When Did the Left Forget How to Boycott?

I was a child soldier in the California grape strikes, my labors conducted outside the Shattuck Avenue co-op in Berkeley. There I was, maybe 7 or 8 years old, shaking a Folgers coffee can full of coins at the United Farm Workers’ table where my mother was garrisoned two to three afternoons a week. I did most of my work alongside her, but several times an hour I would do what child soldiers have always done: served in a capacity that only a very small person could. I’d go out in the parking lot and slip between cars to make sure no one was getting away without donating some coins or signing a petition. I’d pop up next to a driver’s-side window and give the can an aggressive rattle. I wasn’t Jimmy Hoffa, but I wasn’t playing any games either.

My parents were old-school leftists, born in the 1920s and children during the Great Depression. They would never, ever cross a picket line, fail to participate in a boycott, lose sight of strikers’ need for money when they weren’t getting paychecks. My parents would never suggest that poverty was caused by lack of intelligence or effort. We were not a religious family (to say the least), but I had a catechism: One worker is powerless; many workers can bring a company to its knees.

What I’m describing, of course, is a lost world, glimpsed only through history books or the memories of old people. It was a world already in the midst of death even as I was pumping fresh second-grade life into it. The great labor strikes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—of steelworkers, textile workers, railroad workers, coal minerswere in the past. Union membership peaked at 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1954. By the grape strike in 1965, it was already down to 28 percent. A decade and a half later, the former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, put collective bargaining in the dustbin of history by ordering striking air-traffic controllers back to work, and when they didn’t go back, he fired them. Today only 10 percent of workers have union protections.

Unions faltered for many reasons. Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws and various regulations forced companies to conform to standards of workplace safety or face serious penalties, and most states passed a minimum (subsistence) wage. And Americans are crap socialists, forever lighting out for the territory in the spirit of rugged individualism you hear so much about on truck commercials. Many of the biggest American corporations, such as Amazon, have become world-class union busters. As Cesar Chavez himself pointed out, repeatedly, large-scale immigration makes it all but impossible to keep a union together. Desperate people don’t make the terrible journey to this country to go on strike. They do it so they can send money to their impoverished families as quickly as possible.

But the real reason union membership is so low in this country is globalization. What that word means for Americans is that corporations found the ultimate means of union busting: They sent the jobs away. Good jobs that usually paid well in a union shop, and that once upon a time allowed one parent to support a family—they sent them to China and India and Mexico and Bangladesh, places where people will work for far less money and with far fewer “demands.”

All of this means that we have two or more generations of Americans who have no idea how labor politics work, and who believe that #boycotts are as effective as the real thing.

In 2018, two Black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks on suspicion of “trespassing,” which ignited one of the many attempts to #BoycottStarbucks that have taken place over the years. It may have been the most successful of these efforts, in that it spurred the company to relax its policy regarding using the cafės and their bathrooms without buying anything. But the boycotters had no real power because nobody stopped buying Starbucks, which was apparently just a bridge too far. #Boycott the place, yes. Ankle it up the block to Peet’s? Come on. Starbucks eventually helped the boycotters out by staging a kind of self-boycott, closing thousands of stores for an afternoon of anti-bias training and thereby contributing a few hours of lost sales to the cause.

#BoycottChickFilA—initiated in reaction to the owner’s disapproval of gay marriage—began more than a decade ago, during which time the company has only grown. There are principles and there is the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, and one of them has got to give. Now there’s a counterinsurgency of Chick-fil-A #boycotters (it has something to do with “DEI = bad”), so conservatives and liberals can find common ground in cramming their mouths full of deep-fried chicken while #boycotting the company that makes it.

The same is true about #BoycottGillette and #BoycottNike. These #boycotts weren’t about labor disputes. They were about commercials and the perception that American corporations were in the pocket of “woke” leadership. They were puny and powerless. And they are the only kind of boycott that millions of young people have taken part in.

This is why the sweeping success of the boycotts of Bud Light and Target this spring has so many leftists confused and angry and hurt. Activists on the right deployed the old union tactic for frivolous causes, and it worked. Bud Light lost a quarter of its sales. Target lost more than $13 billion in market cap. All of us associate boycotts with some of the greatest fights of the past century—the Montgomery bus boycott, or the UFW boycotts and strikes. But a boycott has no inherent moral position. It’s just a strategy.

The seeds of both recent boycotts were similar, and ultimately had to do with the growing visibility of transgender people in mainstream culture. Bud Light engaged Dylan Mulvaney, a trans influencer, to make a 50-second promotional video released only on her Instagram account. Target’s annual display of Pride merchandise included a kind of women’s swimsuit that could disguise a penis. The display also had children’s clothes, which rang alarm bells for many conservatives.

The boycotts themselves aren’t in any larger sense meaningful. Some men started drinking different brands of beer. So what? Some Target shoppers started going to Walmart. So what? You can buy whatever you want and you can not buy whatever you want. As every episode of Mad Men proved, people have deep and powerful associations with the brands they like, associations that have much more to do with advertising than with the relative merits of the products. Forget Don Draper; listen to Mick Jagger:

He can’t be a man

’Cause he doesn’t smoke

The same cigarettes as me.

It’s a big country, and people think and feel all kinds of things.

What is meaningful are the threats of violence that quickly accompanied the boycotts. On May 24, Target announced that it would be removing some of the Pride items because of “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work.” It was a cautiously worded statement, and some couldn’t help but wonder whether Target was just weaseling a way to appease boycotters.

Then, in mid-June, Target stores in five states had to be evacuated because of bomb threats sent to local media outlets, many of which contacted the police. It seemed at first that this was the realization of the chain’s dark intimations about the far right. The truth was more complicated. A Vermont police chief said the threats included emails accusing Target of betraying the LGBTQ community. In Louisiana, a local news station reported on the email it received, which called the company “pathetic cowards who bowed to the wishes of far right extremists.”

