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Boycotts show us what matters to Americans

Brand boycotts in the Trump era have been largely political, but with the pandemic comes a shift toward workers’ rights.

A row of canned Goya beans in a Los Angeles supermarket.
Goya Foods is the latest brand to face consumer blowback for its CEO’s public politics.
Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images

In his latest Instagram photo, President Donald Trump is flashing an enthusiastic double thumbs-up, while seated behind a row of neatly lined Goya Foods products: some red kidney beans, adobo seasoning, canned white beans, coconut milk, and chocolate wafers. The president’s pictorial endorsement was posted nearly a day after Ivanka Trump, his daughter and senior adviser, similarly tweeted out a photo of a can of Goya black beans alongside a somewhat eerie, sponcon-like caption: “If it’s Goya, it has to be good.”

The images — which have drawn criticism for possibly violating government ethics standards — are the latest efforts by the Trump family to exhibit support for Goya Foods, which is facing calls for a boycott after its CEO publicly praised the president at a White House event on July 9.

“We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder,” said CEO Robert Unanue, part of the third generation to lead the family-owned business. The hashtags #BoycottGoya and #Goyaway started trending on Twitter shortly after Unanue’s remarks, leading him to denounce the boycott on Fox & Friends as “suppression of speech.”

This claim is similar to one made by the president last year, in which he accused the “radical left” of leveraging boycotts as a tool to “hurt their enemy” on Twitter. “They put out the name of a store, brand or company, and ask their so-called followers to not do business there,” he wrote. “They don’t care who gets hurt, but also don’t understand that two can play that game!”

Boycotts are a tried-and-true mobilizing tactic, wielded by people from all political parties to express discontent toward a corporation’s policies or messaging. These Trump-related boycotts largely tend to dominate the discourse on consumer activism when it comes to shoppers’ individual politics, implying there’s a cultural rift between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to affiliation with certain brands. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has also forced consumers to more broadly reckon with the nuances of the supply chain and workers’ rights, as boycotts and other forms of activism become centered as acts of solidarity with organized labor.

“Consumer activism has veered back and forth between an emphasis on the consumer at the center of the story, or the people who make the goods that consumers buy,” said Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University who studies labor issues and consumer activism. “We’re in a moment where both are important, but now, when we think about essential labor, it’s crucial to how our society operates.”

The Goya boycotts fall in line with more traditional #Resistance liberal activism: actions often afforded to those who are financially privileged enough to make a choice between certain brands or who have the ability to shop elsewhere. But in the midst of a financial crisis, as most Americans cut back on spending, the decision for shoppers to responsibly “vote with their wallet” could have a substantial impact on company policy.

Why Goya’s pro-Trump stance feels like a “betrayal” to some shoppers

Unanue isn’t the first high-profile executive to face consumer blowback for his political stances. Before Goya, Home Depot was threatened with boycotts last July after its billionaire co-founder pledged to donate to the president’s reelection campaign (which spurred Trump’s anti-boycott sentiments toward the “radical left”). In August, SoulCycle and Equinox came under scrutiny for being backed by Stephen Ross, a billionaire real estate developer who hosted campaign fundraisers for Trump.

Other household names — Bank of America, Hobby Lobby, Papa John’s, and L.L. Bean, to name a few — have also found themselves at the center of brief, virulent controversy. This usually occurs after an executive publicly expresses their support for Trump or when certain products are discovered to have links to the Trump campaign or family.

The president, too, has actively called for boycotts of certain brands, such as Nike, CNN, and Apple. For the most part, his supporters appear eager to “own the libs” by either bulk-buying from companies shunned by anti-Trump shoppers or withholding spending power from brands that appear unsympathetic toward Trump. Evangelicals and the Christian right have also leveraged this power, calling on supporters to boycott institutions that didn’t align with anti-LGBTQ “family values,” like Disney and Microsoft.

Some say Unanue’s pro-Trump politics felt like a betrayal specific to the Hispanic immigrant community, given the president’s history of explicitly racist remarks and anti-immigrant deportation policies; many immigrants rely on Goya — the nation’s largest distributor of Hispanic foods — for staple pantry products and seasoning mixes like adobo and sazón. And while conservatives have praised Unanue for Goya’s charitable efforts, including its donation to food banks nationwide as part of Trump’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, he’s a longtime Republican donor, the Washington Post reported. Between Unanue’s embrace of Hispanic customers and his support of an increasingly nativist political party, that dissonance is striking.

