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
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
"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
-- 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
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
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
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
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
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."
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle