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Noble Gestures and Effective Boycotts: Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and the Struggles Ahead

category north america / mexico | community struggles | opinion / analysis author Tuesday June 12, 2007 22:04author by Randy Lowens - Capital Terminus Collective supporter Report this post to the editors

In the article that follows, we will briefly review the history of various campaigns to stop or reform Wal-Mart (that presumably gave birth to the unofficial, ineffectual Wal-Mart boycott), and contrast these efforts to more organized and constructive boycotts, such as the CIW's burgeoning efforts to reform the fast food supply chain. We will draw what lessons seem appropriate from the comparison (while carefully noting several differences), then suggest a course of action that the legions of Wal-Mart bashers might find more productive than individual, noble, but largely futile personal boycotts.

Boycott Wal-Mart logo
Boycott Wal-Mart logo

In my new hometown-- selected as a progressive alternative to the conservative burg of my rearing-- the politics of an individual are telegraphed by her attitude towards Wal-mart (the behemoth "Big Box" retail store on the outskirts of town). Unpoliticized shoppers browse the store's aisles in blissful ignorance; others, better informed but not very active politically, bemoan their lack of choice, and frequent independently owned stores when possible (and when the financial sacrifice is not too great); but the most radical members of my adopted community flat-out refuse to spend a dollar at "Wally World".

Relative to the uniformly conservative political climate and near-universal religious fundamentalism of my former environs, such a diverse political spectrum is refreshing. Yet I am troubled by the form in which radicalism hereabouts is most commonly expressed: what do individuals hope to accomplish by a personal refusal to patronize Wal-Mart? Is it really worth spending extra money on one's family's goods, only to accomplish what amounts to a token gesture of good intent?

In the article that follows, we will briefly review the history of various campaigns to stop or reform Wal-Mart (that presumably gave birth to the unofficial, ineffectual Wal-Mart boycott), and contrast these efforts to more organized and constructive boycotts, such as the CIW's burgeoning efforts to reform the fast food supply chain. We will draw what lessons seem appropriate from the comparison (while carefully noting several differences), then suggest a course of action that the legions of Wal-Mart bashers might find more productive than individual, noble, but largely futile personal boycotts.

Community groups against new super-stores

Back when Wal-Mart stores were in the process of spreading from coast to coast in the USA, local community groups were born by the dozen, created to challenge the retail giant's right to build at will. (By way of transparency, I was involved in such a campaign that unsuccessfully opposed the building of a "superstore" on a wetland in Chattanooga, TN.) Coalitions were established between environmental groups ranging from Earth First! direct actionists to Sierra Club-style reformists, small business owners, community members concerned about quality of life and aesthetics, and "workerist" global justice activists such as myself.

The assistance of organized labor was neither sought nor offered in Chattanooga, and I suspect this was typical nationwide. Nor did any other national organization play a significant role, aside from providing a web site with anti-Wal-Mart statistics and suggested talking points. [1] In fact, at one point in the Chattanooga campaign, participants were encouraged to solicit phone calls, emails, and letters from political allies, directed at local politicians and the press. Very little support and assistance was forthcoming. Presumably this was due to ignorance regarding our efforts (an apparently safe assumption, given the willingness to help of those few who saw reports on the Indymedia newswire.) It seems that each neighborhood group opposing the construction of a new store operated, not just autonomously, but practically in isolation.

The very fact of the creation of so many local groups was encouraging, given the stereotype of a politically disengaged US populace. And many towns did succeed in keeping the notorious Big Box retailer at bay, at least for a time. But ultimately, nationally, in the year 2007 with superstores saturating markets with sweatshop goods from coast to coast, we have to say that the grassroots community movement to check the spread of Wal-Mart has failed.

Union efforts to rein in Wal-Mart's power (the UFCW)

In addition to community groups, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has attempted to organize Wal-Mart's workforce. But these efforts must be branded unsuccessful as well, given that after many years not a single US store has been organized, and Canadian efforts have only been slightly more successful (both having been met by a full scale effort on the part of the behemoth retailer to nip unionization in the bud. Wal-Mart's abysmal treatment of its workers, and aggressively anti-union polices have been explored in depth elsewhere, and will be accepted as a given here.) [2]

Furthermore, Wal-mart's aggressive union-busting, coupled with its workforce's precarity (low wages, meager benefits, and unskilled jobs resulting in high turnover), makes the scenario of organization arising organically from within the workforce, or revolutionary unions such as the IWW making significant inroads, highly unlikely.

In the wake of their lack of organizing success, the UFCW has also launched Wakeup Wal-Mart [3] , an attempt to develop a national network of community groups whose goal is to reform practices at existing stores (and presumably, also to provide Wal-Mart with bad press, in an effort to form a more favorable climate for further organizing attempts by the union). Laudable though the goals and organizational model appear at a glance-- and despite claims of a certain measure of success by the campaign [4]-- most of the specific actions recommended on the Wakeup Wal-Mart web site are of the liberal/reformist variety, that is, petitioning politicians to pass legislation that would require Wal-Mart to be less predatory, more humane. In the absence of a more militant tactical approach-- unlikely from a business union such as the UFCW-- there would seem to be little cause for hope from this avenue, either.

