The word 'boycott' has been in use since the 1880s. It was first coined when retired British army captain and estate manager Charles Boycott tried to evict farmers who were unable to pay rent. In protest, he was ostracized by his staff (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.). We continue to use the word ‘boycott’ to refer to the act of rejecting products or services from organizations that represent ideas or engage in actions that go against certain beliefs.
In labour movements, boycotts are used to protest low wages, unsafe working conditions, long hours, discriminatory practices, unionbusting, and more. In union disputes, a boycott is often combined with other tactics or it is used as last resort when other tactics have failed. Unions call on consumer buying power to place pressure on corporations through lost sales and bad press to varying success.
Boycott messages are spread through ephemera, as much as they are spread through word of mouth or social media. Stickers, flyers, posters, t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and, of course, buttons are effective tools, “going where organizers could not always go” (Brantley, 2019). This next section will look at several boycott movements in Canada.
Boycott the Postal Code button
The postal code was introduced in Canada as a solution to sorting large amounts of mail quickly. The process was implemented over several years, from 1971 to 1974.
Automation promised increased efficiency and reduced errors, but postal workers did not initially embrace this change. Previously, mail was sorted by hand but the postal code made automation possible. Postal workers feared this would threaten their jobs by replacing human work with machines.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) did not see themselves as ‘against progress’ but thought automation was happening too quickly (CBC Archives, 2018). These changes were implemented before CUPW had a chance to negotiate a new collective agreement. According to CUPW’s Jean-Claude Parrot, “Postal workers don’t have the real right to negotiate the effect of automation” (CBC Archives, 2018).
CUPW called for a boycott in 1972 and they were supported by the Canadian Labour Congress. They asked the public not to use the postal code, distributing buttons like this one. Mail without the postal code and mail showing support for the cause reached its destination quicker. President of the Montreal local, Marcel Perreault said: “We will give priority to people who paste a sticker on their letter or write in the message ‘boycott the postal code’” (Irwin, 1974).
CUPW’s goal was to improve job security in the face of automation, as well as improve pay for the new machine operators (Irwin, 1974). They also wanted to share in the benefits of automation through more money or a shorter work week (CBC Archives, 2018). Some saw the boycott as a sucess. CBC reporter Tom Leach claimed that mail using the postal code took longer to reach Montreal (CBC Archives, 2018). Others viewed it as a failure. Ontario regional general manager Jill Corkery, on the other hand, claimed that the public and employees ignored the boycott entirely (McNenly, 1975).
Whether a result of the boycott or a public indifference, the postal code was not widely accepted. By the end of 1974, only 38.2% of Canadians used the postal code (Demarino, 1975). The boycott ended in February 1976 after a collective agreement was signed with new technological clauses in 1975 (Morissette, 1976). Many members regretted the end of the boycott since in 1976 CUPW claimed that the union continued to be uninformed about technological changes.
This button was union-made. It has an Allied Printing Trades Council label as well as an International Photo-Engravers Union of North America (I.P.E.U.) label.
Boycott National Post button
The National Post boycott began in response to the eight-month Calgary Herald strike. The Herald strike started on November 8, 1999, when around 200 staff members set up picket lines to protest the newspaper under the new ownership of Conrad Black (CBC, 1999).
The Herald was purchased by Conrad Black’s media company Hollinger in 1996, becoming one of many newspapers under Black's leadership. In the 1990s, Black owned over 400 newspapers in North America (Harris, 2007) and over half of daily newspapers in Canada (Roy, 2000).
When Black acquired the newspaper, many changes were implemented. Departments were downsized or cut entirely. Staff workloads were increased while wages decreased for new hires. Articles were rewritten and published, often without the writer's awareness. Some critics accused the changes to the newspaper's content of reflecting a right-wing political stance (Jacobson & Gillies, 2020).
Frustrated with this new direction, Calgary Herald staff voted to unionize in 1998 under the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (Local 115-A) and the Graphic Communications International Union (Local 34-M). After a year of trying to negotiate a contract and facing unionbusting efforts, staff were posed to strike. However, on November 7, 1999, a day before the planned strike, the Herald initiated a lockout.
The next day striking workers joined the picket lines. When the Labour Board restricted picketers from disrupting traffic coming in and out of the workplace, strikers used a new tactic to spread awareness of their struggle. As journalists, they decided to create a short newspaper called ‘The Last Word’ that was distributed throughout Calgary.
The Herald strikers and unions in support of the cause, encouraged readers and businesses to boycott the Herald by cancelling their subscriptions and declining to advertise in the newspaper (Canadian Press, 1999). Peter Menzies, editor-in-chief of the Herald told the Toronto Star that the boycott made little impact (Lu, 1999). A union survey, on the other hand, claimed that the efforts of the strike and boycott caused a 25% drop in readership (Jacobson & Gillies, 2020).
