by Doug Nesbitt
If you see Covered Bridge potato chips, don’t buy them. Tell the store manager why. And if you’re anywhere near Hartland, New Brunswick, head down to the picket lines and support the workers who have been forced to strike after two years of trying to negotiate a first contract.
The boycott against Covered Bridge is another recent example of a labour boycott in Canada. If we look at the Crown Holdings, IKEA and Caterpillar boycotts that have occurred over the past few years we can examine what works, what doesn’t, and understand how we can build more effective boycotts..
But first, what do boycotts do? They have several purposes.
A labour-driven consumer boycott can give striking workers leverage by applying both economic and public pressure against the company. It can put pressure on the company to take unacceptable demands off the table, or simply force the company back to the table.
It is hard to achieve the type of consumer boycott that has a direct economic impact on the company, but dragging the company’s name through the mud is also important. A great example of a consumer boycott was during the 1986 Gainers strike in Edmonton. Peter Pocklington’s attack on the meatpackers led to a consumer boycott that saw major grocery chains pull Gainers from their shelves and “Boycott Gainers” stickers plastering the city. Their local market share tumbled dramatically. Consumer boycotts can also have an impact on retailers by pressuring them to pull products from their shelves. If a company says they follow some ethical or corporate responsibility code, this can also be used as leverage for a boycott.
Public education and awareness
A boycott call is also about raising awareness of the labour dispute in question. A boycott is a means of reaching a much larger number of people than those directly affected by the strike. Boycotts can be promoted through public meetings, reaching out to other unions and community organizations, flyering and postering at transit stops and areas with heavy foot traffic, petitioning and pledge-signing, writing letters to the newspaper and calling up the local TV news for coverage of events.
Strengthening the labour movement, locally and beyond
The types of actions which advance the boycott can also help to strengthen the local labour movement. Petitions are crucial for this because we can collect contact information and call people up for boycott events, from public meetings to flyering/outreach actions, to picket line support. Pulling together an active core of people around a boycott can lay the foundations for a more permanent network of labour activists who can work together in future disputes. It is also a way of getting new people involved and expanding the number of activists who are ready to move on labour issues. Building a local network of labour activists is also good step towards the necessary process of rebuilding our unions and labour councils as fighting organizations.
Picket line support can also extend to secondary pickets. Secondary pickets at retailers carrying a boycotted product can be effective in raising more awareness and putting pressure on retailers to smarten up, and getting them to send the message up the supply chain to the boycott’s primary target company. Targeting retailers that get a lot of customers means reaching more people. Secondary pickets in non-retail industrial areas may contain more difficulties than simply picketing a retail store on a main street sidewalk. There is no one-size-fits-all secondary picket. What it looks like and what it does depends on your numbers, direction from the workers on strike or locked out, and what you think is most effective in getting the message out and putting your target on notice. If you think the secondary pickets are going to have to happen over a long period of time, then different tactics can be explored.
Also controversial, and something that requires some real forethought and consideration, is sabotaging the boycotted product so it can’t be sold and no profit is turned. You’ll likely make the news for this, but the odds are this will help to discredit the cause. This is simply how the media spins things. Because our principles are to build a democratic labour movement, sabotage should be democratically-decided by the workers on the picket lines. There is no harm in raising the issue, but it is a question of what advances the struggle. Anonymous individual acts should be discouraged, although something like graffiti on a wall should not be lumped in with a dramatic sabotage of the boycotted product. Clear, effective public street art, alongside stickering and postering, is always a good thing.
A tale of three boycotts
In recent years, we’ve seen a few important labour boycotts. In 2012, about 700 workers were locked out by Caterpillar in London, Ontario at the Electro-Motive Diesel plant. Cat wanted a 50 percent wage cut and a gutting of pensions. The workers, members of CAW (now Unifor) Local 27, were locked out and stayed on the line for over a month. In early February 2012, Cat announced they were closing the plant, taking with them millions in intellectual property rights and plant technology which had been subsidized by the public over decades before Caterpillar bought the factory from General Motors.
Caterpillar’s actions were so extreme that a spontaneous boycott movement erupted. Local stores across London and the surrounding area pulled Caterpillar products from their shelves. This included the major chains Mark’s Work Wearhouse and TSC, the farm equipment supply store. In Ingersoll, a short drive east of London, CAW Local 88 workers from the Cami assembly plant blockaded a locomotive that had left the Electro-Motive plant shortly before the lockout started. The locomotive was on its way to get painted but Local 88 workers kept up their blockade around the clock for an entire week.
And on the day before a London rally of ten thousand on January 21, labour and leftist activists organized secondary pickets in Hamilton, London, Toronto and Kingston at Caterpillar equipment rental sites. A week later, CAW followed this example with ten rental site pickets across seven provinces. In Ingersoll, Hamilton and London, city councillors presented motions to support the locked-out workers and boycott Caterpillar. The Ingersoll boycott was a battle over a decision to buy a Caterpillar backloader because it was slightly cheaper than other options. Unfortunately, a cowardly mayor cast a deciding vote against a boycott and buying a John Deere vehicle that was a few hundred dollars more. Even though these municipal efforts failed, they do point to another avenue boycotts can go: getting motions into council ensuring that public contracts and purchasing boycotts certain suppliers. It certainly gets the issue into the media.