“We’ve come to expect exploitation or at best neglect from big-box corporations that employ this community,” said Elizabeth Strater, the digital organizing director for United Farm Workers, a farmworkers labor union (UFW does not represent workers at Goya). “Goya is different because the Latinx community is the majority of their consumer base. Goya wants to take immigrant families’ grocery money while praising the leadership of a regime that has demonized them from day one.”

Over the weekend, Latino chefs and home cooks started sharing their own seasoning recipes, offering substitution recommendations to certain Goya products. “While it may be difficult to be completely ethical, I thought others should know that there is power in where we spend and what we cook,” Jeremie Serrano, a home cook who crafts plant-based Puerto Rican recipes, told Salon.

The economic impact of consumer activism lobbied against major corporations like Goya hasn’t been entirely clear. For the average consumer, it can be difficult to avoid or even keep track of the number of boycott-able brands, which appear to have reached a zenith in the Trump era. These coordinated acts are often spurred by initiatives like #GrabYourWallet, which pressures companies to cut financial ties with the Trump administration.

Still, not all boycotts yield significant results, especially when it comes to damaging a company’s bottom line or public image, Glickman told me. A popular claim levied against the Goya boycotts online, echoed by conservatives like Meghan McCain, is that these actions would only serve to hurt primarily low-paid workers.

According to Goya’s website, the company employs more than 4,000 people worldwide and operates 26 facilities throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Spain. Hispanic workers and undocumented people are overrepresented in the food production industry, but workers in this sector overall face greater health and financial risks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet for a global company like Goya, Glickman thinks it would be “very difficult for boycotts to have a major economic impact” on its bottom line, given how people on both sides of the aisle might buy more or less of the products. “So much of capital today is about brand management,” he added. “There is the fact that Goya doesn’t want its brand sullied. Just because it’s not going to have serious economic impact doesn’t mean the company won’t take the boycott seriously or that it doesn’t have a broader political purpose.”

Historically, the most successful economic boycotts have targeted small, local businesses that rely on a centralized clientele base. Labor boycotts in the 19th century tended to target companies in a neighborhood that didn’t recognize a union, and many were put out of business as a result, Glickman said. “It’s obviously very different when you have a company that has multiple markets all over the world and consumers who are not located in one place.”

The coronavirus pandemic is changing how consumers consider boycotts by renewing the focus on workers’ rights

Beyond the outcry directed toward Goya and its CEO, the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding labor issues central to many consumer boycotts: the need for workers to unionize, be paid livable wages, and receive health care and sick leave. On May 1, also known as May Day, warehouse workers, grocery employees, and gig workers at companies like Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, and Shipt walked off their jobs to protest the lack of personal protective equipment, safety measures, and hazard pay from employers. Customers were encouraged to not place any orders from companies that day in solidarity, and while there’s no indication that business has slowed down, as Recode reported, the protests received ample media attention and backing from high-profile politicians.

“A righteous consumer boycott speaks truth to power in a capitalist country,” Strater of UFW told me. “Whether it’s grapes, lettuce, or one brand of adobo, boycotts are as democratic as it gets. … We should all be refusing to spend our hard-earned money on the products of corporations who dehumanize our whole community.”

To be clear, the calls to boycott Goya have not been led by its workers. The calls have surfaced on #Resistance Twitter from a mix of politicians (Julián Castro and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), prominent Latino figures, immigrant advocacy groups, and more broadly, anti-Trump voters. However, sweeping criticisms of boycotts often overlook the solidarity between buyers and workers, Strater added. Coordinated action that temporarily hurts a company’s profits might not damage workers in the long run and could be used to leverage greater worker protections, as in the cases of the historic lettuce and grape strikes, which relied on consumer boycotts.

“Whenever you take action in a complex capitalist society, the impacts are bound to be multifaceted, and there may be some suffering as a result,” Glickman said. “But these actions have not stopped protesters from engaging in the past before, and some argue that boycotts create a net positive for society and workers.”

The pandemic has brought attention to various supply chains, from toilet paper to meat. Most shoppers usually don’t think about these obscure processes in normal times, but unforeseen breakdowns in the supply chain — triggered by Covid-19 outbreaks in facilities and plants — highlight the human cost of the products and services many shoppers take for granted, like one-day shipping or a hamburger patty. The pandemic only further reveals how workers are shortchanged for “essential” labor during a period of massive unemployment. “Consumers should know what it costs, in real human terms, to eat a radish or to buy something from Amazon,” Strater said.

The same sentiment goes for major corporations like Goya with leaders who are dedicated Republican donors, she added. “If our family is suffering financially, we need to make sure every single dollar we spend doesn’t deepen the inequity of working families like ours.”