Can Boycotts Help Workers Win?
The recent uptick in labor organizing has prompted not only a rise in strikes, but also the return of an old labor weapon: the boycott.
While boycott campaigns generally have a mixed record at best, this tactic was used successfully in the recent unionization and first contract victories at Burgerville in Oregon as well as Spot Coffee in upstate New York — a campaign that set the stage for the subsequent Starbucks upsurge. Raising the slogan, “No Contract, No Field Trips,” unionizing workers at Medieval Times in New Jersey and California are now linking up with K-12 teachers to boycott the company until it stops its alleged union-busting. And just last week, after months of student organizing and protest, Cornell University agreed to stop selling and serving Starbucks on campus due to the company’s flagrant violation of federal labor law. This victory is spurring a push to boycott Starbucks on colleges across the country.
With workers and unions beginning to reconsider the potentialities and pitfalls of boycotts, it makes sense to take a look back at the famous boycott campaigns led by the United Farm Workers (UFW) from 1965 through 1975 to demand agricultural companies recognize and bargain with their union.
To discuss the lessons of the victorious UFW boycotts, and the dynamics of this tactic generally, I sat down with Stephen Lerner, whose long and celebrated organizing history began as a volunteer for the UFW in the early 1970s.
EB: At the most general level, what do you see as the big lessons of the UFW boycott?
SL: First of all, you need a favorable context for a national boycott to work, a moment where lots of people care or could be convinced to care. In most conditions, boycotts don’t work; they’re usually called by unions when we know we’ve lost. But the UFW boycott wasn’t like that at all — it was part of a plan to win.
When an opening does exist, then you need to constantly be asking: How do we maximize disruption, and how do we maximize publicity? To achieve these two goals, you need a huge amount of on-the-ground organizing. You can’t just call a boycott and hope somehow customer pressure will bring companies to the table.
So you need to seize a favorable context and then need real organizing on multiple levels, both in terms of mass work to get the word out, but also directly to disrupt profits.
EB: Can you briefly describe the context of the UFW boycott?
SL: To give you a sense of the moment, I dropped out of high school to work on the boycott full-time. We really thought radical change was possible. So the boycott existed at a moment of time where there was a lot of activism, a lot of excitement — the whole thing was grounded in a much bigger movement.
And the farm workers’ struggle really captured people's imagination. It wasn’t just about one specific struggle, it became a broader symbol for the rising of immigrants and, in broader ways, about the revival of labor.
EB: What did the movement do to raise publicity and disrupt things?
SL: A big part of doing mass work is answering the question: How do we let as many people know as possible?
We’d do a lot of leafleting and picketing in front of grocery stores. We did an enormous amount of human billboards — we’d have people at all the big subway stations or on freeway overpasses holding these giant signs saying “Boycott Lettuce and Grapes.”
We started giving out a leaflet called “God Called a Strike Once” — it was all about the story of Exodus. I had attended seders my whole life, but it was from Catholic farm workers that I came to see the story of Exodus as a strike.
We’d do church meetings, we’d leaflet concerts, we did everything we could to bring publicity. And it worked: we built a level of support where some Rabbis declared scab grapes and lettuce to be non-kosher.
We were attempting to do mass work, and lots and lots of people did get involved. We’d take volunteers through a progression of steps. Beyond leafleting and picketing and having people work on raising funds, there were all sorts of next steps they could take.
The key analysis was: Where do people get their food and Gallo Wine? They get it from grocery stores and liquor stores. And then how do you put pressure directly on these businesses to stop buying products made in companies that were refusing to recognize the union?
One of the things that we did was have our people go into stores and fill their shopping carts with food. And we’d put a picket line up, and then all the folks in line would say, “Oh, there's a picket line, I need to respect it” — and they would just leave their full carts.
In addition to the famous hunger strikes Cesar Chavez led, we mirrored shorter hunger strikes in front of grocery stores. We also did big mass demonstrations at Hunts Point Market [in the Bronx], where grapes and lettuce were sold wholesale. In California people picketed the ports where longshoremen would honor the picket lines for as long as they legally could, delaying shipments of grapes and lettuce.
EB: What kind of organizing did it take to drive all this forward?
SL: It’d be a big mistake to underestimate how much work it takes to make a boycott succeed. To pull this off at scale, you have to do real organizing on the ground, that’s the only way you can do sustained and escalating activity.
Support for the farm workers was intensely organized in city after city, neighborhood after neighborhood, churches and synagogues. It wasn’t just a general call for a boycott. We focused on building self-sustaining committees of supporters that could drive the work locally — the pickets, the actions, all that. It was a massive operation around the country, with thousands of active supporters and hundreds of full-time volunteers working on this. We got five bucks a week to get by, and we lived in group houses, so we could spend all our time on organizing.
A big part of the effort was that striking farm workers from California moved all around the country, to directly spread and lead the boycott. That was the first part of my introduction as a volunteer: I lived with a farm worker family that moved to New York City from White River Ranch [in California] where they had been on strike. They moved their family to NYC, and I lived with them and learned about their experiences as farm workers and strikers, and why strikers faced with violence, jail and injunctions needed the added leverage offered by the boycott.
