Contact l Sitemap

home industries issues reasearch weblog press

Home  » Issues » Money & Politics

US: Corporations Painted in Red and Blue

by Joe GarofoliSan Francisco Chronicle
February 15th, 2005


Having taken a beating at the ballot box, the left is redirecting its post-election energy at corporate boardrooms.

Anti-corporate campaigns have been around for decades, but this fight-the-power generation is going about it with a little more finesse. For one, activists shy away from the term "boycott." Too negative.

"People are sick of that whiny sort of demeanor," said Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist who helps create campaigns for the Organic Consumers Association, a public interest advocacy group. "In the '60s it was down with this, down with that. Now, people want a more positive message."

Among the new wave is North Beach resident Raven Brooks, co-founder of BuyBlue.org. He tells consumers which companies are "blue" (Democratic) or "red" (Republican) -- depending on the contributions of its political action committees and top officers -- and then redirects red shoppers to bluer competitors.

"We're not telling people to boycott the companies -- we're just giving them information on how to shift their money," Brooks said.

In the coming months, everyone from environmentalists to organic food advocates will supplement their political lobbying with a heftier dose of consumer outrage funneled through "corporate responsibility campaigns."

In recent history, anti-corporate activism goes back to a 1980s consumer boycott of Nestle Corp., which was blamed for encouraging Third World women to become dependent on infant formula they couldn't afford. Over the past decade, similar efforts bubbled across college campuses, bursting to prominence with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

Mainstream groups, seeing how many young people took an interest in last year's presidential race, are trying to tap that energy.
Among them: the San Francisco-based Sierra Club. In March, spokesman Brendan Bell said, the club will sic consumers on a "to-be-named" energy company "that's doing bad things to the environment and is being supported by the Bush administration." It is part of the group's opposition to proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"We as progressives need to give people a way to use their power as consumers to make their point," said Bell, an energy policy analyst with the 700,000-member organization. "We may not have as much political power (as conservatives). But what we still have are people."

Some organizers say it is easier to focus their faithful on a corporate logo than to point them toward political lobbying.

Nancy Murray spent 17 years lobbying Washington and the United Nations to protest Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In December, the organizer with the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights turned her sights on Peoria, Ill., and the heavy machinery and clothing company Caterpillar Inc.

She helped start BootCat.org, a Boston version of a national anti-Caterpillar campaign that's been around for years. Activists want Caterpillar to stop allowing one of its bulldozers to be sold to Israel, which the group says is using the vehicles to level Palestinians' homes and agricultural land.

By focusing on Caterpillar -- an iconic symbol of the American heartland -- Murray hopes to bring a Middle Eastern issue home to many Americans who might otherwise shrug it off.

"In campaign terms, it gives us a target," Murray said. "It's not as diffuse as rallying people by saying, 'End the occupation.' People say, 'Ahh, we've already tried that (tack).' "

Perhaps no company has come under as fierce an attack as Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer. A 22-page report last year by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, echoed what many critics have said for years: Because nonunionized Wal-Mart pays lower salaries and health benefits, its employees must use subsidized medical care, free school lunches and other taxpayer- supported welfare services.

Wal-Mart will be the target of a fresh campaign in the next couple of months, when the Organic Consumers Association will band together with labor and environmental groups to promote a "buy local" crusade. The organization's Web site -- which lists several anti-corporate campaigns -- has fielded 3 to 4 million hits a weekend since the November election. Before then, the site had that many hits in a month, Minowa said.

"Wal-Mart has been a real catalyst for a lot of different kinds of progressive groups to work together," said Ryan Zinn, a San Francisco resident and organizer for the organics group.

Recognizing this oncoming wave of animosity, Wal-Mart fought back last month with a national ad campaign to clear up "misinformation" spread by what it called special interest groups -- which spokeswoman Cynthia Lin defined largely as labor unions.

"People have the right to their opinions, but what we object to is when they spread misinformation about the salaries and benefits of our employees," Lin said. "And it comes as no surprise that labor unions are upset. They've had declining enrollment for years."

At the heart of any activist's anti-corporation campaign is an appeal for consumers to take their dollars elsewhere -- which BuyBlue.org makes explicit.

With the help of 150 volunteers, the 26-year-old Brooks created his Web site in December to rate firms by their blue or red hues.

For consumers who no longer want to frequent an online bookseller such as Amazon.com, for example, because the majority of its political action committee's contributions (59 percent) went to Republican candidates last year, BuyBlue.org offers links to blue competitors such as Barnes & Noble or Powell's.

By the end of the year, Brooks, a software analyst who has consulted for Fortune 500 firms, expects to include information about a company's record on the environment, minority hiring and other social barometers in addition to its political contributions.

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said, "I don't think it's fair to say that we support Republicans or Democrats. We support issues that are important to our customers, and give to politicians of both parties. And we look at our customers as customers, not as red or blue ones. If you start doing that, you're not going to win over any new customers."

BuyBlue.org's avoidance of the b-word -- boycott -- is illustrative of how this generation is trying coax change from corporations.

Animal-rights activist Lauren Ornelas of Davis approached Whole Foods CEO John Mackey after a shareholders meeting in 2003, then struck up an online conversation with him. Their discussions, in part, not only led to Mackey's conversion to veganism, but to the company's promising to change its animal welfare standards.

In January, 17 animal rights groups signed a letter applauding Whole Foods' "pioneering initiatives." Two weeks ago, the company donated 5 percent of its revenue from one day to start the Animal Compassion Foundation.

"The thing to remember is that we worked on that campaign for three years before that," said Ornelas, a representative of Viva USA, which signed the letter.

Activists agree the biggest challenge to corporate campaigns is keeping the troops fired up. Unlike a political campaign, where organizers can point to a finish line on election day, corporate campaigns can last for years.

So every anti-corporate campaign craves a victory. No matter the size.

Last month, environmental activists staged a weeklong "car sit" at a Ford automobile dealership in Sacramento to protest the company's repossession of its remaining electric pickup trucks. Ford plans to concentrate on building gas-electric hybrid cars and trucks to achieve state-mandated cuts in emissions.

After a week of watching the sitters -- and their press coverage -- the company abandoned its repo plan.

"To have a major American corporation change its mind -- oh yeah, that's definitely a victory," said Jason Mark, an organizer with Jumpstart Ford at Global Exchange.

"We need to have a cathedral builder's mentality when we're doing these campaigns," Mark said. "We may not see the building completed in our lifetime, but if we finish the foundation, the next generation can build on that."





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.