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From grapes to tuna, five boycotts that made a difference

July 17, 2020, 6:43 PM UTC

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The dancing bear from children’s show Hip Hop Harry has become the herald of bad decisions on social media. The show’s catchy song asks the question on everyone’s mind: Who’s next? After Goya CEO Robert Unanue said that the U.S. was “truly blessed” to have Donald Trump as president, Twitter had its answer. The Hispanic-owned brand is now facing calls to boycott its products from Latin consumers who feel that the brand has aligned itself with an administration that villainizes their communities.

As social media reacted, Elizabeth Strater started getting text messages.

“ahhh Goya no! feels like coming home and opening my mom’s fridge and finding trump in there.”

“I think what people are heated up about is that it’s one of the few brands that carry food from back home. For example, since I’ve been in DC it’s one of the few brands that had the basics to make Mexican foods.”

“Yes! Like shit we already know homie from Home Depot does us wrong but Goya who we seek for comfort connecting us to the homeland. That hurts bro.”

Strater, the director of digital organizing for United Farm Workers, says boycotting is bigger than just ignoring something you don’t agree with or stripping someone of their social media platform. A boycott, she says, withholds something tangible in a way that compels a change in behavior.

But if you want a lesson in commitment: “Well, the United Farm Workers canceled an entire fruit once,” Strater says.

Whether it’s grapes or one brand of adobo, Strater says consumers have the democratic right to refuse to give their money to companies that they think are harmful. United Farm Workers has not formally announced a boycott of Goya products, but it would be in line with its history.


Boycotts before hashtags
Farm labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez stands in front of a supermarket as he leads a demonstration in Philadelphia, Penn., on Nov. 14, 1985. They are protesting the use of harmful pesticides on fresh grapes.
George Widman—AP Images

In 1965, Filipino farmworkers organized a strike in Delano, California, against grape growers to protest years of poor pay and working conditions. The workers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, asked the leaders of the National Farmworkers Association—Mexican-American activists Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez—to join their strike. Nonunion grapes rotted on dockyards as workers refused to load them.

Huerta and Chavez led a 340-mile pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento and were joined by thousands. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Cesar Chavez in 1966. “As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members,” he wrote. “The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts–in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one–a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

At the same time, the civil rights movement was shedding a light on the injustices Black Americans faced in their daily lives. With a dialogue on race and fair treatment happening across the United States, when Chavez called upon average Americans to boycott table grapes, millions of consumers listened.

September 1968, Mr And Mrs. Alfredo Herrera lead pickets at a local grocery store. About 30 marchers joined in United Farm Workers Organizing campaign for California grape boycott.
Cloyd Teter—The Denver Post/Getty Images

The strike lasted five years and resulted in the creation of the first farmworkers union, United Farm Workers of America. The combined efforts of both workers and solidarity from consumers led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which formally protected the rights of workers to unionize and protest unfair conditions.

Nestlé baby formula

Boycotts before hashtags
A woman sits with her baby at the maternity ward at Bonassama hospital on August 10, 2009 in Douala, Cameroon. The ward is full of advertising for Nestle and Bledina products, something that is not allowed in the country.
Per-Anders Pettersson—Getty Images

While Cesar Chavez and Dr. Martin Luther King were fighting for a better quality of life, companies that sold baby formula found themselves with an abundance of products but a decline in sales as birth rates in the 1960s. Companies like Nestlé turned to other markets, sparking what would eventually become a seven-year boycott.

Activists raised concerns about Nestlé’s marketing practices of their baby formula in South America and South Asian countries. At hospitals, mothers were given samples by Nestlé workers dressed as nurses who said that their products were better than breast milk.

As part of the boycott, activists campaigned for government hearings. They got their wish when Sen. Ted Kennedy, then the chair of the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, opened the meetings to the public in 1978.

Boycotts before hashtags
Navidad Clavano, MD (The Philippines) testifies at a 1978 US Senate hearing.
Courtesy of Nestle Boycott/YouTube

“Whose responsibility is it to control the advertising, marketing and promotional activities which, in and of themselves, may create a market in spite of public health considerations?” Kennedy asked. “When economic incentives are in conflict with public health requirements, how shall that conflict be resolved?”

Natividad Clavano traveled from Manila, Philippines to share what she saw in her hospital as chief of pediatrics. At Baguio General Hospital, doctors successfully reduced their infant mortality rates by increasing breastfeeding and keeping mothers together, she said. The mortality rate at her hospital fell by 25% compared to the Philippines national mortality rate of 74%.

The president of Nestlé’s Brazilian operations denied all allegations.

“The U.S. Nestlé Co. has advised me that their research indicates this is actually an indirect attack on the world’s free economic system,” Oswaldo Ballarin said. “A worldwide church organization with the stated purpose of undermining the free enterprise system is at the forefront of this activity.”

Senator Kennedy scoffed: “Now you can’t seriously expect us to accept that…Can a product, which requires clean water, good sanitation, adequate family income, and a literate parent to follow printed instructions, be properly and safely used in areas where water is contaminated, sewage runs in the streets, poverty is severe and illiteracy is high?”

Following the recommendations of Kennedy’s committee, the World Health Organization met in 1979 to review guidelines to regulate the sale of breast milk substitutes. The boycott ended in 1984, after its adoption. Every year the infant-formula code is updated at the World Health Assembly, and every year formula makers and lobbyists speak out against it.


Boycotts before hashtags
Tuna cans with dolphin safe stamps from the tuna commission.
Douglas Graham—Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project runs the largest private food oversight system in the world. Its global staff is dedicated to tracking the operations of all things tuna, from canneries and storage facilities to the method of capture. This dedicated oversight of tuna companies is actually meant to protect another animal: dolphins.

