The Boycott As an Element in Trade Disputes

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The Boycott As an Element in Trade Disputes  (1891) 
by John Burnett


In principle the 'boycott' is as old as human nature. In some form or other it has been practised at all times in the world's history, and has been used as a sort of impalpable weapon for the purposes of spiritual, social, or moral intimidation by one section of society against another, or against individuals, or by individuals against each other.

The interdict or excommunication of the ancient Church was but the modern 'boycott,' on a gigantic scale, applied to feelings and sentiments in human nature peculiarly sensitive to alarm. In another dress it is the 'taboo' of society—the 'sending to Coventry'—of people and habits or manners which do not conform to conventional standards.

It is, however, only within recent years that a system long in more or less general use has assumed a definite special place, and has had conferred upon it a distinctive name as an instrument of social, industrial, and political conflict. Carried out to its extremest application in Ireland in the case of Captain Boycott and his family, it obtained its present name, and since then has had a widespread notoriety as one of the moral weapons used by portions of the community against their neighbour or neighbours. In some form or other it had long been used in strikes and other industrial quarrels in this country, but it has never here attained such extended application as in the United States.

From the seventh annual report of the Labour Bureau of the State of New York (for 1889), it would appear that in that State the industrial 'boycott' had reached its fullest development, or, it may be, only, that it has there been most closely observed, and had its workings most carefully chronicled. Probably both these suppositions are correct. New York is a State in which the chief industries are, perhaps, more diversified than in any State of the Union, and the character and extent of the City of New York mark it as a great centre of the American labour movement. The New York Labour Bureau is a powerful and energetic institution liberally subsidised, and with a strong, ably-managed staff. It possesses power to hold sittings and take evidence in any part of the State, and both employers and workmen can be compelled to make returns or give evidence before it when called upon to do so. It is impossible, therefore, to go to a better source for information on this subject than to the reports of the New York Bureau.

To give a comprehensive view of the whole question, however, and to ascertain whether the system of boycotting is extending or otherwise as an element in trade disputes, it will be desirable to refer to a few of the earlier reports of the Bureau. It will thus be seen to what extant it has grown or declined, and what are the special forms it has assumed.

The boycott may be broadly defined as a means of moral offence used by individuals against each other, or by sections of a community against other sections or individuals differing from them on some matter of action or opinion. It is not physical in its modes of operation, but its object is to intimidate the minds of its victims by the fear of pecuniary or social loss. It was supposed at first, that, even in its extremost form, it violated no law, and there are undoubtedly methods of practising it without any breach of existing law being committed. All depends upon how it is used. How it was and is applied in Ireland for the purpose of socio-political warfare, especially in the case of the gentleman to whom it owes its distinctive title, is so well known that any explanation as to the Irish method is unnecessary. Nor need the political boycott as occasionally practised on this side of St. George's Channel be referred to. How the industrial boycott has been applied may be seen later on. It is sufficient to say now that we have had here nothing like the industrial boycotts of New York either for number or extent. It is therefore to the records of that State that we must look for the strongest examples of the system.

The industrial boycott almost invariably, but not always or necessarily, is a phase of the strike or lock-out, but it sometimes exists apart from either. It is generally used against an employer who refuses to concede the demands of his workpeople or of a trade union, but it is sometimes applied by one organization of workmen against another. It may accompany, or supplement and follow, an unsuccessful strike, or it may be wielded against an employer having no dispute with his employés, simply because they do not belong to any trade union. It is chiefly, however, as an accessory to the labour conflict that the boycott is called into requisition, and in this way its application as a branch of industrial warfare has, in the United States, been brought to a pitch of perfection not attained, or, indeed, attempted elsewhere. Sometimes it is directed to stop the supplies of a manufacturer's raw material—the stoppage of his supplies of labour can hardly strictly be termed a result of the boycott, as it is simply an incident of the ordinary strike. But it is most deadly in its ordinary form when it puts a complete stop to the sale of a manufacturer's goods.

