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Perspective

What’s wrong with boycotts

We love to organize them at the first sniff of corporate misbehavior. But are they really the right move?

Upper Crust Pizza (Globe photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
By Mark Pothier
August 29, 2010

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I usually order my pizza from The Upper Crust with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and a sprinkling of basil. Maybe I need to get used to a side of guilt, if claims made by two former cooks in a lawsuit against the local chain are proven true.

The company’s troubles began last year, when the US Department of Labor ordered it to fork over $341,000 to more than 100 workers for failing to pay them overtime. The suit, filed last month, says Upper Crust Pizzeria doled out the money as required but didn’t allow employees to keep it. Management allegedly told the workers – most of whom were making about $10 an hour – they had to return the cash to keep their jobs.

Last month, the Globe reported federal labor officials had started an investigation into Upper Crust’s compensation practices. Lawrence Siskind, a Brockton attorney representing the company, tells me the lawsuit is unfounded and represents two “disgruntled” employees out of a workforce of about 300. As for the investigation, he says, “we have confidence we will be vindicated.”

But critics have not been shy about taking a slice or two out of Upper Crust over the allegations. Soon after the lawsuit became public – and long before a judge or jury weigh in on its validity – some online message-posters rolled out a classic anti-corporate rallying cry: Boycott! “Find a more ethical pizza joint,” read a message posted on the Universal Hub website. A Boston.com reader demanded, “No more Upper Crust!”

I also did some soul-searching – for about as long as it took to order an Upper Crust pizza accompanied by a crisp Mayflower beer on a recent Saturday. My wife and I are regulars at the chain’s Plymouth location. We go mainly for the food, of course, but also because of the unfailingly upbeat and efficient people behind the counter. They are attentive without being overbearing. Sometimes they even act as goodwill ambassadors for “America’s hometown” – directing tourists to Plymouth Rock with an appropriate “it’s not much to see” disclaimer.

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.

Other boycott efforts have similarly barreled forward without consideration of facts. Remember the calls to stop buying Arizona Iced Tea that followed the signing of Arizona’s immigration law? The movement gained enough momentum to force the beverage company’s chairman to respond: We’re based in New York.

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.

If you want to send Upper Crust’s owners a message, please do – by text, e-mail, whatever communication tool you prefer. Put them on notice. But then, if you really care about the welfare of its workers, stop by a shop and leave them a hefty tip. Even if you can no longer stomach the pizza.

Mark Pothier is the Globe’s senior assistant business editor. E-mail him at mpothier@globe.com.

  • August 29, 2010 cover
  • August 29 magazine cover