Collective Action

Charles was an agent for an absentee land owner.  The land owner rented out small properties to tenants.   As an agent, Charles collected the rent on the properties.  The rent was often more than could be paid from the sale of produce from the property.  Renters could be evicted with minimal notice.  Charles was despised by the tenants.

The tenants decided to take collective action against Charles.  Following the lead of a social activist, they ostracized Charles.  They refused to recognize him.  Crops were poor and the tenants could not afford to pay their rents.  Charles had them evicted from their rental properties.

The entire community took action by stopping their support for harvesting the crops.  The crops rotted in the fields.  Charles eventually had to hire people from outside the community to help harvest what wasn’t wasted.  He also had to hire guards to protect the workers he had hired even though there was no threat of violence.  The cost of the guards was far more than the crops earned in revenue. 

Merchants would not sell to Charles. He could not get mail deliveries.  Eventually Charles had to leave the community.

The collective action of the community garnered nationwide attention and collective actions spread to bring attention to other social ills.  Needing a name for such collective action, the media used Charles’ last name to describe the use of non-violent withdrawal of services or other social engagement.  Boycotts, named for Charles Boycott, have subsequently become very effective in bringing about moral, social, political, or environmental change.

Some notable boycotts include those involving Civil Rights, farm worker rights, the Olympics, Apartheid, the use of fossil fuels, and LGBTQ rights.  Boycotts today are spurred on by internet technology.  While the concept of a boycott was to be non-violent, there is an increasing concern that boycotts could become violent.

Collective actions such as boycotts provide recourse for those who feel they have no other way to right wrongs.  Often successful boycotts depend upon not only those who were disenfranchised, but those who support them.  When non-violent, boycotts have been one of the most successful ways to bring about needed social change especially when elected leaders lack the will to support such change.  In effect, boycotts provide the backbone for change.

Just imagine what our society would be like without the collective action of boycotts?  Just imagine the collective actions that are warranted today?  How might boycotts remain a positive collective voice for change and not used as a tool of suppression?

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“History shows that all protest moments rely on symbols – boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, flags, songs.  Symbolic action on whatever scale – from the Montgomery bus strike to wearing a simple wrist band – is designed to disrupt our everyday complacency and force people to think.” Hugh Evans (Australian humanitarian).

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