“Let’s call a strike!” … “We’ll just boycott them!”

Emotionally satisfying shouts in the heat of the moment but how effective are strikes and boycotts and can there be unanticipated consequences? (More)

Living in Wisconsin and being at ground zero in the protests fighting to push back against the corporate interests who have taken over statehouses from Maine to Arizona is energizing. But I have to admit that I am also concerned about some of the suggestions regarding how to push back.

Maybe it is my age or maybe it is the fact that laying down in front of tanks no longer seems romantic (did it ever?) but when I look at the tools we have available I want to make sure we stop and think things through.

General Strikes

The Capitol grounds a few weeks ago were thick with signs, some calling for a general strike. A General Strike is:

a strike action by a critical mass of the labour force in a city, region, or country. While a general strike can be for political goals, economic goals, or both, it tends to gain its momentum from the ideological or class sympathies of the participants. It is also characterized by participation of workers in a multitude of workplaces, and tends to involve entire communities.

That sounds like precisely what is needed in this fight but what is the history of general strikes?

The Seattle General Strike of 1919, for example, not so great:

Although the strike was non-violent and lasted less than a week, government officials, the press, and much of the public viewed the strike as a radical attempt to subvert US institutions.

The San Francisco General Strike in 1934 had a different effect:

When it was over, 64 were injured and two men were killed on what became known as “Bloody Thursday.” The deaths of the men and the huge, public funeral for them, helped [the sponsors] rally the support of other unions in the city to join the strike. This General Strike effectively shut down the city of San Francisco for four days. The strike was a success: many of the ILA’s demands were met. The following year, 1935, the Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board that protects the rights of workers to organize into unions. The General Strike brought economic and political power for labor unions that would last for decades.

The rationale for a Wisconsin general strike, as laid out by the some members of labor is:

“A general strike against [Gov. Scott] Walker would begin the process of rebuilding a strong labor movement in the United States. Since the US plays such an important role in the global economy and world political system, this could also invigorate workers’ struggles around the planet. To make it happen will require participation from many people across industries, across unions, and across the country.”


Boycotts are being organized against companies who supported Scott Walker in the campaign and who refuse to go on record as being against his union busting tactics.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was pretty effective:

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a political and social protest campaign that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, USA, intended to oppose the city’s policy of racial segregation on its public transit system. Many historically significant figures of the civil rights movement were involved in the boycott, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and others, as listed below. The boycott resulted in a crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city’s black population who were the drivers of the boycott were also the bulk of the system’s paying customers. The ensuing struggle lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, to December 20, 1956 when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

The lettuce and grape boycotts resulted in some success for Cesar Chavez’s unionization but his strike took two years and the boycott lasted nearly four years.

A Target boycott was launched when it was disclosed that Tom Emmer, a gay-bashing anti-worker Republican candidate for Minnesota governor had received money from Target. Target backed off after a hue and a cry.

A pundit in Los Angeles wants to boycott Wisconsin and explains it thus:

The instrument of a boycott is not a “smart weapon”; it is only an accessible weapon, a nonviolent weapon and an effective weapon. In a consumer economy and a democracy held hostage by moneyed interests, it may be one of the most effective weapons we have. Taking it to the streets is good; taking it to the supermarket may be even better. When the pro-business sector discovers that disenfranchising union workers makes for bad business, anti-union politicians will be bad business too.

The Scott Walker boycott is starting to have an effect:

… three popular Roman Candle restaurants in the Madison area pulled out of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association because it endorsed Walker and refused to make a statement in favor of collective bargaining.

The Wisconsin boycott includes M&I bank, Sargento Cheese and Johnsonville Brats.

From a scholarly study on Why we Boycott (PDF):

The boycott is the way we take our cause to the public. For surely if we cannot find justice in the courts of rural California, we will find support with our brothers and sisters throughout the nation. – Cesar Chavez, 1973

Other Options

Normally the method for changing government is to “vote the rascals out”. The problem in 2011 is that we just had an election and that was the problem … those who were elected were not completely honest about their intentions and we are stuck with them unless we can recall them or force them to do the right thing.

So what are the issues involved with strikes and boycotts?
1. Does the action draw positive or negative attention to your cause?
2. Is the action likely to change the opinions?
3. Will the action harm people who have no say in the decisions? It it okay for them to be harmed?

Please add to the list and share your thoughts in the comments.