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Boston Globe editor doesn’t get boycotts

On Sunday, Boston Globe senior assistant business editor Mark Pothier wrote about his feelings regarding a boycott of The Upper Crust, one of his favorite pizzerias in Boston, that has been targeted because of allegations that the company has not paid its employees for overtime.

After a few minutes of “soul-searching” about whether he should join the boycott, he says he decided to follow his taste buds. Pothier then gives a string of standard justifications for his actions:

Sure, it nags at my conscience a little to think I support a company that could be profiting at the expense of these good employees and dozens more like them. But I’m not naive, either – how would I know whether the competing family-owned pizza maker I decided to patronize instead treats its employees any better? Mom and Pop can be greedy capitalists, too.

Nowadays, it seems, the preferred tactic activists use to fight corporate misconduct, whether genuine or perceived, is the boycott. Thanks to social media, they can spread faster than a YouTube video of a cat playing the piano. But what is a boycott supposed to accomplish? Too often, such campaigns are knee-jerk reactions to a company’s blunders. They almost always inflict more harm on front-line workers than corporate culprits in tailored suits. Before the first British Petroleum tar balls fouled the Gulf Coast, for instance, drivers were urged to steer clear of BP gas stations (a “Boycott BP” Facebook page has been “liked” by nearly 850,000 people). Trouble is, most BP stations in the United States are independently owned. If you stop filling up on BP-brand unleaded, departing chief executive Tony Hayward won’t sleep any worse that he already does.

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In the case of Upper Crust, if business at its 17 locations drops sharply because of an ill-advised boycott, you won’t need an economist to figure out the likely consequences: fewer hours for employees, then fewer employees, and, eventually, fewer restaurants. That means more people on unemployment, more dark spaces on Main Streets.

By making this final point, Pothier reveals his true ignorance of the history and power of boycotts. While hypothetically his scenario could play out, an effective boycott could also push Upper Crust to do the right thing and compensate its employees properly.