We were all trained in how to organize consumers to support the boycott. I was trained by a series of incredible organizers including Fred Ross Sr. We built out the boycott significantly through a house meeting approach where we’d build committees in cities and neighborhoods through house meetings in which we were all trained to tell the story of how farm workers were treated. We’d recruit people and have them invite their friends to their homes, each house meeting would lead to more house meetings. We were trying to appeal for solidarity not just from other unions, but also from broader liberal and progressive layers, and to religious denominations — we got a lot of support there — to make them understand that this was a moral battle that they should care about.
EB: One limitation you already mentioned is that boycotts don’t work in most contexts. Are there other limitations worth highlighting here?
SL: The other thing that has to be said, and lots of others have made this point too, is that as the boycott eventually became the central focus in the UFW, there ended up being much less work on organizing workers in the fields. The balance got thrown way off. So one big lesson is that if a boycott is seen as a substitute for worker activity, it's a death knell.
And part of that has to do with the fact that the company will always say that a boycott is hurting the very people it’s claiming to help. And people would ask us: “Well, doesn't a boycott mean that farm workers will lose their jobs?” Companies will always say that a boycott will destroy the company and require mass layoffs. (They said the same thing later during the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa.) So you need a very strong worker core at the center of things to challenge that narrative. And that’s one of the reasons it was so important that farm workers from California ended up traveling all across the country, giving the UFW campaign its moral center. Successful boycotts require a combination of workers organizing and taking action that is then supported by a broader public campaign.
EB: It’s exciting to see that Medieval Times workers are linking up with K-12 teachers and that Cornell students recently kicked Starbucks off campus. Can you speak about the strategic importance of schools and universities in boycott campaigns?
SL: I’m not in any position to comment on the advisability of this tactic for particular campaigns today, but speaking more generally, schools and universities in particular are a very promising site of struggle. On the one hand, it may not be a major driver of profits for a giant corporation like Starbucks. But it's also where a whole generation of both potential workers and coffee drinkers are getting introduced to the company. And even if universities aren’t the central source of profits, a movement on campus can do a lot of damage to their brand, while training a new generation of young organizers and activists.
In most universities you have a large, sympathetic grouping of students capable of winning clear demands through escalating campaigns and dramatic actions. You can start with people wearing the same color shirt one day to support the effort, and over time escalate to things like occupying admin buildings, doing encampments, shutting down campus by blocking the main entrances, you name it. There’s just so much fun, creative disruption that’s possible on campus.
So obviously in the universities that have a company you’re targeting, or that provide their product in dining halls or campus stores, you can demand to get rid of them. But folks can also find all the universities that don't have that company, and they can demand the university pledge not to hire or buy from them until they start bargaining in good faith with the union.
And calling for kicking a company off campus could also become a bargaining issue for campus unions — when you can get both campus students and workers working together on demanding the university dump law breaking companies, that’s a sweet spot. And you don’t need to call it a boycott, you are calling on the university to throw union-busting law breakers off campus.
The other thing about universities is the generally overlapping relationship between trustees and broader power structures — people on university boards are often business and political leaders. Those are great targets. A lot of times you have universities and pension funds investing directly into companies, so another potential tactic is to demand divestment of pension plans from the corporation. And you can campaign for the university to not only divest from union busters but also bring in union companies, which creates additional pressure as well.
EB: Campus boycotts are also a structure test, right? If you can't get a boycott to catch on universities, there's probably no world in which you can get it to catch beyond. And conversely, if it does catch on universities, then you have a demonstration effect and it could spread.
SL: I’ve seen over and over again how university organizing can build and sustain momentum for broader struggles. Many key victories in the Justice for Janitors campaign, like the months-long University of Miami strike, were won at universities through strong student support.
Part of that is raising publicity through dramatic actions, as well as making whatever financial impact you can have. But in universities there is also the potential to build an army of people who are willing to get arrested to support the union. For example, every time a unionizing worker is fired, do we have hundreds, then thousands of volunteers we can tap to respond? Say Mary Smith gets fired for unionizing — can we get 500 students sitting in at these four stores and blocking the doors to bring Mary Smith back? What’s the escalating civil disobedience in response to the company’s most egregious union busting? Building a volunteer army can be a direct way to disrupt the company, to keep the public aware of their misdeeds, and to raise the cost on them for breaking the law.
Secondary boycott laws, injunctions and other potential litigation limit what actions unions can call for and support. So it's all about unleashing people’s militancy and creativity. Movements need to get to the crisis point where things are so out of control that companies wake up everyday worrying what and where they will be hit next.
The story becomes: more and more people are getting involved, more and more places are directly confronting what the company is doing. And when you get that dynamic going you can unleash the creativity of a mass movement, especially one led by young people.
If you can set that dynamic off, folks will have a ball and they will think of more and more creative things to do to maximize disruption and publicity. And that’s what you need to win.
Stephen Lerner is an American labor and community organizer. He has organized janitors, farm workers, garment workers, and other low-wage workers into unions.
Eric Blanc is Assistant Professor of Labor Studies, Rutgers University.
Author of the books Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso 2019) and Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire, 1882-1917 (Brill 2021), Eric Blanc is an assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, researching strikes, new workplace organizing, digital labor activism, and working-class politics.
You can receive a newsletter of his research here: laborpolitics.substack.com
His writings have appeared in journals such as Politics & Society, New Labor Forum, and Labor Studies Journal as well as publications such as The Nation, The Guardian, and Jacobin.
A longtime labor activist, Blanc is an organizer trainer in the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.
He can be reached at eric.blanc [at] rutgers.edu
Labor Politics offers analyses of strikes, working-class politics and union strategy.
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