Lessons to draw from other campaigns

In contrast to repeated failures to slow the proliferation or reform the policies of Wal-Mart, some of the most encouraging victories by workers in recent years have been spawned in the Southeastern USA in the form of consumer boycotts called by Latino farmworker unions. These include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's (FLOC's) boycott of Mt Olive Pickles, and the Coalition of Immokalee Worker's (CIW's) boycott of Taco Bell, as well as the CIW's subsequent publicity campaign against McDonald's that forced the fast food giant to pay a penny pound more for tomatoes, and to offer other concessions to worker's in its supply chain. Might lessons from these successes be applicable to the less fruitful campaign(s) against Wal-Mart?

Significant differences exist between the Latino farmworker campaigns, and efforts to organize Wal-Mart's workforce, or reform the company's policies. For instance, FLOC and the CIW organized successfully among workers before taking any further, more public action. To date, the same cannot be said of the UFCW. Nor is public opposition to Wal-Mart uniformly workerist, as is the anti-sweatshop coalition that supports the farmworker boycotts; any successful action against Wal-Mart is likely to involve a coalition of environmentalists, community activists and labor advocates. Furthermore, as agricultural workers (to whom a rather unique set of labor laws applies in the USA) FLOC and the CIW were legally free to call secondary boycotts (boycotting companies who do business with the offending entity). Conversely, it is not immediately clear what options are legally available to consumer advocates opposing Wal-Mart. And too, boycotting Wal-mart would require a more drastic sacrifice on the part of many supporters, than simply refusing a given brand of pickles or bypassing a certain fast food joint: many smaller communities have been reduced, for all practical purposes, to one store towns. But despite these readily apparent differences, perhaps certain lessons may still be drawn.

To begin with, the successful campaigns against Mt. Olive, Taco Bell, and McDonald's were coordinated nationally-- in the CIW's case, "action days" took place in numerous cities simultaneously, coupled with nationwide "Truth Tours" that reached a crescendo with a mass convergence on corporate headquarters timed to coincide with stockholder meetings. This approach stands in stark contrast to the isolated community groups that arose and attempted to do battle with Wal-Mart largely unaided, then disappeared as soon as a store was built. Also, the CIW's local actions as well as national convergences utilized common, specific demands; this, in contrast to the grab bag of complaints typically lodged against Wal-mart (often with little more strategic focus than a vague desire that the store's disappear-- a demand unlikely to be met.) Any successful campaign to rein in Wal-Mart will be both national in scope, and require the retailer's diverse opponents to agree on some limited, immediate, achievable demands.

Can discontent with Wal-Mart be translated into effective action?

As we have seen, awareness of, and dissatisfaction with Wal-Mart is likely more widespread than that associated with the corporations involved in the recent farmworker struggles. And yet, through a combination of coordination over a wide geographical area, specific and realistic demands, and sheer pluck, the farmworker's organizations have produced results that a host of community activists tilting at Wal-mart have been unable to. This state of affairs may follow in part from the fact that a rich history of union experience exists for FLOC's and the CIW's organizers to draw on, whereas the phenomenon of community organizations in the USA is a fairly novel one. I should emphasize that the purpose of this article is not so much to criticize the performance of these community groups, whose very existence I find encouraging, but rather to seek tactical and strategic approaches by which they can become more effective.

Many obstacles stand in the path of an effective anti-Wal-mart, pro-consumer movement: bringing diverse constituencies into agreement on specific, realistic, demands; convincing neighborhood leaders to forgo a measure of autonomy, and forging instead a coordinated campaign of tenacious nationwide activity; and perhaps, somehow availing itself of the assistance of institutional structures such as the UFCW, without falling into their lethargic orbit. The labyrinth of laws would also need be researched, regarding such things as the legal ramifications of consumer-called boycotts: for example, could Wal-Mart itself be boycotted until it agreed to discontinue the sale of genetically modified produce/raises wages/provides healthcare benefits? Or would targeting one objectionable product or practice at a time be more legally defensible, as well as strategically productive? (Not to imply that illegality should be ruled out, out of hand, only that such decisions should be made carefully and consciously.)

But in spite of these challenges and unanswered questions, potential benefits exist. Consumption is only a portion of any individual's role in the economy and society; a revolutionary strategy cannot be built around the role of the consumer, considered in isolation. However, given that consumers of inexpensive products are disproportionably members of the working class, neither should the impact of corporate rule on this aspect of our lives be entirely neglected.

If the latent consumer discontent that finds expression in anti-Wal-Mart sentiment were to be melded into a nationwide organization, and if the initial demands of the organization were carefully selected and persistently pursued by direct means such as consumer boycotts, and if the follow-up demands were planned well in advance and implemented immediately on the heels of an initial victory, it is not inconceivable that a permanent grassroots consumer organization could come into being more resembling the best of the historical labor movement, than the legal reformism typically associated with the term consumer advocacy. And that would be a welcome development indeed.

[1]- http://walmartwatch.com/
[2]- Mother Jones magazine featured one of many articles documenting Wal-Mart's low wages, poor benefits, and anti-union policies. http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2003/03/ma_276_01.html
[3]- http://www.wakeupwalmart.com/
[4]- An Associated Press article relates a securities analyst's evaluation of the financial effect of Wakeup Wal-Mart on the company's bottom line at http://www.wakeupwalmart.com/news/article.html?article=668

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