In some branches of production the boycott is of little effect, such for instance, as in engineering, iron manufacture, or in those trades which work chiefly to contract, and not for a general or retail market. But, in respect to the commoner necessaries or luxuries of life, such as are consumed by the masses of the people, the case is different, and articles produced for the popular market by some offending manufacturer may have their sale entirely stopped.

Some of the American trade unions define boycotting as 'simply leaving an employer alone.' 'When,' they say, 'we boycott a thing, we leave it alone—we won't have it.' It will, however, be seen presently that in some of the most extreme cases this neutral line has been much exceeded.

Under the powers conferred upon it by statute the New York Bureau held a special court to inquire into this new industrial development in 1885, and a few of the typical examples of its working may be quoted from the report of that year, which is the first dealing with the subject.

A peculiar case is that stated by a cigar manufacturer employing as many as 2,500 people. Amongst this number, according to the employer, were a considerable proportion of German socialists. A dispute had arisen between the firm and its employés about an equalization of prices, and the new arrangements were accepted as satisfactory by a majority of the workpeople. The socialistic element, however, about one-third of the whole number, refused to enter into the new arrangement, and even refused to arbitrate on the matters in dispute. The remaining two-thirds, who belonged to another trade union, remained at work. Those who had gone out applied the 'boycott.' After a struggle of two months the strike was abandoned, and many of the strikers returned to work for the firm, and apparently the boycott was at an end. About a year after, however, the firm found that in some seven or eight towns the boycott broke out with great vigour and without apparent reason. Inquiry being made in the distant localities, where the goods of the firm could not be sold, it was found that some zealous trade unions acting, as they thought, in a spirit of 'pure fraternity,' were energetically persuading their members, and all whom they were able to influence, not to buy the goods of this firm. As soon as the actual position of affairs was explained to these unionists they admitted they had been hasty in their action, and promised to look into the matter. But the boycott still continued and with increased vigour. The firm was absolutely unable to find out who was responsible for this partial blockade of their trade, and therefore, as a final resort, locked out the whole of their employés, to whom they suggested the desirability of finding out from their fellow-workmen why their produce was boycotted. This brought about a speedy investigation by the representatives of organized labour, who came to the conclusion that the boycott was an outrage unwarranted by any of the circumstances of the case. In this way the boycott ended. It was suggested by the examiners of the Bureau that some other manufacturers may have been selfishly interested in stopping the sale of the goods of a rival, and might have assisted to keep on the boycott. The possibility of such action was admitted by the firm, but no definite evidence could be given on that point. This lock-out lasted Eve weeks, and entailed a wage loss of $50,000. Another employer gave direct evidence to show that in a very similar case rival producers had assisted to circulate the printed notices proclaiming the boycott. In this case the boycott was made so effective that the employer had to give way, although the strike which led up to the stoppage of his trade had been settled a year before.

The trade unions made no secret of their policy in such cases. For instance a carpenter said: 'Our organization is in sympathy with every other trade. Whenever any other union boycotts, we assist them to the best of our ability.'

A cigar-maker testified that his organization used the boycott. Their method is special and peculiar. The union has a label called the 'union label,' and the members of the society all through the States and in Canada boycott all places where cigars are sold that do not bear the union label. The effect of this was to stop the trade not only of tobacco shops selling the prohibited articles, but it extended also to stores, hotels, and saloons selling the non-labelled goods. In this action the union had the assistance and cooperation of other trade unions, and its policy was alleged to have been very successful.

A paper-hanger stated that his society tried the boycott during their strike. They issued circulars announcing their refusal to hang paper for persons who bought boycotted goods. They also boycotted Doelger's beer, because the brewery was not a union shop.

A plumber said that his union had never boycotted on its own account, but admitted that it 'boycotts everything that comes along when the trade and labour unions tell us about it.'

A union of musicians boycotted a theatre because non-union men were employed in the orchestra, and even after the proprietor gave way continued the stoppage until the costs of the boycott were paid by him. According to the evidence the chief boycotts had been aimed at bakers, brewers, cigar-makers, starch-makers, flour millers, and newspapers. Most of these were claimed by the union as successes.

