By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
The famed labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph once said that to achieve significant social change, “nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure through broad organized aggressive mass action.”
The renewed use of strikes and walkouts is one form of “organized aggressive mass action” that workers have increasingly been using to pressure employers. It might also be time to dust off another time-honored labor tactic: the consumer boycott.
During the 1970s, I worked extensively on consumer boycotts, including the United Farm Workers’ boycotts of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo Wine, and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ boycott of J. P. Stevens, a southern textile company. These boycotts opened my eyes to what economic pressure could accomplish on behalf of workers.
In the UFW boycotts, we benefited from the fact that farmworkers aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As amended by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the NLRA prohibits unions from conducting secondary boycotts. Such boycotts go after companies that do business with the company that is the direct target in a labor dispute. But because the NLRA doesn’t cover farmworkers, in addition to asking consumers not to buy non-union grapes, lettuce, or Gallo wine (“primary targets”), we could also ask them not to shop at the grocery and liquor stores that carried these products (“secondary targets”). I still recall the exhilaration of seeing store managers wince as they watched customers turn away and calculated their lost sales. According to a Harris poll taken during the height of the boycotts, an estimated 17 million people had stopped eating grapes, 14 million shunned lettuce, and 11 million refused to drink Gallo wine. The boycotts hit UFW adversaries in their pocketbooks and helped convince them to sign agreements with the union.
The textile maker J. P. Stevens presented a more difficult challenge. The company had gained a reputation as the nation’s leading “corporate outlaw” for repeated violations of workers’ rights and open defiance of rulings by the National Labor Relations Board. However, J. P. Stevens’ sheets, towels, carpets, blankets, and hosiery appeared under numerous labels that were not as easily identifiable by consumers. Still, we had considerable success in convincing consumers to boycott Stevens’ products and persuaded numerous department stores and other institutions to limit or phase out purchases of the company’s products. After a five-year boycott, we helped workers gain contracts at a company that had vowed never to recognize a union.
A successful boycott requires several key elements:
It needs the consent of workers who must be willing to endure short-term pain to achieve long-term gain.
It must have a strong base of organizers and volunteers who can build a “coalition of conscience” to support the workers’ demands.
It should target companies whose goods and services are widely known and who rely heavily on the public reputation of their “brand.”
And it will need unions to commit sufficient resources supporting boycotts that will take time to make their impact felt.
Social media makes it possible to disseminate a boycott message quickly and broadly. Public support of unions is at a historic high. And the media have been paying close attention to working-class struggles. The moment is right to revive the boycott as a means of exerting “still more pressure,” and in the immortal words of United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther, make employers “say yes” when they want to “say no.”
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