Boycotts Aren't Always the Answer

04/30/2015 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
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One of the difficulties in mounting a boycott is not knowing in advance whom you're going to hurt. While the whole point is to influence the behavior (e.g., hiring practices, working conditions, wages and benefits) of a retailer or manufacturer by threatening to limit their profits if they don't become more "enlightened," there are risks involved. Instead of hurting an employer, a boycott can punish the very employees it's trying to help.

Boycotting Walmart qualifies as a "good" boycott. Obviously, because Walmart can afford better wages and bennies, a big, splashy national boycott (coupled with employee protests) could just be the public-relations tool to influence them. Given Walmart's aversion to organized labor, increasing employee compensation in order to keep the unions out would be viewed by the giant retailer as the lesser of two evils.

Another example of a "good" boycott, was the one directed at the Coors Brewing Company, back in the 1970s. Because Coors had such vehement, anti-union sentiments (some of which were deemed "illegal") and had been accused of discriminating against African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays in its hiring practices, the AFL-CIO called for a national boycott in 1977.

By all accounts, the Coors boycott was moderately successful. In addition to actor Paul Newman, in a show of solidarity, making a dramatic announcement that he was switching from Coors to Budweiser, a wide-scale public-relations campaign was launched.

Accordingly, sales of Coors in California dropped from 40 percent in 1977 to 14 percent in 1984. It was reported that every union hall and every gay bar in California had stopped serving Coors. The AFL-CIO's national boycott was called off in 1987.

Conversely, an example of what is probably a "bad" boycott is the one aimed at third-world textile manufacturers, specifically those in Bangladesh. In 2012, after a disastrous fire that killed more than 120 workers, people began calling for a boycott, one that would pressure textile-factory owners to improve employee safety and general working conditions.

The problem with a textile boycott is that it would cause poor Bangladeshis to become even poorer. Textiles aren't just important; they're the basis of its economy. Bangladesh (with a population of 157 million in an area smaller than West Virginia) is the world's second-leading exporter of apparel (behind China). A "successful" boycott would not only cripple the industry but basically ruin the country.

As for working conditions, the bitter truth is this: Countries (including the early 20th-century U.S.) that move from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy go through a messy stage. They don't enter the industrial arena resembling a sleek, state-of-the-art production facility in Detroit, Michigan. They enter it resembling a "sweatshop."

And not to be glib, but historically, the institution that was clearly the most effective in improving the working conditions and welfare of employees during this "messy" transitional period wasn't the government or the church or the media or charities. It was organized labor.

It's a fact. American sweatshops didn't begin to improve significantly until labor unions began representing their workers. Accordingly, if we truly wish to help Bangladeshi textile workers, it won't be by refusing to purchase the apparel they produce. All that will do is destroy their livelihoods.

Rather, the goal should be to promote the Bangladeshi labor movement. Keep the marketplace healthy, but let labor do what labor does best: represent the interests of the workers. Another fact: Child labor in the U.S. was abolished through the efforts of labor unions, not politicians. If you don't believe it, look it up.

David Macaray is a playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, second edition).