At this time the boycott had become an established institution in labour quarrels, and had its press organ in the New York Boycotter. As then understood the industrial boycott was, perhaps, best defined in a labour organ known as John Swinton's Paper: 'To boycott a concern simply means to refrain from having anything to do with it. You boycott a dry goods firm by refusing to deal with it; you boycott a newspaper by ceasing to buy it; you boycott a cigar-maker by avoiding his cigars. Organized boycotting of a concern is carried out when the trade unions unite in refusing to purchase any of its wares, or have any dealings with it, and thus attempt to break down the business of the concern which is antagonistic to them.' Mr. John Swinton himself asserts that the system is based on the principle of 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' The employers may say to their men who strike, 'We will black-list you;' the men reply 'We will boycott you.'

During 1884 and 1885 there were recorded in the United States a total, exclusive of Chinese boycotts, of 196 boycotts, of which 59 were claimed as successes by the men: 23 were admittedly lost, and 114 were still on. The boycotts of 1885 for the whole of the United States were stated in 'Bradstreets' to be 700 per cent. in increase over the previous year. Of these 196 boycotts, no less than 130, or over 66 per cent., were divided among only six lines of trade thus: newspapers, 45; hat manufacturers and dealers, 22; cigar trade, 26; carpet trade, 13; clothing, 14; nail trade, 10. For the State of New York alone there were 59 boycotts, a large proportion of the above total.

In 1886 the use of the system largely extended; for the State of New York 163 boycotts were recorded. Of these 19 were successful, 13 were unsuccessful, 11 were doubtful, 3 were pending, and there were no replies as to the remainder. Of those settled the duration varied from one week to two-and-a-half years, the average duration of 22 cases in which the time was ascertained being slightly under four months. The 'remarks' column in the table of boycotts contains a few hints as to the effect of some of these attacks upon the business of offending capitalists. One employer admits a 'slight decrease in receipts.' Another states 'business and proprietor ruined.' Several acknowledge a 'loss of customers.' One very dednitely puts the loss at 'twenty-five dollars a day in saloons.' Another is 'injured ten dollars a week.' Many admit 'injury to trade,' and several 'stop business altogether.' On the other hand may be quoted such remarks as 'no harm done;' 'increased business;' 'no injury;' 'immensely increased business while boycott lasted;' and finally, 'forty-seven men indicted.'

This last quotation is here intended to mark a new departure in the boycott movement. During the year preceding 'a wave of labour disturbance had passed over the country.' Labour organizations increased their activity, and the boycott was imposed with a frequency and rigour which excited popular feeling and indignation against those making what was considered an arbitrary and offensive use of the system. This sympathy with some of the victims of the boycott accounts for the remark 'immensely increased business while the boycott lasted' and for the quotation 'forty-seven men indicted.'

It would appear from the facts presented by the report of 1886 that the merely neutral or 'let alone' form of the boycott had given way to a more aggressive mode of procedure, which in time brought those who practised it within the reach of the law.

A noted case is that in which an organization called the 'Carl Sahm Club' directed a boycott against a Mr. Theiss, proprietor of a music-hall on the ground that he employed non-union musicians. The Waiters Union and the Bartenders Union also had a grievance against Mr. Theiss. These bodies all made common cause and commenced a joint boycott of the music-hall. Pickets posted in the locality of the hall distributed circulars setting forth the grievances of the men and appealing to the public to boycott Mr. Theiss. These pickets were on duty two weeks. They even invaded the hall and gummed upon the chairs and tables appeals to customers to 'Boycott Theiss.' The unions also used their influence with the brewers, and other tradesmen supplying Theiss with goods, to stop their supplies.

On March 10th some of the pickets were arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct. The evidence given did not bear out this charge, however, and the men were discharged. The next day the pickets were reinforced, to a strength variously estimated at from 75 to 150, wearing on their breasts large badges bearing the motto, 'Boycott Theiss.' Thus decorated, the men marched solemnly in single file backwards and forwards in front of the music-hall. Arrests followed, and this time the charge was for 'engaging in a parade without a permit from the police board.' The justice who tried the case held that the law did not apply, and the blockade of the premises went on as before.

