Catalonia’s Commercial and Government Boycott Initiatives

Some of the commercial boycott experiences of the Plataforma Aturem la Guerra (Stop the war platform), Boicot Preventiu (Preventative Boycott) and the Xarxa d'Enllaç amb Palestina (Link Network with Palestine) in Catalonia can be valuable for activists in other places. Despite the fact that the peculiarities of each context have to be taken into account, these experiences illustrate the difficulties and dilemmas as well as the potential of these campaigns. Three different cases will be explained: the boycott of an Israeli product, a campaign for a Catalan company to stop selling Israeli products and two campaigns demanding that the public administration refrain from contracting Israeli product and services. 

Eden Springs

 Through several discussions about possible Israeli goods to target for a boycott, Eden Springs water provided an effective objective because it is a relatively public consumer product (water coolers for offices) through which we could reach a large number of people. It has enabled the campaign to highlight the importance of the water question in Israel's colonial policies, and a boycott has a potentially greater success rate if there is a direct relationship between the product and the problem being denounced (in this sense, the water company is a more adequate objective than, for example, swim suits). Finally, the fact that Eden Springs was a company of Golan settlers facilitated the boycott argument due to the clear unquestionable illegitimacy of Israel's occupation of this territory.

 The public aspect of the campaign involved identifying the establishments that used Eden Springs water, to which we sent information about the campaign, providing contact details of alternative companies which offer the same services to facilitate switching over. This initiative had limited impact because we knew few clients (we discovered them by chance) and follow-up was not always possible.

 A less public part of the campaign was directed at the bottling companies. We contacted the companies that bottle for Eden Spain to encourage them to terminate their partnership with Eden Springs. We managed to cause the companies of the sector to become concerned about their relationship with Eden and that Eden become aware of this concern. Consequently, Eden's web site concealed the origin of its water. The campaign has not resulted in ending the availability of local bottlers and distributors for Eden Springs.

 A third aspect of the campaign focused on cutting off Eden's corporate connections from above. The Eden companies in European countries are subsidiaries of a mixed company, Danone-Eden, headquartered in Switzerland. A number of Spanish groups sent letters to Danone Spain demanding that they break their ties with Eden. As a boycott campaign has to be proportionate to the size and spread of a company, we sent a template letter in English to the European coordinator of NGOs for Palestine so that different European groups could send letters to each respective Danone subsidiary, to bring as much broad-based coordinated pressure on the corporation. We do not know if these letters were sent, and as far as we know, Danone has not issued any response.

 One of the most important aspects of the campaign was connecting to the workers within the Eden bottling and distribution process. We spoke to the union representative of the factory workers of the Danone Group of Catalonia. They supported us and sent the information to other factories of the Group in Spain. We also spoke to the Agroalimentaria Federation, the main union in Catalonia (CCOO), who promised to forward the complaint to the union committee's European sector. To date, these initiatives have not yielded results and we fear that the solidarity of the unions is more symbolic than effective. Last but definitely not least, was communicating with the direct victims of Eden Springs: the people of the Golan. We wrote to an Arab NGO in the Golan introducing the campaign. Their enthusiastic response has continued to inspire the campaign and consolidate our commitment to these activities.

 We believe that it is critical that all these initiatives are brought to the attention of Danone Spain, ranging from a client who cancels their subscription for reasons of conscience, to a conflict with a bottling company. The idea is that destabilizing the profit-making process for Danone may spur this large corporation into reconsidering their contract with Eden. It is important to bear in mind that in these types of boycotts, perceptions can often bear more weight than reality; in this case, introducing a perception of potential lost profit into the working of Danone. In addition, since Danone is a company with a benevolent corporate image, it will be sensitive to public campaigns.

 The principal problems we encountered were the difficulties in identifying the clients, the minimum engagement of the unions and the incapacity to broaden the campaign to a coordinated regional European effort. Every initiative has to be proportionate to the extent of its objective. As such, pressurizing Danone requires a campaign on the European level or, at the very least, together with France.