In the 1950s, commercial fishing operations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean began catching tuna using circular purse nets. By tracking dolphins, fishing fleets could easily nab the yellowfin tuna that swam below them, but the purse nets caught dolphins as well. It is estimated that 7 million dolphins died as a result, drowning in the nets or breaking their dorsal fins in their attempt to escape.

Boycotts before hashtags
Filmmaker of dolphin killing by tuna fisherman Sam LaBudde bending down to touch dolphin at Marine World-Africa USA, June 08, 1990
Kim Komenich—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It wasn’t until 1988 that biologist Samuel Labudde captured footage that shocked the world. Labudde found a job on a Panamanian tuna boat as a cook, explaining away the video camera he carried everywhere as a gift from his father. For four months, he secretly filmed the death of hundreds of dolphins off the coast of Chile. Earth Island sent his graphic footage to media outlets and in April that year, environmental groups launched a boycott of tuna companies. On college campuses, petitions to demand companies like Heinz stop buying tuna caught using the purse method circulated. Protesters staged demonstrations outside the office of Ralston Purina—the producer of Chicken of the Sea tuna. One teenager, Joel Rubin, sent nine postcards a day for a month to the homes of Heinz executives, asking them when they would stop the slaughter.

The boycott continued until the United States Congress signed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act of 1990, which created the “dolphin safe” label for tuna that we’re familiar with today. Starkist Tuna, the largest tuna company in the world, agreed to buy tuna caught safely and when sales dropped for products without the dolphin label, other companies followed suit.


Boycotts before hashtags
JAN 9 1972 , Chicano groups protest racial bias in Coors brewery’s hiring practice Credit: Denver Post.
Denver Post— Getty Images

Grapes weren’t the only thing missing from American refrigerators in the 1970s—the Coors Brewing Company, now the Molson Coors Brewing Company, faced a decade long boycott in Latino communities and beyond. The Coors family spoke loudly and often for anti-immigrant legislation, and in return, Chicano college students in Colorado stood outside their campus bar and refused to let anyone order Coors beer. Bill Coors, the grandson of founder Adolph Coors, once said that Black people “lack the intellectual capacity to succeed, and it’s taking them down the tubes,” according to multiple news outlets in 1984. Within the brewery, there were no women’s bathrooms; Coors did not hire women willingly.

Because of its anti-union efforts and discriminatory hiring practices, the same communities that Coors discriminated against came together to protest a lie detector test policy in 1977. Almost 2,000 Coors employees went on a 20-month long strike over a clause in the employee contracts requiring workers to take a mandatory polygraph. The company had already fired workers suspected of being part of the LGBTQ community without evidence, and the union feared more would be in danger of being outed. Coors management said the test was a way to protect the company and root out communism, feeding into public fear to find American “traitors.”

″If people are on narcotics we’ll find it,” Richard Bond said, Coors’ director of placement. “We’ll also find communists.”

Boycotts before hashtags
September 19 1984; Coors, Peter – Groups; L to R: Melanie Lomax, L.A. NAACP; Peter Coors, Fred Rasheed, D NAACP sign an agreement.
Ed Maker—The Denver Post/Getty Images

While Coors defeated the strike, the boycott was just beginning. The gay community in San Francisco rallied behind the workers, pouring out Coors beer by the case. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations was the largest federation of unions in the United States, and all of its unions backed the boycott. In California, Coors’ market share fell from 40 percent in 1977 to just 14 percent in 1984.

The “Boycott Coors” sign above the AFL-CIO headquarters officially came down in 1987. Coors signed agreements with the NAACP, the American GI Forum, and the National Council of La Raza to give millions of dollars to Black and Latino communities. Some activists feel that Coors never released data on its hiring practices, the company did not uphold their agreement to increase job opportunities for minority workers.

Mitsubishi salt

Boycotts before hashtags
Exportadora de Sal (ESSA), a joint venture between Fidecomiso Mining Development Corporation and Mitsubishi, is one of the leading producers and suppliers of salt for the chlorine-alkali industry in the Pacific Rim.
Susana Gonzalez—Bloomberg/Getty Image

On Cedros Island off the coast of Guerrero Negro, Mexico, Mitsubishi’s joint shipping facility with Exportadora de Sal shows why is the Japanese company one of the leading suppliers of salt. The salt flats are only a third of Tokyo’s size, but it produces millions of tons of salt each year, including half of Japan’s salt exports.

Almost 100 miles south of the facility is Laguna San Ignacio, a spawning ground for the gray whale. It’s also a biosphere reserve and a sanctuary for birds. In 1993 the United Nations declared their lagoon a World Heritage site, but in 1994, Mitsubishi began a partnership with the Mexican government to build another salt production plant in the same location. The $100 million project was set to be the largest plant in the world, complete with a mile-long pier that would have cut directly into the Bay of Whales—named for their migration path.

Boycotts before hashtags
March 11, 1997, Robert Kennedy Jr. reaches out and pets a whale as Glenn Close, right, stretches to reach whale. Kennedy and Close were part of an environmental meeting and whale watch at San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico, where whales migrate every winter.
Bob Carey—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

When Mitsubishi wanted to expand their salt operations to nearby Baja California, over 700,000 letters of protest followed. The Natural Resources Defense Council worked with international environmental activists to spread awareness of the importance of San Ignacio. Renowned scientists from around the world took out full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times condemning the project. On television, commercials told viewers, “Mitsubishi says our whales won’t be hurt. Don’t buy it.” Managers of 15 mutual funds joined the boycott, hoping to sway investors interested in the project.

In 2000, the Mexican government and Mitsubishi gave in to the international pressure and announced that they would not be moving forward with the project.