Libertarian, anti-union body-purity obsessive Whole Foods founder John Mackey, who has laughed himself all the way to the bank on the endive cash of soi-disant liberals, announced his opposition to health care reform in the Wall Street Journal this week. His article has prompted a convulsion of “Boycott Whole Foods!” across my Facebook feed, and blog posts like Why a Whole Foods Boycott Might Actually Work to Spur Real Health Care Reform at OpenLeft. I take the rousing keywords “Might” and “Actually” to mean that author doesn’t, at heart, think anyone should take this idea too seriously. The rest of the post is in keeping with this, with a lot of “my impression is” and “if such a plan works”.
This enthusiasm will soon wash away into the great ocean of ADD outrage, but since such a boycott has been encouraged by people who ought to know better, like the great Russell Mokhiber, I’ll address some of its flaws.
A successful boycott isn’t just a punishment for a transgression. It requires a clear goal. The Forever 21 boycott, organized by immigrant-rights advocates in Los Angeles, sought the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to workers who made their products. The fair-trade Nike and Starbucks boycotts of the mid-to-late 90′s resulted in monitoring regimes and improved conditions for many of those companies’ suppliers in Southeast Asia and Central America.
A successful boycott needs to be run by an organization with resources to devote to it. The Forever 21 boycott was run out of the Garment Workers Center by labor organizers, immigrant advocates, student activists and the workers themselves. Famously, the grape boycott was run by the United FoodFarm Workers. A great deal of momentum was added by neighbor-to-neighbor conversations, but it wasn’t started by them.
What would be the goal of a health care reform Whole Foods boycott? To get John Mackey to renounce his editorial? Put down the Ayn Rand? Quit blogging? All are worthy as idle hopes. None would move health care reform a day closer.
What organization would run it? Please believe me when I tell you that Whole Foods is not afraid of your Twitter feed, especially because half of the retweeters will feel that they’ve done their part by spreading the news so it’s all right if they duck in for a quick Odawalla. You’ll need to plan direct actions, picket lines in the parking lot, leaflet drops. Is this how Organizing for America should spend its resources? Is it how you should spend yours?
There are plenty of reasons not to shop at Whole Foods, and I encourage everyone to choose not to shop there out of pique or thrift. There are plenty of good reasons to boycott Whole Foods, and if you want to help your local Whole Foods employees join the United Food and Commercial Workers, have at it!
But if health care reform is your goal, take a page from the crazies. They’re not showing up at meetings of the leading health care reform bloggers. They’re not boycotting Wal-Mart, even though that company has nominally joined the side of reform. They’re bring direct pressure on the decision-makers: their elected representatives.
Bonus: the trailer for Made In L.A., a documentary film about the Garment Workers Center and Forever 21.
Rather than confront the extreme right wing of the Republican Party — which is who constitutes the crowds at these town hall events — it might be more useful to target protests at the giant insurance companies and the huge campaign contributions they are handing out , especially to moderate Democrats. Compare the insurance companies’ big profits and outrageous corporate compensation to the tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford health insurance, who can’t get insurance because of pre-existing conditions, or who have policies that don’t cover the things they need. Then challenge the waffling blue-dog Democrats to answer a simple question: which side are you on?