The UFW used the boicot as a tool to achive better working conditions for farmworkers during the 60s.

Talking Points: Boycotts and Other Games

By Joel Eis

Although the younger generation’s desire to strike out on their own road and make their own revolution is fully understandable, they feel the urgency of the current situation.

Under these conditions, it is fervently hoped that they will see the wisdom of not insisting on stretching out the learning curve by ignoring some well meaning support that can cut short the time it takes to achieve their (our) victory. Let us share what we know in order to win. Here are a few thoughts on various tactics that might be considered on successful boycotts and a few more related ideas.

In these times, when retailers are fighting mail-order sales and Covid-related sales losses, they are particularly vulnerable to boycotts and open to positive results as well. This is a good time to use this tool.

A boycott is the removal of financial or other support from a vendor or product to influence the policies of the maker or seller of the product. It can be focused on something as local as a corner market that treats people of color or a specific faith (such as Muslims) or LGBQT people unfairly, or it can be a national or international campaign started with a local effort and organized outward. 

The boycott was used to great effect on markets that sold non-union grapes, and in a bigger worldwide operation, citizens divested themselves of stock in companies that supported the Vietnam War and South African apartheid.

One of the beauties of a boycott is that people with strong political feelings do not have to get themselves busted or threatened. They do not have to go out into the streets, especially in Covid times, yet they can do something valuable and effective. Families can exercise political leverage without danger of any kind.

Steps to a Successful Boycott

  • Before doing a boycott action, approach the targeted vendor with a request to stop supporting something, or begin to support something. You never know, but in these highly politicized times the vendor might be sensitive to changing its behavior.
  • If not, give the vendor a deadline by which to respond. Come in with a solid group behind you. Numbers are your weapon. Let them know how many people/organizations you represent right away, especially if they are from the demographic that shops in the vendor’s store(s). Make it clear to them politely that you are withholding any publicity until they give you a clear answer in writing as to what they intend to do and why.
  • Let them know you will publicize their support or non-support in the largest possible venue, and include a press conference in front of their location. This can work both ways: positive publicity if they support, negative if they do not.
  • Be clear on your target. Let them know you want them to stop selling a racist product or a gun lobby–supporting product, to hire more women or people of color, for example.
  • If you do begin a boycott, leaflet in front of the store on what they are supporting or not supporting. You will be kicked off the property, but get the newspapers to be there when it happens, or send them the Facebook/Instagram post when it goes down. Do not fight or argue. Just leave. Go out and stand on the public sidewalk and continue to leaflet. It’s called “informational picketing.” As long as you do not block the entrance or harass anyone —just hand out the leaflets and say thank you—you’re legal. If they come out to harass you, get pictures. It’s on public property.

Side note: Keep the leaflet short and informational. Limit the name-calling. Pictures showing what the product does, such as harming kids or the environment are better than a leaflet that reads like a college thesis.

On the leaflet, challenge the reader with, “Do you want to be a part of this kind of thing?” If there are other stores in your area that support your cause, mention them on the leaflet. People will respond to a suggested choice of where to shop.

Be sure to have an e-mail on the leaflet for folks to get involved. If they want to do so right there, get their info.

Never give out a home address or a headquarters address on a leaflet.

  • Control the level of pressure. Give the vendor time to feel the pinch of your process. Announce lower sales in the store to the press. It is better to boycott one store or a few and achieve a success you can use to leverage other stores. This is more powerful than announcing a nationwide boycott that you cannot truly bring to victory. Every time you do a small successful action, you build the power and confidence of your group. Then the next place you target will be more ready to talk.
  • New leaders will emerge from this process. Let that happen. It might be the most important outcome of the effort.
  • If you want to get nasty (after they get nasty), go into the store. Fill a shopping cart with stuff (like ice cream). Then, when you get to the register, ask the manager/owner if they support the targeted product. If they say they do, walk out and leave the full cart of stuff to be restocked. One of these a day for about two weeks (different people each time) will get some action.
  • Do not leave leaflets on car windshields. That’s littering or vandalism, and they will have CCTV of who did it.
  • Be sure to have your group shop the store often if it comes around. This is the best thank you for a merchant.

Getting Money to Speak

Saul Alinsky, the famous organizer and labor leader, once got a town to endorse a union cause. He had all the shoppers from the union (and their supporters) fill the parking meters with nickels. The city could not keep the jammed meters free of coins.

When the San Francisco City Council was voting to dis-include small arts organizations from grants to arts groups (instead of just the opera and the big theaters and museums), all the small arts groups paid their employees in $2 bills or asked them to change their checks into $2 bills at the bank. When San Francisco was flooded with $2 bills, the city got the message of how much money these smaller arts organizations contributed. They were included in the arts grants process.

Last Thoughts

This is going to feel good to put into practice. It gets people who want to feel like they are doing something to be a part of progressive actions. Noting the boycott on personal social media, at your places of work and play and church groups, gets the ball rolling. Get a Facebook or e-mail mailing list of people who are in on it so you can report to them, maybe once a week or so, on changes, on numbers of new people on the list (names not required) and make it feel real. That takes no more time than any other e-mail or post that you do. 

Seize the time.

*****

Joel Eis is a draft resister and antiwar/civil rights organizer.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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