The Cost-Benefit Analysis of boycotts & strikes

From a boycott of Starbucks because their cups aren’t sufficiently Christmas-y enough, to boycotts of Star Wars movies, a #deleteUber campaign, Nordstrom, Budweiser, Target, and the States of Utah & North Carolina for various reasons; it seems there is always a boycott of some sort. Which leads to the question: Do boycotts work?

The short answer is: sometimes. One can find examples of boycotts leading to their desired outcome, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, for example led to the end of segregation on city buses. One can also look at the boycott of Chick-fil-A over the company CFO’s opposition to same-sex marriage legalization, which led to a buycott, that is the act of a person or group “deliberately purchasing a company’s or a country’s products in support of their policies, or to counter a boycott.”

Ivo Welch, professor of economics and finance at the Anderson School at UCLA, says, “Boycotts almost surely will never work.” Welch points to South Africa as an example, adding, “In the early 1980s and before then, it was a very large movement to divest all sorts of holdings and break all sorts of business and sports ties with South Africa. South Africa, at the time, had an apartheid regime that was institutionalized racism and about as abominable as it gets… There were all sorts of coordinated actions that were not just in the United States, but all over the world, all designed to bring the South African regime to its knees.”

However, Stephen J. Dubner reports, Welch found that despite a coordinated global effort by activists and institutions, South African firms were essentially unharmed by the boycott.

Even if boycotts don’t always have the intended impact on the target, participation in one generally does not impair the daily life of the participant. The same can not be said of strikes as a form of protest.

There was recently a strike by workers and students called “A Day Without Immigrants.” NPR reports the “movement is a response to President Trump’s immigration agenda, which includes a pledge to seal the U.S. border with Mexico and a travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries (which is now on hold).”

The day after the protest, headlines began reporting: “Workers fired after participating in ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ strike.” While the details of the stories varied, the recurring theme remained the same: someone refused to go to work, and the employer terminated the relationship. The attorney for one company in Tennessee released a statement reading: “Because of the time-sensitive nature of the jobs these employees were assigned to, all employees were told that they would need to show up for work or they would be terminated.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the reasons behind the strike, I hope you can at least recognize that harming yourself (i.e. refusing to work, not getting paid, and potentially losing your job) does not send the desired message to the target of your protest. Even though the evidence shows that strikes and boycotts are largely ineffective, I’m not saying that one should never participate in a strike or boycott; I am saying that one should thoroughly weigh the potential costs to themselves before participating in one.