The Canadian Labour Congress and the Council of Canadians began a campaign to boycott the National Post, founded by Black, in December 1999 (Canadian Press, 1999).
On May 1, 2000, supporters visited ten major airports across Canada to distribute leaflets and buttons to travelers, asking them to boycott the Post. Boycotters also jammed newspaper boxes selling Black’s newspapers with bent coins and sticky paper, known as a clog-in boycott tactic (Friedman, 1999).
The purpose of the National Post boycott was to send a message to Black. Armand Roy of Briarpatch magazine wrote: “By boycotting the National Post, supporters of the strike in Calgary are sending a message to Black that he can't continue to abuse and show the contempt he has for his own employees and for respected Canadian institutions” (Roy, 2000). The assistant publisher of the National Post, Gordon Fisher, told the Globe and Mail that "the union has no reason to lump the Post together with The Calgary Herald" as they are "two separate organizations" (Matas, 2000).
The strike ended on June 30, 2000 when union members voted to accept an offer from the Herald that requried the union to dissolve (Alnick, 2001).
Shop Canadian button
This button, which features a red maple leaf tag with the words ’Shop Canadian’, was made by H.A.S. Novelties Ltd in Toronto. Now called H.A.S. Marketing, the company was established in 1969. They continue to make buttons today, producing over 2.5 million a year (H.A.S. Marketing, n.d.).
The shop local movement has been around for a long time. While this button is not specifically connected to a union, its message is connected to boycott movements. A campaign to buy specific products as opposed to other products is often called a ‘buycott’. The focus of buycotts is on “what to buy rather than what not to buy.” (Friedman, 1999, p. 11) Unions will sometimes use a buycott to encourage shoppers to purchase union-made products, like this ‘Buy Canadian’ button from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Eaton’s Strike and Boycott, 1984-85
On November 30, 1984, just weeks before Christmas, 1,500 Eaton’s retail workers across six stores in Ontario went on strike. As newly certified members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), they brought their concerns around low wages, benefits, and job security to management. When the employers would not meet their demands, they joined the picket lines. So began a strike that lasted almost six months.
Strikers used a variety of tactics to engage the public and put pressure on their employers. They welcomed Santa Claus who told everyone that “all [his] elves at the North Pole [were] unioned" (Wainwright, 2019). They invited the Red Berets, a Toronto-based feminist musical group, to alter Christmas carols. “Jingle Bells, no more sales. Eaton’s is on strike” was sung as shoppers walked by the store (Sean Carleton, 2014). The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) quickly called for a national boycott of the department store.
The week of International Women’s Day was a big one for the strikers. On March 2, 1985, the Eaton’s location at the Yonge-Eglinton Centre was temporarily closed for twenty minutes when Eaton’s workers slipped past security and protested inside the store. They called on shoppers to join the boycott and sang “We Shall Not be Moved" (Monsebraaten, 1985). On March 9, at least 1,000 participants in the International Women’s Day parade started an impromptu demonstration at the downtown Eaton’s store (Todd, 1985).
Despite all their efforts, Eaton’s workers were up against a powerful chain with their own tactics. The company continued to hire new workers that replaced picketers and they also gave a 7.8% raise to non-union employees (Doyle Driedger, 1987). After months went by, Eaton’s workers were faced with the loss of their jobs. Ontario law did not guarantee they could return to work if the strike lasted more than six months time (Wainwright, 2019).
So, they accepted a contract that made only minor improvements. The RWDSU, having spent around $2 million on the strike, claimed that “Six months [was] not enough time for a boycott to have a serious effect" (Doyle Driedger, 1987). Unhappy with the results of the strike, the units applied for decertification shortly after.
RWDSU Boycott Eaton's button
These blue and white ‘Boycott Eaton’s’ buttons were widely distributed during the Eaton’s strike of 1984-85. In the middle, there is the logo for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Prior to the strike, Eaton’s retail workers from across six locations in Ontario had voted to join the RWDSU. They hoped unionizing would improve wages and working conditions.
The Eaton’s strike was supported by the American Federation and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL CIO) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The strike also attracted a lot of support from the women’s rights movement as around 80% of the strikers were women, according to organizers (Monsebraaten, 1985). Organizations like the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) got behind the strike. Union women and women’s rights activists formed a Women’s Strike Support Coalition, which organized a fundraising concert at Massey Hall to support striking workers.
I've cut into Eaton's button
This button from the Eaton's strike calls on customers to boycott the department store in solidarity with the retail workers fighting for better wages and working conditions. The image of the cut-up card can be interpreted as symbolic or literal. Dennis McDermott, the head of the Canadian Labour Congress, cut his Eaton’s card on television while urging Canadians to join in the national boycott. This button has been stamped with an Allied Printing Trades Council label, which indicates that the button is union-made. The number nine to the right of the logo indicates the shop number.