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Why Should Anti-Choice and Anti-Gay Groups Have More Right to Boycott and Picket Than Working People?

The Komen controversy showed the brilliance of 'secondary boycotts'—and the injustice of punishing unions for using the same tactics.

Liana Harris's cartoon responding to the Komen Foundation's cutting funding for Planned Parenthood has gone viral. Source:
Photo Credit: Liana Harris, via Tumblr []


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

When news broke that the Susan G. Komen Foundation would cease funding Planned Parenthood, the backlash was fast, furious, and gratifying.  Within days, Komen apologized and promised that Planned Parenthood could receive future funds. But some  commentators were angry at Komen for all the wrong reasons: for “politicizing” women’s health, for failing to distinguish vanilla health services from the abortion "controversy," or for dragging an avowedly apolitical organization into the muck of politics.

Contrary to those critics’ claims, women’s health  is political, as the past weeks’  contraception conflicts have reminded us.  As Amy Schiller  wrote in The Nation, one of the virtues of the Komen controversy was the way it brought those politics—and Komen’s contradictions—to the surface. As Barbara Ehrenreich  has written, Komen’s role in America’s breast cancer discourse has gotten worse as the culture around it has gotten better: When breast cancer was shrouded by silence, open, unapologetic conversation was a feminist feat. Now Komen hurts that conversation, contributing to a culture of cute and optimistic cancer that silences many women while letting corporations brand themselves conscientious on the cheap.

All of this is political. Progressives should be defending women’s right to choose, rather than Komen’s right not to.  And anger at the Right's attempted Komen coup should focus on the ends it sought—the denial of women’s autonomy—not the means it employed: attacking an opponent by squeezing its funders. Applied toward just ends, that tactic—what in labor law is called a secondary boycott—is a virtuous one. But while anti-choice activists have the right to use it without restriction, unions don’t.

Secondary boycotts are among the tactics that fueled labor’s rise before being banned or restricted under law. As occasional Working In These Times contributor Joe Burns recounts in his book  Reviving the Strike, it was once common for a strike at a brewery to include an appeal to solidarity throughout the supply chain: not just brewery workers putting down their tools, but workers and allies withdrawing their labor and their support from any bar that sold the struck brewery’s goods. Just as anti-choicers try to choke off Planned Parenthood by making it radioactive to donors, so workers would choke off the brewery—not just disrupting their boss’ ability to make the beer, but denying it any opportunities to sell it.

Though it may have ultimately backfired, anti-choicers' temporary Komen victory demonstrated why secondary boycotts work: Secondary targets make for soft targets.  Where the brewery owner himself is loathe to grant a victory to his own striking workers, the bar owner faced with angry picketers demanding she stop carrying "scab beer" is more likely to take the path of least resistance. 

Similarly, right-wing pressure is far less likely to get Planned Parenthood to drop abortion than to get Komen to drop Planned Parenthood. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which operates outside of the protections and restriction of labor law, maintains its leverage over tomato growers (as  I reported) by targeting the major chains that buy their products. Color of Change helped end Glenn Beck’s Fox News show by  petitioning not Fox itself, but its advertisers. And some of the protests that targeted this month’s proudly right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) might have been better directed at its avowedly nonreactionary  sponsors, like Google and AOL.

Secondary boycotts also help build a culture of solidarity in the labor movement, offering a prime opportunity for workers to act together as a class rather than just within a craft or a workplace. And making companies and consumers accountable for their economic decisions is a step towards building a more democratic economy.  A pro-privilege politics often lurks in those spaces declared the loudest to be apolitical.  That’s true when abortion rights are declared too political to taint a cancer organization, and it’s true when a company declares that doing business with a boycotted company doesn’t amount to taking sides.

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