Friday, July 30, 2010

Why Not To Boycott Target

For the last few days, there has been justified anger and disgust with Target Corporation's, and in particular, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel's, support of MN Forward, a pro-business/anti-tax political action committee in Minnesota, which is supporting the rabidly anti-gay GOP candidate for governor Tom Emmer. Tom Emmer not only opposed same sex marriage but also he admires and is in close cahoots with the lead singer of the Christian band You Can Run But You Can Not Hide, which promotes the killing of queer folks.

Make no mistake, to use the vernacular, that is FUCKED UP.

The reaction, though from the queer community has been varied but, overall, has been without nuance, without tactic, and without any clear objectives or a path to reaching those objectives. Understandably, people are pissed off. I am pissed off. Target is based in my home town of Minneapolis. My first job was at a Target in a black working class neighborhood in North Minneapolis. I worked in the Target Corporation Legal Department in high school, and my Mother has worked in various Target stores for more than 20 years. Steinhafel's donation is a direct slap in the face to all of the queer corporate employees (and I promise you that Target's corporate staff is at least 25% openly queer), and the thousands of queer employees in Target stores across the country.

But the rush to call for a general boycott of Target stores is not only going to be ineffective and will not create the result that is wanted (an apology from Target and either a retraction of the donation or an offsetting donation to an LGBT human rights group), but a boycott will directly HARM the overwhelming majority of Target employees: the working class/below living wage workers that are the core of the Target workforce.

Even if the United States were not in the grip of a massive recession. Even if jobs, in general, were plentiful, to craft a response that targets an oppressed class of people in order to vindicate another class of oppressed people does nothing for justice and guarantees that systemic oppression wins in the end.

Here are the facts.

* Target is a huge company with an annual revenue exceeding $65 billion dollars with more than $2.5 billion dollars in annual profits.

* Target is a single corporation but its stores operate as if they were franchises. This means that each individual store is judged on its own merits and not by the company as a whole. When a single store under performs the losses at that store are passed on DIRECTLY to the employees AT THAT STORE by way of reduced work hours. Target has in the past simply closed under performing stores, displaced those workers, and opened a new store in generally more lucrative and more conservative markets within the same geographical area.

* The workers of Target are not our, well, target. The CEO of Target is, and it is the CEO, not the hourly wage workers that should be the focus of any protest action. I repeat working class people/low wage workers/and the underemployed are our allies not our enemies.

* And, in addition to the issues outlined above, Target is the single largest nongovernmental supporter of homeless and precariously housed youth programs in Minnesota. A drop in revenue will, directly, impact these most vulnerable in our community.

(Side note: There is a reason why corporate philanthropy exists. It is for JUST this sort of situation when a company tries to pull some shady business. It makes decision making around tactics harder. The community, therefore, must beat them at their own game WITHOUT using their tools)

In order for a boycott to truly be effective, it would need a mass movement in all 50 states over a sustained period of time that resulted in at least a 10% drop in overall revenue. That is not a possibility, therefore the energy could be and should be exercised in other more effective arenas.

A boycott of individual stores will directly result in hardships for low wage workers, some of whom will be queer, which will further a divide between queer folks and working class folks AND CONTINUE THE PERPETUATION of the myth that queer folks ARE NOT working class and are privileged and have ideals that are out of sync with working people. Thank God Queers for Economic Justice exists to support working class queer folks, and thank the creator that there are organizers like Susan Raffo, editor of Queerly Classed, that understand the connections between class and sexual orientation.

For these reasons...for reasons of unity with working class folks and queer working class folks an organized boycott of Target is WRONG and unjust. I do, however, support the right of individuals to express their personal outrage through making different shopping choices. This woman has made a personal and courageous decision to not shop at Target, and I support her specifically because of the tactic she chose to use: the media.

The media, viral or otherwise, is how this fight is going to be won. While it is nigh on impossible for queer folks to impact the bottom line of Target through a protest, we can win the fight in the court of public opinion. Frankly, Target prides itself on being a community based venture that CARES about the people it serves and provides artistic and social justice funding to ensure that the least have access. The way to get Target to pay attention is to slap their reputation directly in the face through creative use of the media.

Here's what I suggest:

1) If you choose to boycott target personally, use the model of, record your direct action and make it available widely on the web with a cogent discussion of why you are choosing to shop elsewhere.

2) In most major cities, particularly Minneapolis and New York, Target sponsors large artistic ventures--museums in particular. In New York, almost all of the major museums (Whitney, Guggenheim, MoMA, The Met) have free Target evenings at the museum. Organize a peaceful yet colorful and loud protest each week on the FREE NIGHT in each of these locales. Keep the protests loud and lively on these evenings. I guarantee this will generate personal buzz and garner media attention.

