US: Corporations Painted in Red and Blue

Publisher Name: 
San Francisco Chronicle


Having taken a beating
at the ballot box, the left is redirecting its post-election energy at
corporate boardrooms.



Anti-corporate campaigns have been around for decades, but this
fight-the-power generation is going about it with a little more
finesse. For one, activists shy away from the term "boycott."
Too negative.



"People are sick of that whiny sort of demeanor," said Craig
Minowa, an environmental scientist who helps create campaigns for the
Organic Consumers Association, a public interest advocacy group.
"In the '60s it was down with this, down with that. Now, people
want a more positive message."



Among the new wave is North Beach resident Raven Brooks, co-founder of
BuyBlue.org. He tells consumers which companies are "blue"
(Democratic) or "red" (Republican) -- depending on the
contributions of its political action committees and top officers --
and then redirects red shoppers to bluer competitors.



"We're not telling people to boycott the companies -- we're just
giving them information on how to shift their money," Brooks
said.



In the coming months, everyone from environmentalists to organic food
advocates will supplement their political lobbying with a heftier dose
of consumer outrage funneled through "corporate responsibility
campaigns."



In recent history, anti-corporate activism goes back to a 1980s
consumer boycott of Nestle Corp., which was blamed for encouraging
Third World women to become dependent on infant formula they couldn't
afford. Over the past decade, similar efforts bubbled across college
campuses, bursting to prominence with the World Trade Organization
protests in Seattle in 1999.



Mainstream groups, seeing how many young people took an interest in
last year's presidential race, are trying to tap that
energy. Among them: the San
Francisco-based Sierra Club. In March, spokesman Brendan Bell said,
the club will sic consumers on a "to-be-named" energy
company "that's doing bad things to the environment and is being
supported by the Bush administration." It is part of the group's
opposition to proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge.



"We as progressives need to give people a way to use their power
as consumers to make their point," said Bell, an energy policy
analyst with the 700,000-member organization. "We may not have as
much political power (as conservatives). But what we still have are
people."



Some organizers say it is easier to focus their faithful on a
corporate logo than to point them toward political lobbying.



Nancy Murray spent 17 years lobbying Washington and the United Nations
to protest Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In December,
the organizer with the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights turned
her sights on Peoria, Ill., and the heavy machinery and clothing
company Caterpillar Inc.



She helped start BootCat.org, a Boston version of a national
anti-Caterpillar campaign that's been around for years. Activists want
Caterpillar to stop allowing one of its bulldozers to be sold to
Israel, which the group says is using the vehicles to level
Palestinians' homes and agricultural land.



By focusing on Caterpillar -- an iconic symbol of the American
heartland -- Murray hopes to bring a Middle Eastern issue home to many
Americans who might otherwise shrug it off.



"In campaign terms, it gives us a target," Murray said.
"It's not as diffuse as rallying people by saying, 'End the
occupation.' People say, 'Ahh, we've already tried that (tack).'
"



Perhaps no company has come under as fierce an attack as Wal-Mart, the
nation's largest private employer. A 22-page report last year by Rep.
George Miller, D-Martinez, echoed what many critics have said for
years: Because nonunionized Wal-Mart pays lower salaries and health
benefits, its employees must use subsidized medical care, free school
lunches and other taxpayer- supported welfare services.


Wal-Mart will be the target of a fresh campaign in the next couple of
months, when the Organic Consumers Association will band together with
labor and environmental groups to promote a "buy local"
crusade. The organization's Web site -- which lists several
anti-corporate campaigns -- has fielded 3 to 4 million hits a weekend
since the November election. Before then, the site had that many hits
in a month, Minowa said.



"Wal-Mart has been a real catalyst for a lot of different kinds
of progressive groups to work together," said Ryan Zinn, a San
Francisco resident and organizer for the organics group.



Recognizing this oncoming wave of animosity, Wal-Mart fought back last
month with a national ad campaign to clear up "misinformation"
spread by what it called special interest groups -- which spokeswoman
Cynthia Lin defined largely as labor unions.



"People have the right to their opinions, but what we object to
is when they spread misinformation about the salaries and benefits of
our employees," Lin said. "And it comes as no surprise that
labor unions are upset. They've had declining enrollment for
years."



At the heart of any activist's anti-corporation campaign is an appeal
for consumers to take their dollars elsewhere -- which BuyBlue.org
makes explicit.



With the help of 150 volunteers, the 26-year-old Brooks created his
Web site in December to rate firms by their blue or red hues.



For consumers who no longer want to frequent an online bookseller such
as Amazon.com, for example, because the majority of its political
action committee's contributions (59 percent) went to Republican
candidates last year, BuyBlue.org offers links to blue competitors
such as Barnes & Noble or Powell's.



By the end of the year, Brooks, a software analyst who has consulted
for Fortune 500 firms, expects to include information about a
company's record on the environment, minority hiring and other social
barometers in addition to its political contributions.



Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said, "I don't think it's fair to
say that we support Republicans or Democrats. We support issues that
are important to our customers, and give to politicians of both
parties. And we look at our customers as customers, not as red or blue
ones. If you start doing that, you're not going to win over any new
customers."



BuyBlue.org's avoidance of the b-word -- boycott -- is illustrative of
how this generation is trying coax change from corporations.



Animal-rights activist Lauren Ornelas of Davis approached Whole Foods
CEO John Mackey after a shareholders meeting in 2003, then struck up
an online conversation with him. Their discussions, in part, not only
led to Mackey's conversion to veganism, but to the company's promising
to change its animal welfare standards.



In January, 17 animal rights groups signed a letter applauding Whole
Foods' "pioneering initiatives." Two weeks ago, the company
donated 5 percent of its revenue from one day to start the Animal
Compassion Foundation.



"The thing to remember is that we worked on that campaign for
three years before that," said Ornelas, a representative of Viva
USA, which signed the letter.



Activists agree the biggest challenge to corporate campaigns is
keeping the troops fired up. Unlike a political campaign, where
organizers can point to a finish line on election day, corporate
campaigns can last for years.



So every anti-corporate campaign craves a victory. No matter the
size.



Last month, environmental activists staged a weeklong "car sit"
at a Ford automobile dealership in Sacramento to protest the company's
repossession of its remaining electric pickup trucks. Ford plans to
concentrate on building gas-electric hybrid cars and trucks to achieve
state-mandated cuts in emissions.



After a week of watching the sitters -- and their press coverage --
the company abandoned its repo plan.



"To have a major American corporation change its mind -- oh yeah,
that's definitely a victory," said Jason Mark, an organizer with
Jumpstart Ford at Global Exchange.



"We need to have a cathedral builder's mentality when we're doing
these campaigns," Mark said. "We may not see the building
completed in our lifetime, but if we finish the foundation, the next
generation can build on that."

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics