Leggo my (union-made) Eggo, for now

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US Senator Bernie Sanders speaking to striking Kellogg’s workers in Battle Creek, Michigan on Dec. 17. The company says it has an agreement, but the union has yet to vote on it. | Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing Kellogg strike is a reminder that consumer boycotts don’t do all that much.

“Eggo waffles are out,” my wife said.

“They are?” I replied, thickly. “I thought we still had some in the freezer.”

I had just been contemplating pairing some waffles with turkey sausage links, as a change of pace from my traditional grapefruit and English muffin.

She gave me the “Am-I-really-going-to-have-to-explain-this-to-you?” look. Pity, wedded to exhaustion, lightly sprinkled with disgust.

“No,” she said, evenly. “We can’t buy them anymore.”

Ah. Now I got it. Solidarity. The Kellogg’s Co., makers of Eggo Homestyle Frozen Waffles, is threatening to fire its 1,400 workers on strike at four plants since October.

The issue, a “two tier” compensation system where employees hired after 2015 are paid less. The company has advertised for replacement workers, aka, scabs. A couple days ago, Kellogg’s claimed they’ve reached an agreement, but the union still has yet to approve it. A previous supposed deal fell through.

“We’ll make our own waffles,” I said, getting with the program, after quickly doing a mental inventory of whether the breakfast cereals I actually eat are made by Kellogg’s. Nope: Wheat Chex are from General Mills, and Shredded Wheat from Post. So we’re good to go with the Steinberg household union action against Kellogg’s.

My quick check, to gauge whether shunning Kellogg’s would actually affect me, personally, is a reminder that, as a rule, boycotts don’t work.

At least not by materially affecting the target of the boycott, cutting sales and such. That’s because when you take the waffle-buying public and sift it three times, winnowing down A) those who know what’s going on regarding a specific situation, say a strike of Kellogg’s workers; B) those among the knowledgable who care enough to actually do something; and C) those who are willing to do that something for a protracted period of time, well, you end up with a small number of people.

Boycotts do have other functions. They can work well as threats. A tool that is only effective if never used. Just ask Jesse Jackson.

Boycotts also feel good to the person doing the shunning. That might be their biggest role, as a kind of public declaration of disapproval. What the kids call “virtue signaling.” If I say I’ve never eaten at Chik-fil-A because of the company’s past giving to anti-LGBTQ groups, that is indeed true.

But not the whole story. My moral stand weakens if I add that I’ve never been to a Popeye’s Chicken either and last went to Kentucky Friend Chicken in 1977. I just don’t like fried chicken. Judge me harshly if you must.

Not to diminish virtue signaling. Something prompted Chik-fil-A to stop giving to those groups, and it probably wasn’t sudden enlightenment among corporate bigwigs. Joe Biden did the right thing pulling American officialdom from the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing. China is a totalitarian state hot to rule the world. Our gesture won’t stop them, but we still don’t have to show up and applaud.

When discussing the ineffectiveness of boycotts, I forgot the negative publicity paradox. Given the hazy, glancing way most folks perceive the news, even bad publicity can be good. I might never have thought of Chik-fil-A at all without the anti-gay controversy.

So if Kellogg’s decides that a skilled adequately-compensated work force isn’t really necessary to the creation of its products, and the company decides to fire everybody and start making Rice Krispies with Uyghur slave labor in China, yes, certain loyal union households such as my own won’t touch them – again, with no actual effect, since we never buy Rice Krispies. Kellogg’s could become a syndicalist commune, and we still wouldn’t buy them.

But for every one of us, there will be 10 consumers who glance at the smuggled photos of emaciated children stooped under burlap sacks labelled ‘Rice Krispies” at some hellish rice mill in Xinjiang and think, “Rice Krispies! Boy, it’s been a while since we’ve had them. We ought to pick up a box!” So not only are boycotts ineffectual, but they can be counter-productive.

“Better stock up on Eggo’s while we can,” I called to my wife, as she headed out to Sunset Foods. I hope everything works out regarding the strike; it usually does. In the meantime, nothing hits the spot like a couple Eggos, nice hot sausages, a little maple syrup. Life is to be lived.

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December 19, 2021 at 12:31PM

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