3) Perform direct actions outside of your local Target stores. Send canvassers from your local/state-wide LGBT rights organization to collect donations outside of your local Target. Create local media buzz around this issue.

The only thing that separates Target from Wal-Mart is Target's reputation. Attack the reputation, and you will, I promise get the results that five years of boycott will not win.

It is BEYOND TIME that our movement mature. Whether we are talking about war, poverty, racism, or religious intolerance, it is time that our movement, which includes individuals in all these other spaces/places/ and identities, to create bridges and recognize significant organizing and building moments and then UTILIZE those moments for justice instead of a temporary catharsis.


  1. You logic strikes me as VERY solid. "Do you have the patience to wait until your mud has settled and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself within you or without you as witness or as agent of change?"
    Lao Tzu
    Looks to me like you let the mud settle. Quality of analysis has every thing to do with quality of strategies and solutions. Very good Brandon.

    Louis Alemayehu

  2. Thank you Brother Louis. That is high praise from you. And I appreciate it.

  3. (I snagged this from Kenyon Farrow's wall, so thanks for sharing it there :)). I'm currently getting my PhD in Minneapolis, focusing on queer labor issues, so your post obviously really spoke to me. I've shared it with lots of friends who've been discussing the recent news, and I think it's definitely helped shift the discourse. Thanks so much!

  4. Thanks Rebelgrrrrrl! And, how awesome you are in Minneapolis! That's my hometown!

  5. Great suggestions. Thoughtful and strategic. Keep it up!
    The article is too long though. You should offer those suggestions very early on. You nearly lost me 3/4 way through and I'm an avid reader.

  6. Thanks much my anonymous friend. That is helpful feedback for sure. Thank you for reading.

  7. Thank you for writing this.

    I appreciate you.

    As a labor bear I really appreciate the fact that you took the time to break it down.


  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. I think you definitely made it easier...if not at least definitely worked by the old adage...WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER!

    I am glad to have come to your blog. I found it while I was looking at an LBGT article on Website. I am a blogger too, of Spank My FoogleWoogle, and I am going to follow your blog. I do like the content.

    Keep it up!

  9. actually, this piece sounds like a self-serving article to protect your interests in Target. The community banded together against Coors Brewing in the 70s without destroying the company. We boycotted Cracker Barrel in the 80s and they are still around.

  10. Really? I have no interests in Target. I don't hold any Target stock. And, frankly,you need a history lesson. Coors was still donating to rabid right wing groups all the way into this decade.

    This isn't about destroying a company, but it could be about destroying peoples livelihood without a win. I am not sure about you, but I want to win and come out of the other side stronger.

    Check your privilege. Oh yeah, and live boldy aka posting Anonymously is lack of bravery.

  11. All actions have reactions. Sometimes we forget that in the heat of the moment. Your article was very thought provoking and challenging. I agree that directing media attention to Target's Corporate leadership (or lack thereof) is the best tactic for change in this case.

  12. Thank you Ann, and thanks for reading.

  13. This was a very thought-provoking piece. You're right that boycotts only work if they are widespread and very public. My concern about a Target boycott is that people will choose not to shop there but that their actions won't be known. I think the tactics that Brandon suggests are terrific. I would add one point, though. I'm thinking here of the divestment campaign against South Africa in the 1980s (not wholly analogous, I know). Corporate disinvestment was clearly going to hurt poor black South Africans, but leaders of the liberation movement and trade unions got on board with the campaign because they realized that international opinion had to be shaped by a large scale opposition movement outside the country in order for internal change to happen. It seems to me, then, that a boycott could actually work if the organizers reached out to Target employees and/or employee organizations (I don't think they're unionized)to support it, even at the cost to them that it might bring. I suppose an analogy here is the grape boycott: UFW workers couldn't really afford to go on more than limited strikes, but the boycott sent a message to growers. That kind of boycott is harder work, but would help prevent the kind of class-based resentment that an action that seems to be issuing from middle class gay community leadership could generate.

    One more (small) point -- the irony here for me is that although $150,000 is a lot of money for the Tom Emmer campaign (and for most of us!) it's a drop in the bucket for Target corporate leadership.

  14. Thanks for your post. As someone who was raised hearing stories about successful boycotts within the farmworkers movement of the 1960s/70s, I learned two things: 1) boycotts can be powerful, effective political tools, and 2) boycotts take months, years of planning and sacrifice, and cannot be taken lightly. When I heard about the Target boycott I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Thanks for actually putting that into words.