At last mediation took place, and Mr. Theiss met the representatives of the unions concerned in the movement against him. The terms offered to Theiss were: the discharge of all the men who had remained during the strike, and the employment of members of the various organizations which had instituted the campaign. Union rates of wages should be paid and none but union men were to be employed. To crown all, Mr. Theiss was to pay $1,000 as 'expenses of the boycott.' He agreed to all this and drew a cheque for the amount stated. On this latter point, however, the unions had overreached themselves, and the extortion of the $1,000 formed a ground for law proceedings against the representatives of the unions present when the payment was made. The grand jury found a true bill against these men, and in their presentment referred to the boycott as 'an accursed exotic' and a 'hydra-headed monster dragging its loathsome length across the continent, and sucking the very life-blood from our trade and commerce.'

Great stress was laid by Judge Barrett, who tried the case, upon the fact that there was a conspiracy to ruin the business of Theiss preceding the extortion of the $1,000; and he laid down what he seemed to consider the legal limit of the power of trade combinations in these matters in the following words: 'They have a right to go to all their friends, make known their wrongs, and say to them, "If you are a friend of labour withdraw your patronage from the man who injures us or refuses us justice." There is no law against that.'

One defendant was sentenced to one year and six months imprisonment in Sing Sing; another to three years and eight months; a third and fourth to two years and ten months; and one to one year and six months. In each case the conviction was for extortion. Upon appeal to the Governor of the State, the sentence in each case was reduced to one hundred days imprisonment. The names in all these cases are undoubtedly German. About the same time, in another case, forty-seven tailors were indicted for a similar odence, but the union at once declared that no more boycotts should be carried on if the courts declared them illegal. Sandwich-men and bill distributors had been engaged in this boycott.

A notable boycott was that declared by a Bakers' Union against a Mrs. Gray, who had refused to concede higher wages and shorter hours to her employés. She employed non-unionists, and refused to make terms with the union. A boycott was therefore declared against her, and the pickets and circulars appeared before her premises in the usual way. Her customers were appealed to to withdraw their custom, but, as the affair became known to the general public, feeling was aroused in her favour, and instead of her trade being stopped it was increased immensely. Prominent citizens forwarded cheques, and hundreds of persons sent letters of sympathy and orders for bread, to be sent to charitable institutions. The police interfered, and the perambulating sandwich-men were fined for disorderly conduct, but the boycott did not cease until indictments were found against some of the men by a grand jury.

A Mrs. Landgraff, who employed Bohemian and German bakers, was not so fortunate as Mrs. Gray, although her case also excited a large amount of public sympathy. Eighteen persons were indicted in connection with this boycott for conspiracy and intimidation. Judge Barrett tried the cases.

It appeared that the Bohemian bakers only, of this firm, maintained the strike, while the German union permitted its members to remain at work, and feeling ran very high between the rival nationalities. Threats to kill had been used by some of the Bohemians, and for this the sentence was thirty days in the Penitentiary. The circular distributors escaped with ten days in the city prison. In passing sentence, the judge explained his clemency by saying that the men had 'ignorantly distributed offensive circulars in a manner calculated to intimidate. This was undoubtedly illegal, but as this is the first case of the kind the court will deal leniently with you. . . . I trust that in future we shall hear no more of this kind of boycotting.'

The report for 1887 declares that, largely in consequence of these decisions, the boycott has not been in such frequent use as in former years; but, strangely enough, the statistical tables show an increase in the number of cases. The total number is given as 250. Details were given in 242 cases, and of these 101 were said to be successful, 36 were not successful, and 105 were pending. These varied in duration from two days to a whole year.