The Caterpillar boycott was exciting and really took off in a short period of time. But once the spontaneous boycott started, it needed to be supported and expanded by labour. Unfortunately, this was not the case. CAW officials arrived in Ingersoll and had Local 88’s train blockade dismantled on the grounds that a coming injunction request would be successful. Amazingly, the day after the blockade was brought down, the judge actually threw out Caterpillar’s injunction! Even more worrying was the CAW’s closure agreement negotiated with Caterpillar which included a section whereby CAW committed to not boycotting Caterpillar and any company associated with Caterpillar. That’s right, CAW and I suppose Unifor would be violating the closure agreement if they promoted a boycott of Caterpillar!
In 2013, IKEA locked out its unionized workers at its Richmond, BC store. The lockout was ugly and lasted 527 days. IKEA has fourteen stores in Canada, and only two are unionized. Part of the lockout was about breaking the union and when the lockout was over, the crummy deal that was signed had the shopfloor leaders bought out. A weak ten-year contract was imposed on the workers without a ratification vote. It was a shitty ending.
Although there was picket support from the local labour movement, there was no boycott. For a formal labour boycott to happen, the national leadership of a union has to formally request a boycott at the Canadian Labour Congress. Teamsters Local 213 represented the IKEA workers. Local 213 is a composite local with numerous bargaining units with different employers. It appears that the Local 213 leadership didn’t have the good sense to push for a formal boycott. A year into the lockout, some of the Teamsters called for action and a boycott at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Montreal. But out of that convention, no formal boycott was called.
One of the challengers in the CLC presidential campaign was Hassan Husseini who was part of a “Take Back Labour” group. Although Husseini withdrew from the race to support Yusseff in his successful bid to defeat CLC President Ken Georgetti, he committed to making Take Back Labour an active network, not just a CLC presidential campaign. When picketing IKEA workers signed and published a call for a boycott, posted on Rankandfile.ca, the Teamsters Local 213 didn’t act. Take Back Labour picked up the slack and organized two days of action of secondary pickets at other IKEAs across the country. On each day of action, pickets were held at four different IKEA stores. The hope was the boycott would compel the Teamsters to finally pull the trigger on a boycott. Unfortunately, this didn’t work. However, one really positive outcome was the tightening up of some local labour networks in Toronto and especially Ottawa. Activists had come together, got educated on the issues and picketed IKEAs and caused a ruckus. Although it didn’t work, the strategy was generally correct: organize grassroots pickets not authorized by unions in order to put pressure on union leaders to take action. If we can build more local networks of activists willing to take action like this, and coordinate these local networks across the country, then we can start to put even more grassroots pressure on both employers as well as short-sighted, flat-footed labour leaders.
Shortly after the IKEA lockout ended in the fall of 2014, another union-busting employer faced a boycott. Workers at the Crown plant in Toronto had been on strike for months. The plant, which manufactured a huge majority of beer cans in the country, was seeking major concessions from the workers despite the company being highly profitable and the factory winning awards for productivity. To stop the concessions, which included smashing up the pension plan, the Steelworkers launched a boycott. The boycott had good-looking graphics and posters to be shared on social media, but the main focus was coordinated secondary pickets at Beer Stores and the LCBO (Ontario’s public liquor monopoly).
In many ways, the Steelworkers replicated the IKEA boycott idea but took it to another level with the resources and reach that unions have. A central website allowed people to sign up to participate in the boycott pickets by providing their name, home town, phone number and email. You could also indicate whether you wanted to be a point person for a picket line. In doing so, the Steelworkers weren’t just telling people what to do, but helping people organize. The website allowed the Steelworker organizers to collect data of local volunteers and then use it to mobilize for local actions. The campaign was able to organize four province-wide days of action that saw dozens of Beer Stores and LCBOs picketed in numerous Ontario towns and cities. Labour activists from all sorts of unions and workplaces participated, showing the potential of building networks of activists and organizers in every town and city. The Steelworkers published stacks and stacks of informative but shorty and punchy leaflets to be handed out. The website had a good explanation of how they hoped people would conduct themselves on the picket lines. But they also allowed people to make their own clever, funny and informative picket signs.
The loose by organized approach also allowed for local networks of activists were able to coordinate through the platform provided by the Steelworkers to expand the number of boycotted sites. For example, the Ottawa-based activist group “Solidarity Against Austerity” took the approach of “adopting” stores for each boycott day, coordinating its members, and helping the Steelworkers expand the number of sites being picketed in Ottawa.
Boycotts alone are not going to win labour battles, but when used correctly can be an indispensable weapon in our arsenal. They help us rebuild local labour networks that are focused on organizing by training new activists and re-energizing those of us who are a bit rusty. Boycotts inform us and many others of the issues going on and, in the best of circumstances, can actually put direct pressure on the employer to bend to the will of the workers on the lines. At the very least, they boost the spirits and confidence of workers on the picket lines. Boycotts help us all work together, make solidarity more than just a word, and begin to construct a new labour movement that can begin to see us pushing back the employers’ offensive.