  15. Thank you all for weighing in. Sarah, I wholeheartedly agree. I would get 100% behind a boycott IF, like the divestment movement in South Africa, there was a larger social justice concern at stake wherein the sacrifice of the workers would result in a much greater good in the long term. And, frankly, many of the working poor in South Africa SUPPORTED the boycott because folks reached out to them and they recognized their own tangible liberation as an end result. I will say it again and again and again, why hasn't ANYONE talked to the LGBT employee group at Target?

    Actually, tomorrow, a friend of mine has a meeting with that group. This meet was set up before the donation to MN Forward, and she is going to use the meeting as a time to bring up concerns and to engage with the workers themselves in an act of community solidarity. Social change requires planning and coalition building, none of which has been present in the reaction to the Target donation thus far.

  16. I think that if a boycott will not work effectively the GLBT community should consider it's reverse. Someone should organize a day of shopping at one specific target store. On that day supporters would go in and buy the items they need from Target and demonstrate their affirmative buying power. If you can get hundreds of people to show up at one target simultaneously the resulting event will be newsworthy. Once they days tallies are in the spreadsheets the folks at the top will see in real numbers what they stand to lose. If there was some way to determine the most GLBT friendly store it might be even more effective there. Coordinated action is always more newsworthy. One guy dancing in grand central station is crazy, one hundred people is genius.

  17. Your post presupposes something you know nothing about, so let me inform you.

    Target employees are facing one of the worst working climates in recent years. Target has already drastically cut hours because of the recession and most employees can't rely on Target as their sole source of support. Target's workforce is also primarily young people, high school and college students, people who do not view Target as a full-time job in the first place. Some people, who do work there full-time, have had to find supplemental income because Target no longer provides enough hours.

    Target's busiest times are August to January. The rest of the year, hours are cut to the bone, especially from April to July. During May and June, employees may have no hours at all unless they can pick up cashier shifts. They already had or have had to find additional jobs.

    Hours will be cut whether we boycott or not.

    To counsel people to continue financially supporting a company that takes their money and uses it against them is ludicrous. If Target had its way, their workers would suffer even more. Tom Emmer is just as dangerous to worker's rights as he is to gay rights. You seem like you would prefer that we sit back and continue to let him build power simply because we don't share your theories of how boycotts should work.

    If you were paying attention to the Boycott Target Facebook page, you would see that people ARE organizing direct action. You would see that people ARE letting Target and the media know why they aren't shopping there. I've been contacting media outlets every day and none of them respond. Whose fault is that?

    Regarding Target being a large philanthropic force, you know they reason they do that? Tax relief and PR. It's not because they care, I can tell you that. They'll keep donating because it makes them look good and they can keep writing it off as a charitable donation.

    Thanks for doing the same thing that people in power have always done, repeating the message that any action is ineffective if we don't do it your way.

  18. Shannon:

    Respectfully, I know exactly what I am talking about. Did you miss the part where I mentioned that my Mom is a 20 year employee of the company?

    I will repeat, again, that I am NOT against boycotts. I am against a boycott in this instance. Period. It will not achieve the desired result, and it will hurt those already hurting.

    I am watching the Target Facebook page, and my critique stands a campaign needs COORDINATED action that INCLUDES THOSE IMPACTED ON THE INSIDE.

    And I am well aware of why Target and every corporation gives away money. Desperately and despondently aware. I think the 501c3 designation was the most damaging piece of legislation ever created in response to what was once a true liberation movement.

    As a member of the community I reserve the right to ask hard questions and question assumptions, that was my intention. Your anger does not make your choice of path correct, but it can make it ineffective.

  19. I've been really struggling with Target's donation on how to react. I'm a naturalized citizen and find Emmer's take on immigration as reactive and shows that he's incapable of strategic and thoughtful problem solving skills. I also have many LGBT friends and love them dearly which is another reason why I hate what they did. This is much different than them being members of the Chamber or its execs individually giving to the GOP.
    However, I am currently underemployed and have spent money at Target as its been cost-effective for me at this time in my life. So I really truly struggled w/ how I feel about a boycott.
    Your blog post had made me think twice I'm glad you're still encouraging action in a way that doesn't pit one group against another which is how the GOP has always divided the country.

  20. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Thank you so much for this post!

  21. Thank you thank you thank you for reading!

  22. I respectfully disagree with this blog's conclusion. Although the employees of Target would suffer in a boycott, employees of companies with better values would benefit from the boycott. The corporation is certainly harmed by both the direct results of the boycott and the publicity that surrounds it. The top executives are especially harmed by decreases in stock value that result from the negative publicity. LGBT culture has driven much of Target's success, and our contributions should be honored by the organization. This boycott sets a precedent for the newly-allowed large corporate donations. It is especially important to have our voice heard loud and clear now. Target may be a large donor to other social issues, but I would actually expect Target to increase those donations in response to this boycott, so they can bolster their reputation for social justice.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!