In the past two weeks, the call for an economic boycott of Arizona has spread far beyond the political arena. In addition to labor and immigrant rights groups, it quickly won support from such unusual suspects as pop singers Shakira and Ricky Martin, the NBA’s “Los Phoenix Suns,” and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Polls show African-Americans are even more hostile than Latinos to the racist Arizona law, and conventions from multiple groups are already being switched out of state. But boycotts typically start with a flurry of activity. Most then dissipate without building the boycott infrastructure necessary to achieve their original goal. For the Arizona boycott to succeed, activists must follow the lessons of the UFW grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the South Africa divestment campaign of the 1970s and 1980’s, and the UNITE HERE “Hotel Rising Boycott” of 2006. And the timing is perfect for a “Boycott Summer,” which would boost immigrant rights activism both in Arizona and nationally.
The critical distinction between successful and failed boycotts is the creation of a boycott infrastructure. In other words, a campaign operation that continues after the media launch event ends, and that builds the boycott through continually harnessing and recruiting volunteers.
The Center for Community Change, its network of affiliated groups, and its labor allies collectively has the staff capability to build an Arizona boycott infrastructure. And while some might argue that focusing on Arizona is a distraction from comprehensive federal reform, at this point the only way a breakthrough can happen on the latter is by activists showing clout on the state boycott.
With summer approaching and many colleges already out, the timing is perfect for a massive “Boycott Summer” campaign in Arizona. Whether this occurs depends on the commitment of boycott groups to build such an infrastructure, which appears to be a golden opportunity to keep immigration reform on the national radar during hearings on proposed Supreme Court Justice Kagan, the ongoing oil spill, financial reforms, and other news.
Recruitment for a Boycott Summer campaign will keep the issue alive across the nation, nationalizing a local struggle in the same way that the UFW used grape and lettuce boycott recruitment to spread word of its struggle with growers in California’s Central Valley. Recruits also become troops in the larger battle for federal reform, so their value extends beyond Arizona and will likely continue when they return to school in the fall.
In addition, the campaign must set up the type of boycott team used by UNITE HERE to persuade conventions to switch from boycotted hotels. In this case, this means staff contacting every convention and public body scheduled to be in Arizona through 2012, and both urging and helping them to switch states (ideally coordinating with UNITE HERE so that the new hotel site is union).
Some conventions are set for this summer in Arizona and cannot move at this late date without a huge financial sacrifice. But most can switch, and with Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles nearby, there are plenty of quality non-Arizona venues.
The staffing of boycotts, with or without a “boycott summer,” is where the rubber hits the road. It means that activists are so committed to success that they will use this labor intensive and often controversial strategy to prevail. Announcing a boycott and then relying on quick media hits rather than building a boycott infrastructure sends a counter message, one that adversaries see as organizational weakness.
The immigrants’ rights movement has clearly shown it will do what it takes to win. The movement desperately needs to attract new recruits and energies, and running a full-scale Arizona boycott offers the perfect opportunity.
The national coalition announced the boycott on May 5 stating that it would continue until the Arizona law “is repealed, reversed by the courts, and/or superseded by comprehensive federal immigration.” This middle option---a court ruling striking down the law -- could mean that the boycott could end quite soon, as many believe it is unconstitutional and/or federally pre-empted.
When California farmworkers forced growers to accept an agricultural labor relations law, South Africans compelled the white minority leadership to accept majority rule, and hotel workers won good wages, benefits and working conditions through boycotting global hotel corporations, movements were strengthened and the grassroots was empowered. None of these successful boycotts ended prior to the target conceding to the economic pressure
But a favorable court ruling would not require a boycott or even any new activism (to the extent judges are influenced by grassroots action the necessary amount has already occurred). Ending the Arizona boycott without forcing any action by the State Legislature or Governor would not empower the movement, and not provide the political victory apparently needed to pass comprehensive reform this year or anytime soon.
So the Arizona boycott should not be viewed as a short-term project. If it is, it is unlikely to succeed.
The Long View
A common thread through prior successful boycotts is that activists turned to the strategy because they had no real alternative. The same is true with immigrant rights in Arizona, a state that has tried to enact racist, anti-Latino laws for years.
An all-out grassroots, multi-pronged Arizona boycott cannot only change the new law, but also the political climate surrounding immigration. And not only in Arizona, but throughout the country, and in the Republican Party.
It’s good to see activists taking matters into their own hands, and showing Arizona business leaders that attacking immigrants hurts their bottom line.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, which will be out in paperback in July.