Whole Foods Boycott: The Long View
GUEST BLOGGER: Lawrence Glickman
Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal last month advocating health care reform but arguing that new health-care entitlements were not the answer. He proposed ways to achieve reform without expanding the government and with greater emphasis on individual responsibility. Some consumers took issue with Mackey's views, creating a web site, Boycott Whole Foods, and arguing that his piece suggested "healthcare is a commodity that only the rich, like him, deserve." A boycott of Whole Foods has gained some momentum, with a Boycott Whole Foods Facebook page at last count numbering about 30,000 followers.
How effective are consumer boycotts?
We asked guest blogger Lawrence Glickman to weigh in. He is author of "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America," just released by University of Chicago Press. A professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Glickman co-edited, "The Cultural Turn in U.S. History," a collection of essays providing a perspective on U.S. cultural history, which was released in February by University of Chicago Press.
The company's customers were famously progressive. They assumed that the company shared their values. But when the company's leader made clear his antipathy to one of their core beliefs, consumers were shocked, describing the situation as "utterly incredible" and "incongruous." Some quickly called for coordinated consumer action to weaken the company.
I'm not describing the boycott of the Whole Foods Company. Instead, I refer to a protest against Consumers' Research, a product-testing organization that attracted thousands of members when it was founded in the late 1920s. In 1935, however, workers staged a strike when the company refused to recognize their union. Many thousands of Consumers' Research members, feeling betrayed, cancelled their membership in solidarity. Many of them turned instead to a new organization formed by some of the organization's disgruntled workers: Consumers Union.
History, as the familiar saying goes, has a habit of repeating itself. In the past few months, this has been the case especially in the area of consumer politics.
We have seen a "tea party" craze, a movement that began with protests against taxes and evolved into demonstrations on issues from health care reform to the national debt. Boycott campaigns have also sprung up across the political spectrum. Right-wing commentators, contemptuous of the federal bailout of U.S. auto manufacturers, have called for a boycott of General Motors. The African-American political advocacy group Color of Change has called for an advertising boycott of the Glen Beck show on Fox television to protest his comment that he believes President Obama is a racist.
In the past several weeks, the Whole Foods protests have brought to mind the 1935 revolt at Consumers Research, which was dubbed the "Strike in the Temple of Consumption." As an organizer on the Boycott Whole Foods web site declared: "Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives." Aggrieved Consumers' Research members said virtually the same thing.
Boycotts are part of the fabric of American political culture. Although the word was not coined until 1880, they have been an American political tradition since colonial days when British settlers, breaking from royal domination, refused to consume English tea and other goods.
Most boycotters recognized the futility of pricking the conscience of the businesses they opposed, choosing instead to wield influence through what nineteenth century boycotters called the "pocket nerve." And, as a rule, protesters have sought to harm the bottom line of a business to force change -- change in the goods sold, change in how a company treats its workforce, change in how it interacts with the environment. As a chronicler wrote in 1886, boycotters aimed to force their opponents to "feel their shame in the only place they would be likely to experience such a sensation -- their pockets."
In the spirit of the American boycott tradition, Whole Foods nonconsumers are using their "buying power for justice," a notion popularized in a motto of the League of Women Shoppers, a depression-era activist organization.
Will they succeed?
Despite their frequency throughout U.S. history, boycotts have rarely achieved their intended goals. But two types of campaigns have won more success than others. Very local efforts, typically concentrated on a particular small business, with specific and concrete goals have brought some change. For example, the 1930s, African Americans refused to shop in stores that refused to employ black people in a "don't buy where you can't work" campaign. Often these demonstrations forced employers to integrate their workforces.
A very different type of boycott also has succeeded: national campaigns that seek to bring political or economic issues into the limelight. Perhaps the most widespread boycott in history was in support of the United Farm Workers who sought better pay and conditions. A poll in the early 1970s found that 17 million Americans had stopped buying table grapes in this nationwide boycott that ultimately brought growers to the bargaining table.
Even failed boycotts sometimes have surprising long-term consequences. In the early 1900's, African Americans in twenty-five Southern cities initiated boycotts of segregated streetcars. Most of these campaigns were short-lived, unsuccessful, and lost to history. Yet they marked an early step in the campaign against segregation, which culminated in large measure with another, successful effort -- the most famous boycott in the history of the United States: the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956. That movement not only ended Jim Crow transportation in that city but brought the Civil Rights campaign to the forefront of the nation's political agenda and moral consciousness.
Without the early failures, we might never have seen the later and celebrated successes.
By Steven E. Levingston |
September 2, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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