You could tell how utterly confusing all of this is to the left by the response of the liberal press.  A Washington Post opinion piece revealed that the writer was game for the fight but deeply confused about the terms of engagement: “The free market is telling right-wingers something they refuse to hear: Transgender people exist, and they buy stuff.” But Target’s huge loss of market cap wasn’t the result of transgender people boycotting. It was the result of anti-transgender people boycotting. And the literal definition of the free market is the ability of consumers to shop wherever they want. The writer was on the right side of history but the wrong side of The Wealth of Nations.

There was also a counterfactual attempt to posit that the precipitous decline in Target’s stock was unrelated to the boycotts. CNN Business published an article called “Here’s the Real Reason Target’s Stock Is Dropping,” which located a mix of factors to explain the sudden development, “including broader changes in the US economy, the possibility of a recession, and Target’s over-exposure to discretionary merchandise.” (“Hey, Smitty, short Target for me. I think on Wednesday, shoppers are going to freak out about broader changes to the U.S. economy.”)

The New Republic published an article called “The Right’s War on Brands Is Stupid and Terrifying,” which bore the characteristic traits of the form: The writer’s outrage over the transphobic response forced him to present the boycotts as a heartless attack on defenseless … corporate America. “Cross the pissbabies, and your stock price will tank, your quarterly earnings will collapse, and your executives will be fired.” I haven’t encountered rhetoric like his since the Reagan administration. If a sign of the apocalypse is The New Republic fretting about the quarterly earnings and executive job security of a company like Anheuser-Busch, it’s time to get in the bunker.

Anheuser-Busch’s CEO earns about $12 million a year and its warehouse workers—at least in Southern California, where I live, and which is one of the most expensive regions in the country—start at $18 an hour. Temp warehouse workers must be able “to work with minimal supervision and in cold temperatures” and “to perform the physical requirements of the job.” Those physical requirements include being able to spend entire shifts loading and unloading trucks in a refrigerated warehouse. The benefits package includes some inspirational language and the promise of “Free Beer!” These workers should not earn $18 an hour while their CEO, sitting in ergonomic comfort and temperature-controlled ease, earns $5,700 an hour.

As for Target, where to start? Its stores are full of fast fashion, well known to be a human-rights and environmental disaster. The differential between its CEO’s pay and his workers’ pay is similarly shameful.

The confusion about these boycotts reveals something much larger than an infirm grasp of how the strategy works, and larger, even, than the pain and fear they produced in transgender people and their allies. It’s part of something that is so pervasive among Americans, and especially young Americans, that one hardly notices it anymore: the feeling of being powerless against huge forces that they understand to exist far beyond their control, including the questionable—or outright evil—actions of giant corporations.

Last year, The Nation ran an article titled “Don’t Boycott Amazon”: “They’re too big to be hurt by individual consumer choice. Instead, hit them where it really hurts.” When I first read it, I thought the piece was very funny, but in the months since I’ve found it poignant. The writer offers a complicated strategy: “Don’t just feel bad when you buy from Amazon. Make it count by kicking in twice as much to the Amazon Labor Union, and let Amazon know why.” The strategy also involves … buying Amazon stock. Jesus wept.

You could say that this writer would be well served by brushing up on the fundamentals of microeconomics and the institutes of logic. But it was the personal example of her sense of powerlessness against the machine that got my attention. She says that she’d been avoiding shopping on Amazon but then she slipped. Her cat’s veterinarian had recommended a certain product and had sent her an Amazon link to it, which the writer used to buy it: “Immediately, I felt the anger and guilt that comes with trying to be a person of conscience in a culture of pathological convenience. And I felt foolish for imagining that ethical consumerism can do anything other than temporarily assuage those feelings.”

That’s the sign of a demoralized person, one who feels herself to have no agency at all.

We haven’t left these young people much. Many of them are so terrified about global warming that they believe that bringing a child into this world would be wrong. The retreat from religion has perhaps unburdened many of them from unfounded claims—but what has replaced it? What provides a community of shared belief, social outreach, the sense of living for some larger purpose? Nothing. What is the reliable path into the middle class, one that requires only a willingness to work hard? It’s gone. Corporate America sent it away.

The Bud Light and Target boycotts have been the most successful American-consumer boycotts in a quarter century. They made two large companies sustain serious material losses. That isn’t cause for more ennui or alienation. It’s a beacon: It can be done. And it should be done.

I said that one of the reasons that union membership had dried up is that OSHA had made workplaces safer. But as this article was closing, a 16-year-old boy was killed while working at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant in rural Mississippi. According to The New York Times, Duvan Tomas Perez died “after becoming ensnared in a machine he was cleaning.”

His family posted an obituary describing him as having been a student at N. R. Burger Middle School, the mission of which is to “educate all students to become productive citizens of a dynamic, global community.”

On Saturday he will be buried. The obituary noted the date of the visitation and that “a Mass of Christian Burial will follow at 11:30 a.m.,” at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

I am the resurrection and the life;

he who believes in me, though he die,

yet shall he live, and whoever lives

and believes in me shall never die.

My mother knew Cesar Chavez, which was one of the reasons she was so committed to his cause. And now, a literal lifetime later, a Central American boy has been killed on a factory floor and his education, his future, his life ended in what must surely have been an event of overwhelming terror and pain, dying in the same pitiless place where the chickens are killed.

And do you know what the company had to say about his death? It was, of course, a “tragedy,” but it wasn’t the company’s fault: “It appears, at this point in the investigation, that this individual’s age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork.”

Do you know what I say to that?



Shut it down.

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