 Abacus

Abacus is a large book, stationery and games shop with fifteen big establishments throughout Catalonia and enormous pedagogical and cultural prestige. Several of the games sold in Abacus shops are manufactured in Israel. We chose Abacus as a target for the campaign because it is one of the few places with a continuous supply of clearly identified select Israeli products. Furthermore, since it is the biggest company in the sector, we thought it would be easier for them to adhere to the boycott than other smaller companies, as well as being able to reach the large number of people entering and leaving the stores each day. Finally, as it is a company with a certain cooperative character and which presents itself as socially responsible, we thought it would be more receptive to ethical arguments than others. In other words, since it defines itself in ethical terms, we could establish a dialogue on such a basis; something which is more difficult to do with other companies whose only motivation is profit.

 We sent letters and documentation and we held meetings with Abacus, but the Israeli games stayed on the shelf. The company responded with typical arguments, the same used to justify engagement with Apartheid South Africa: the company is not responsible for government policies, or for alleged prejudice against innocent workers, nor the existence of human rights violations in other places in the world. Once dialogue had been exhausted, we increased the pressure and carried out coordinated actions of complaints and boycott campaign outreach targeting the majority of Abacus outlets. We have maintained contact with the company and have tried communicating with its workers, but Abacus has not yet changed its position.

 Despite the lack of tangible success, the campaign proved very useful in that it involved coordinating a multitude of local groups, involving people and new groups and spreading our message to large numbers of people. Above all, because the dialogue we maintained with the company permitted us to confront arguments, reflect and learn about argument aspects and tactics. We did not, however, achieve the objective of getting Abacus to stop selling Israeli products. We were more effective in the action than in the dialogue, we needed a more intense and sustained negotiation, we did not succeed in obtaining the solid support of influential NGOs and we did not work systematically on our contacts and relationships with the workers. Perhaps we put too much confrontational pressure on the company and failed to show them the boycott as an asset for them in terms of their image. We do not, however, consider the campaign as over and there are ongoing discussions about reactivating it in the very near future.

 Government of Catalonia

 The Library Consortium of Catalonia (CBUC), a public body, awarded the contract for the implementation of new software for the public library system to an Israeli company. Although we discovered this too late, we sent letters to the people in charge in CBUC and organized a protest in front of the Catalonia Library. Although we were unable to stop the contract award, we managed to generate an internal debate amongst the librarian professionals and create a debate through which Israeli products would no longer be seen as a neutral or apolitical option, rather a controversial option which rouses opposition. We anticipate this being taken into account in future situations where the possibility of contracting Israeli companies arises.

 The Department of Education of the Government of Catalonia considered the purchase of Israeli technological material for the science classes of Catalonian secondary schools. This time we were able to discover the transaction in time and were able to present a complaint before the Department made any decisions about awarding the contract. We obtained the support of the main teaching unions and a meeting with the people in charge of the Department was covered by the media. In the end, the purchase did not take place. We do not know to what extent the ethical and solidarity reasons were decisive, but the fact that we managed to carry out a widely covered campaign, and that the end result was that the Department did not award the contract to the Israeli company qualifies this campaign as a success. Without doubt, the fact of creating solid alliances with important groups in the sector was decisive at the time our complaint was addressed.

 Conclusions

 Every initiative requires different planning and discourse, depending on who is being addressed and what demands we are putting forward. In all the cases, it is important to assure the active involvement of important actors in the sector (unions, NGOs, workers). If possible, we recommend ensuring that the different levels of work are strategized and planned before launching the campaign, and if not, while the campaign develops.

 he emphasis is more on the Israeli suppliers realizing that their products are rejected due to their government's policies than on a company not selling Israeli products. In other words, our aim is that the Israeli business sector perceives that Israeli occupation, colonization and apartheid are detrimental to their business, and as such they have a vested interest in ending them. It is not, therefore, about an economic war which aims to ruin Israel, but a war of ideas, a war for consciences which is fought in the economic field. It is as important that an administration or a company does not buy an Israeli product as the fact of raising awareness that the Israeli trademark is controversial and arouses opposition. This is the first step in spreading consciousness about Israel's apartheid policies and practices and making the boycott against Israel effective.