More Dumb Boycotts

by on Nov.10, 2011, under Politics

Via The Frying Pan:

recent investigative report alleges that the online retail giant is subjecting workers to sweatshop conditions. According to the report, “Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain.” The report goes on to describe the following scene: “During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals.”

Based on these appalling allegations, the invaluable watchdog group American Rights at Work has called for a holiday season boycott of Amazon. This will clearly run up against our consumerist desire to save time and money — but each time you’re tempted to click the purchase button, remember what’s at stake for the people who make the wheels of Amazon’s empire turn.

Like most boycotts, this is a terrible idea. A boycott needs a specific demand that can be won in order to lift the boycott, and an institutional commitment to building the boycott. “Until Amazon gets the message to stop the exploitation, and start respecting workers…” is not a specific demand. (With rare exceptions, it’s hard to demand that someone “get the message.”) Whether American Rights at Work has any institutional commitment to building the boycott or reforming Amazon beyond collecting an e-petition is an open question.

Asking people who use Amazon for a considerable portion of their shopping to sign a pledge without giving them any evidence that it will make a difference in anyone’s life is a recipe for exhausting sympathy, not building power.

In general, progressives are quick to call boycotts as a response to wrongdoing rather than as a tactic in pursuit of a goal. (Remember the Obamacare-related Whole Foods boycott?) Without a plan to win, they erode credibility, especially when taking on a nationwide giant like Amazon. Aesop has one lesson about this. But I prefer Omar’s.


2 Comments for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    This leaves me wondering: how can one distinguish between productive and non-productive protest actions that lack concrete goals? On the one hand you have boycotts like this, which isn’t going to accomplish a thing (except maybe getting a lot of names on a list that can then be sold for fundraising). But on the other you have the Occupy movement, which has built energy and momentum precisely by resisting calls for a specific ten-point action plan. Ultimately the Occupiers cannot win, because they have no way of knowing when they have won, and yet I think what they’re doing is still a valuable exercise in showing outrage. Is it because they’re doing it in the real world? Actually forcing confrontation and not merely making political action into another consumer choice? Or are there other more important distinctions?

  • Josh K-sky

    I think there’s a wide middle ground for targeted protest actions that are aimed at decision makers. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals remains excellent (and entertaining) about how properly targeted protest can create a crisis that needs to be resolved. But institutions have become better at defusing those crises at the same time as list-gathering gestures have proliferated.

    I think Occupy is a different order entirely — it’s both noisy and mute, a massive resetting of a social/moral compass, if that makes sense. I think it has worked both as a boost to traditional actions (getting a foreclosure reversed in L.A., e.g.), and as a way of reinvigorating a discourse around economic inequality and social justice that has a superficial boost in the Obama campaign and was seriously on the ropes this year. But the next phase will have to find those pressure points and hit them. I’m cautiously optimistic.

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