The art of the boycott
For a number of summers when I was an undergraduate, I worked at the East Moline plant of International Harvester Co., which made harvester threshers and corn pickers. One summer I worked in the traffic department, which routed shipments of the machinery and assigned orders to specific rail cars and trucks. I got to know many truck drivers and companies.
Years later when I was released from active duty in the Army, I went back to work at the IH plant on a correspondence desk. I was drafted during the time when the military services were ordered to desegregate, and one of the biggest battles during the Cold War years involved a race war. Some members of the military acted out against blacks and latinos and anyone who associated with them. There were incidents of overt hatred and violence, and those of us who had instructional duties were often involved in dealing with racial conflicts. When I was released from active duty and went to work for IH, I made contact with civil rights organizations through church and educational organizations. I and some people I worked with were approached by people in these organizations about a project they were working on that involved boycotts of some businesses in the south.
Many Afro-American people lived in communities that were segregated and where discrimination was a condition of life. That discrimination was part of business practices. While the merchants sold their goods to black people—they did not mind taking their money—they overcharged and often held black customers in debt where credit was involved. There were instances in which blacks could barely afford the food they ate, let alone any of the conveniences of life at the time.
One of the concerns was some merchants who sold household appliances were charging so much and literally held black customers in debt-bondage. Members of a civil rights organization worked out an arrangement with an Afro-American church in which ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines could be made available at discounted prices with the church providing delivery and financing. One of the members of the civil rights organization worked for a large appliance sales company which had a warehouse full of used, scratch-and-dent, and superseded model appliances that the company was willing to sell at a hefty discount. The problem was how to ship the appliances to the church in the south which would act as distribution point.
As I had experience in a traffic department, I was asked what would be the best way to ship these appliances to the south. I rode home on the train after being processed out of active duty at Fort Sheridan with another veteran whom from my home area that I knew slightly. We chatted about our experiences in the Army including the desegregation problems. When he got home, he was returning to his job as trucker with his father, who worked on contract for a freight company that hauled machinery for International Harvester. I looked him up and called him about how he would recommend shipping the appliances to the church in the south. He came up with a plan. He often hauled trailers that were not fully loaded, particularly during heavy shipping seasons for farm equipment. He said the appliances, as long as they were carefully crated, could be hauled at a discount as partial loads on trucks headed south. Over a period of about a month, we managed to ship a very large inventory to the church in the south by trucks that dropped off their partial loads as they passed through the town where the church was located.
As time went by, regular shipments of household appliances were made to the church. The leaders of the church organized a boycott against the appliance dealers in their region, and helped black families get working kitchen and laundry appliances without having to go to the dealer. The dealers felt the impact of the boycott to the point that they had to scale back on their inventories and deal with the fact that their market had shrunk.
The civil rights organization also worked with churches in setting up food pantries at which African-Americans could purchase food without having to pay exorbitant prices and deal with the discriminatory practices of the merchants.
Those pantries quickly evolved into food co-operatives.
Those pantries quickly evolved into food co-operatives.
The boycotts had two effects. They made life easier for the people, and they showed the merchants that their discriminatory practices were putting their businesses in jeopardy. When black people found a way around segregation and developed their own resources for necessities, the merchants began to soften their attitudes about past business practices.
Ultimately, boycotts became a significant factor in the civil rights movement. What could not be achieved through political means was achieved through economic strategies. They weakened the forces of segregation while strengthening the movement toward civil rights.
However, the boycotts were very quiet affairs. They were not publicized. People simply stopped patronizing those merchants who extorted their money and treated them with disrespect.
When the communities realized that the African-Americans had obtained a degree of independence, the more racially intolerant in those communities were enraged, and some attempted to stop it. The church that took charge of distributing the appliances and food was accused of dealing in stolen goods. A team of lawyers was dispatched to the community with inventories, invoices, and bills of sale and demanded that the accusers come forth with their evidence. That charge was withdrawn, but the anger and rage continued so that some of the segregationist practices were intensified. But they were met with massive demonstrations and publicity as the civil rights movement gained momentum.
People do not understand the power of the boycott. In a capitalist country, it strikes at the economic heart. It is a way for people to manage their own lives rather than be part of oppressive and devious schemes of the corporate mindset. Many people find themselves doing business with companies they don’t like because those companies seem to hold a monopoly on items that the people need. A boycott works only when people have an alternative source for the things they need.
Like those people who were paying ransom to merchants for the things they needed like food and household appliances, many people find themselves purchasing products in oppressive circumstances because they have no other choice. The key to a successful boycott is to create other choices.
We have lived through three decades when corporations, which want to be regarded as persons, have been horrible citizens. They spurned American workers by outsourcing production to other countries with cheap labor, mostly China. Now they are practicing “tax inversion” by which they evade American corporate taxes by registering the headquarters of their companies off shore in countries that have a lower tax rate. They use the American infrastructure to market their products, but they don’t want to pay for it.
It is apparent that our tax code needs revision, but that is no excuse for corporations to renounce their citizenship while exploiting the American markets. Conservative folks are raging about the influx of immigrants that are coming to the U.S. for jobs, but they ignore the fact that corporations have sent jobs overseas and are becoming the corporate citizens of other countries while exploiting the American marketplace.
If they want to take their companies offshore, let them find their markets offshore. Don’t buy their products. As long as they base their corporations elsewhere, the idea of buying American is rendered pointless. Buying American no longer contributes to the national economy. It supports companies which take the buyers' money and funnel it into the exorbitant salaries and bonuses that have reduced workers’ wages and created a situation where a minor percentage of people hold the nations wealth and earnings. They are the creators of wage inequality and the growing ranks of the poor. Every dollar spent on their products creates more poverty in the ranks of those who actually do the nation’s work.
The Financial Times reports that “In 1960, the US was home to 17 of the world’s 20 largest companies. Fifty years later, only six were headquartered there.”
Some of the companies, according to Wikipedia, that have inverted are:
- McDermott International to Panama, 1982
- Helen of Troy to Bermuda, 1994
- Tyco International to Bermuda, 1997
- Fruit of the Loom to the Cayman Islands, 1998
- Ingersoll Rand to Bermuda, 2001
- Transocean to Switzerland, 2008
- Ensco plc to the United Kingdom, 2009
- Eaton Corporation to Ireland, 2012
- Actavis to Ireland, 2013
- Chiquita to Ireland, 2014 (pending)
- Applied Materials to the Netherlands, 2014 (pending)
- Abbvie to Ireland, 2014 (pending)
- Medtronic to Ireland, 2014 (pending)
- Walgreens to Switzerland, 2014 (pending)
- Mylan to the Netherlands, 2014 (pending)
While the brands and services offered by some of these countries are buried in subsidiaries, some, such as Walgreens, Fruit of the Loom, Chiquita, are familiar. For me, they are a place to start. I will not patronize a Walgreens, buy Fuirt of the Loom t-shirts or skivvies, or a Chiquita banana anymore.
If enough willpeople begin to understand how these companies are betraying them, they boycott them and their products and let them know that as they have chosen to leave America, they should find their markets in their new homes, not in ours.
Conservatives are in a rage about illegal immigrants, but they allow their corporate masters to take out corporate citizenship in other countries and siphon American dollars for their own benefit and that of their new countries.
We have a civil right to do business with thos who do not abuse us. One of the ways to take America back is to shun those who bilk and betray us.