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Boycotts in History

NOW tells a tale of how some of America's lowest paid workers take on corporate giant…and win. It's the story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their "Boot the Bell" boycott movement. Find out more about the history of boycott the word, and boycott the strategy, below.

boycott: a concerted economic or social ostracism of an individual, group, or nation to express disapproval or coerce change.
History books often label the protests of Colonial America boycotts. After the British imposed taxes on tea and other imported goods in the Townshend Act of 1767, the colonists responded with the Non-importation agreement. The boycott decreased British trade, and in 1770 most of the Acts were repealed. The retention of the tea tax led to the Boston Tea Party — a more radical remedy. However, "boycott" as a term for such financial actions came into use over a hundred years later. The practice got its name from an English land agent, Captain Charles Cunningman Boycott, who led a ruthless eviction campaign against tenants in Ireland around 1880. His employees began to refuse to assist Boycott or his family in any manner.

Today the term is primarily used in labor and consumer disputes. A primary boycott is when a financial statement is made by consumers or employees in refusing to purchase goods or services from a company or employer. A secondary boycott results from pressure placed by groups on third parties to force them to join a boycott. For example, a secondary boycott exists when workers refuse to patronize firms that continue to deal with the initially boycotted party or if workers strike an employer in order to force him to join the boycott of another firm. Those specific actions are prohibited in the U.S. by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959).

There have been numerous examples of successful boycotts in history designed to bring attention, and financial pressure, on a wide variety of issues.

  • 1905: Chinese boycott of U.S. goods: China boycotts the import of American goods because of the treatment of Chinese under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

  • 1930: March to the Sea: In March 1930 Gandhi led a boycott of commercial salt. He encouraged Indian people to defy the British colonial government by refusing to buy salt (which had a government tax attached) and instead making their own salt from sea water.

  • 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old black woman, refuses to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Her arrest led to a massive boycott by black citizens of the Montgomery public bus system organized by a then relatively-unknown Martin Luther King, Jr. For months, people walked, cycled or shared private cars to get around Montgomery.

  • 1960s: Grape Boycott: Boycotts organized by the Ceasar Chavez and United Farm Workers union brought attention to the plight of migrant workers.

  • 1980: Olympic Boycotts: The United States and 59 other nations refused to send their Olympic teams to the Moscow Olympics as a protest against the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Four years later, in a second Olympic boycott, the USSR and some of its allies refused to attend the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

  • 1980/90s: Anti-Apartheid Boycotts: Many nations and groups refused to have financial dealings with South Africa when that country's racist 'apartheid' policy was in place. In addition, many nations refused to play some international sport against South African national teams and many international music groups refused to play for all-white venues such as Sun City.

  • 1997: Baptists boycott Disney: Southern Baptists voted to boycott Disney, accusing its depiction of gays and violence as "anti-Christian and anti-family."

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