By 1889, however, it was becoming quite clear that the boycott was not being so extensively used as before. The workmen themselves, besides being convinced by repeated experience that the game must be played very carefully to avoid penal consequences, were discovering that it was a two-edged weapon, often as dangerous to the user as to the intended victim, as in the case of the cigar-makers above referred to. Thus the statistical table for 1889 shows that inquiry was made as to boycotts of 1,374 establishments which had disputes with their workpeople. From these a total of 177 cases of boycott were made up. Of these not less than 50 were bakers, barbers following with 24, painters with 14, and framers with 12. These are the only trades in which double figures are recorded, and it will be seen that these four comparatively small trades account for 56½ per cent. of the total, the duration again being from one week to two and a half years. 41 are entered as successful, 19 unsuccessful, and 117 still pending. In the case of the barbers, all the cases were due to the employment of nonunion men. 24 cases in which the bakers were involved were due to the same cause, which was indeed during the year the most prolific subject of boycott. During the strike of bakers a secondary boycott was declared against grocers selling the bread made by boycotted firms, of which 37 were successful, 30 unsuccessful, and 14 remained undecided. The report states that while one firm admitted a loss of $1 per day, and another $5, the cost of the boycott to the labour organization was $1,000.

The report, in summarising the boycotts for the four years 1886-1889, remarks that:—'The boycott has lost the charm of novelty, and by repetitions under trivial conditions has lost the force it formerly possessed. The number of boycotts declared during these four years is returned as 894, the durations being indefinite, but ranging from a few days to many months.' 'The effect of the boycott,' says the report, 'is unknowable, associated as it often is with some other form of labour protest, which, being settld, the boycott dies out.'

If the decrease in the number of boycotts observed in the 1889 report is not considerable, it would appear that the old extreme methods had considerably abated under the influence of the convictions of unionists for exceeding legal limits. There is indeed nothing in the report to show that the old method of picketing by sandwich-men and bill distributors had been again resorted to, and it is probable that the unions confined themselves to methods of publishing the boycott in which no display of force was made.

There can, however, be no doubt that in the United States the industrial boycott exists to an extent of which we have no experience in this country. There is not wanting evidence to show that the major portion of the boycotts in New York were more the work of foreigners than of workers of English descent, who seem inclined to fight out their battles in the old-fashioned way rather than resort to a weapon, which, by ruining a local trade, may leave them to scatter in search of work over other districts to which the trade has gone. The industrial boycott as we know it here seldom takes place except as an accessory to the strike. The few exceptional cases of which we have knowledge have only arisen quite recently under the auspices of some of the new unions which insist upon the employment of union labour only. So far, that is a policy which has not met with decided success, and there are not wanting signs that, as trade falls off, it is a policy which will have to be altogether abandoned.

The usual British strike boycott aims only at preventing the employer obtaining other men, or from getting his work done at other places, but we are almost entirely strangers to that form of trade interdict which aims at compelling the surrender, or ruin of an obstinate employer by stopping the sale of his goods. A couple of years ago the London bakers during their movement for shorter hours of work made a few demonstrations after the American style but were not very successful. The London Boot and Shoemakers also tried the same policy while engaged in an attempt to compel employers to provide workshops for their employés.

Other isolated cases may he found, but it is extremely doubtful if we have had a single case in which all the unions have seriously combined to prevent the sale of an employer's goods. In America, as has been remarked, it has chiefly been successful where the article boycotted was one of general consumption by the mass of the people, and in instances where the case of the workmen has been so strong that public sympathy has been sufficiently enlisted in their favour to cause the great body of consumers to refrain from buying the productions of the firms denounced.

The boycott in the conflicts of capital and labour is one of the links in the chain of retaliatory warfare which generally draws the combatants from one measure of offence to another. Its place in the policy of labour revolt may be said to come after the more neutral stages of an industrial struggle have been gone through. First we have the strike or lock-out. Then as its almost inevitable accompaniments, the blockade of the works by the pickets of the men, and the blacklisting of the strikers by the employers in order to prevent them obtaining work elsewhere. This, be it observed, is merely a negative form of contest, the later stages of which approach and indeed embody the principle of the boycott. A more acute stage is reached when, for instance, if the men live on the premises of the employer they are ejected from their houses, and may even be prevented from obtaining other dwellings in the locality; or, on the other hand, when the workers use all their power to induce their fellows and the general public to refrain from buying the produce of their employer. They may lose in the strike, and may return to work without having effected their object, but if they can institute a close boycott they must win in the end. Therefore the boycott, if skilfully and judiciously used must always remain a terrible weapon in the hands of labour for use against capital where the circumstances are favourable to its application.

John Burnett