if the boycott were focused, laser-like, on one product, one manufacturer, one small but significant portion of the market, rather than a scatter-gun approach.

Talk can take you only so far.  That’s because the distance talk can travel pales in comparison to the distance money can travel.  Discussion, debates, even threats, have built-in limitations that money doesn’t, which is one reason strikes are (or can be) so effective.  Unlike “talk,” a strike is the only thing that directly cuts into management’s ability to make a profit.

If organized labor wants to change the contour of the country, there’s only one way to do it:  by adding new union members to the rosters.  And to achieve that, labor needs to exert economic rather than ideological pressure.  One way of doing that is through boycotts.  Also, Big Labor probably needs to pare down—rather than load up—its national agenda.

Think of every cliché you ever heard:  a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, slow and steady wins the race, one step at a time, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, etc., etc.  Weirdly, as corny and annoying as those aphorisms are, they’re all true.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net