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Want to Support Striking Workers? Don’t Cancel Your Netflix Subscription Yet.

Boycotts of streamers can be a powerful tool, but we must follow unions’ lead. Here’s how you can show solidarity.

Members of SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and WGA picket alongside Local 11 hotel workers union at Netflix and Sunset Gower Studios on July 21, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.

Even though I’m not an actor or the kind of writer represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), I am so excited to see the members of the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) taking action to improve their working conditions.

Like many others both inside and outside the entertainment industry, I want to do all I can to act in solidarity with them. Since the strikes started, I have noticed that some people are confused about the best way to do that, so I wanted to clarify and contextualize one aspect I’ve seen some misunderstanding about: whether we should cancel our streaming services or stop watching certain programming.

The purpose of this essay isn’t to make anyone feel bad or do anything they don’t want to do. My goal is to help clarify some ways that those of us not in the union can be most supportive. (Union members have different restrictions — such as not working — that nonmembers don’t.)

Activism isn’t about being a person who does everything right, it’s about coming together to collectively use our power to make change. Effectiveness is the goal, not individual purity. I don’t care what you buy or watch (or what you don’t buy or watch); I care about the material changes we can make.

This isn’t about feeling guilty (or superior) based on your consumer choices. To paraphrase abolitionist activist and author Mariame Kaba: It’s not about your fucking feelings at all. This is about breaking down the facts, theories and history behind boycotts to help clarify how to best support the specific WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, as well as future campaigns.

The TL;DR is that at this time, (a very important qualifier) the unions are not calling for a boycott. While it may seem helpful to cancel your streamers anyway, it could unintentionally weaken the workers’ leverage. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but if you understand the purpose and history of boycotts it makes a lot more sense.

What Is a Boycott?

To understand boycotts, it’s important to first take a step back and understand the purpose of boycotts. Activists have a lot of different tools we can use that have been proven to create meaningful change. Part of the work of organizing is deciding which tactics will lead to the most desired outcomes. Since the people most affected by any given situation are the ones who should make these decisions, those of us that want to act in solidarity need to listen to them and do what they say.

Boycotts use organized collective action to force reluctant change out of powerful entities through a coordinated refusal to buy or use something until certain demands are met. It’s important to note that boycotts have a specific policy goal they are trying to meet. If a boycott was called by the WGA and/or SAG-AFTRA, the goal would be for the companies to agree to a fair contract. In a labor dispute, the purpose is not to force a company into bankruptcy — which would leave workers worse off — it’s to get them to agree to something.

In this case, no one is worried about big media streaming companies going out of business, but the purpose of boycotts is to show decision-makers how much power and support a movement or issue has. To make the biggest impact, those of us acting in solidarity should be as organized as possible.

If a bunch of us slowly stop consuming a product over time, it’s not necessarily clear to a company why this is happening. However, if everyone stops at the same time for a certain period at the direction of the union, the company will see a much bigger disruption in their business. This is especially important with big companies because it takes more action to get them to notice.

History

While the concept of boycotts has been around for centuries, the name comes from Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897), an English rent collector employed by Lord Erne, who owned 40,000 acres of land in Ireland. In 1879 — amid widespread famine, exploitation of workers, evictions and literal torture — Irish tenants formed the Irish National Land League to campaign for lower rents and better conditions. The organization targeted Boycott and his laborers refused to harvest his land, and the community and local businesses shunned him. While this is more similar to a strike than the way we use “boycott” today, the term spread throughout Ireland, then the rest of the English-speaking world.

One of the most well-known and successful boycotts is the Montgomery bus boycott. While it’s known for launching Martin Luther King Jr. into prominence as a national civil rights leader, the bus boycott would never have been successful without the organizing work that had been going on for years. Most centrally, the Women’s Political Council (WPC).

Ula Taylor, a professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told the “Berkeley Voices” podcast that the Women’s Political Council provided “an anchor and grounding for [MLK] to even come into prominence.”

The WPC of Montgomery was started in 1949 by Alabama State College professor Mary Fair Burks. Burks created the organization to fight for equal rights for Black people and to give its members opportunities for political leadership that most women — especially Black women — didn’t have. Segregation was one of the main issues the WPC decided to focus on.

In 1953, two years before the historic boycott, the WPC met with Montgomery officials to ask them to change their racist practices, including forcing people of color to enter through the back of the bus. When the mayor refused to do what they asked, the WPC considered calling a boycott but decided to wait.

Many of us know that Rosa Parks wasn’t a random woman who had a moment of civil disobedience, and that she was part of the organized movement for the civil rights of Black people for years before her arrest. There were other Black women who had been arrested for the same thing before, but for strategic reasons it was Parks’s arrest that the WPC and others decided to rally around. According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute:

A year after the WPC’s meeting with Mayor Gayle, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. Seven months later, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger. Neither arrest, however, mobilized Montgomery’s black community like that of Rosa Parks later that year.

The reasons for choosing Parks’s arrest to kick off the boycott need their own unpacking (which won’t happen here), but I mention it to underscore the amount of planning that goes on before any campaign is launched. The boycott succeeded because the groundwork was laid, and there was infrastructure in place (or that could quickly be put in place) to allow people to get where they needed to go without buses. The WPC organized car pools and created an intricate system of about 300 cars to help people get to work, school, and other places without using the bus.

The organizing that was done for the boycott also made it easier for the broader civil rights movement to mobilize people even after the boycott was over. Boycotts aren’t just weapons, they also can be a gateway to greater activist involvement and political education.

“Ethical Consumerism” Ruined Boycotting

Boycotts are a political tool where timing is very important. It is a collective act. In a way, so-called “ethical consumerism” has ruined boycotting because people (myself included) are half-heartedly not buying so many things for reasons we don’t remember that when we are called on for these kinds of collective actions, we don’t have the bandwidth to do it. We only have so much energy, which is why it’s important we focus on policy change. Boycotts are just one tool among many.

We will always be outmatched in purchasing power. We are not just consumers; we are people. Associate law professor and former political candidate Zephyr Teachout wrote about this issue in her book Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. From an excerpt published in The Atlantic:

The more progressives lean into their consumer power as the key point of leverage, the less they focus on exercising their political power, the less long-term collective power they will amass. In other words, boycotts allow people to import virtuousness into their life without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.

Capitalism wants to reduce us to just our economic power, and it’s important that we don’t buy into their propaganda that our consumer decisions — outside of organized actions strategically designed to affect policy change — can make any kind of significant change. It gives people a way to do nothing while feeling like they are doing something.

Studies have found that whether a boycott is successful is dependent on many factors, but one big one is the amount of media attention it gets. Quietly stopping consuming something doesn’t move the needle.

Since the boycott is a tool to be used strategically, it makes sense that unions are holding on to it to use as leverage in their organizing. In a lot of ways, solidarity is pretty easy, because you just need to listen to what the people most affected are telling you to do. Do make sure you are following both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA on social media to see if they do call for a boycott, and other specific ways to support them.

Other Ways to Support

While, of course, everyone is free to do as they please, an independent decision to stop consuming something is not a political action and will not yield political results. Especially as the sources of systemic oppression are structures that we have no consent in participating in, like the police, the carceral state and capitalism as a whole. Consumer decisions will not free us.

However, what is helpful is if you take that money you would have spent and send it to support the striking workers. Unions have funds to support workers who cannot work during the strike. Netflix won’t notice you holding on to your $10 (or however much it is now), but the striking workers will notice if you send that $10 to them.

To support the WGA strikers you can donate to the Entertainment Community Fund, which supports workers in the entertainment industry. You can designate whether you want your donation to go to film and television workers or live performance workers.

You can support the SAG-AFTRA strikers by donating to the SAG-AFTRA Emergency Fund. The amount of money raised for this fund is directly related to how effective the strike can be. Even if you don’t have much money yourself, you can raise money. The WGA has a fundraising toolkit on their website to give you some tools.

If you live in or are visiting New York or Los Angeles, you can join the picket line as a supporter or bring supplies (food, drinks, etc.) to the strikers. The WGA has a list of locations on their website. They also have a social media toolkit supporters can use.

Social change doesn’t happen randomly, and to harness our collective power we need to organize. But once we do, we are unstoppable. Solidarity forever!

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