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A boycott is a group refusal to deal. Such concerted action is an effective way for society's less powerful members, such as unorganized workers or racial minorities, to seek fair treatment in employment, public accommodations, and public services. But as the Supreme Court recognized in Eastern States Retail Lumber Dealers' Association v. United States (1914): "An act harmless when done by one may become a public wrong when done by many acting in concert, for it then takes on the form of a conspiracy."

Boycotts by private entrepreneurs were illegal at common law as unreasonable restraints on commercial competition. The Sherman Act of 1890 made it a federal offense to form a "combination … in restraint of trade." The Supreme Court has interpreted that prohibition as covering almost every type of concerted refusal by business people to trade with others. The constitutionality of outlawing commercial boycotts has never seriously been questioned.

Employee boycotts may be either "primary" or "secondary." A primary boycott involves direct action against a principal party to a dispute. A union seeking to organize a company's work force may call for a strike, a concerted refusal to work, by the company's employees. A secondary boycott involves action against a so-called neutral or secondary party that is doing business with the primary party. The union seeking to organize a manufacturing company might appeal to the employees of a retailer to strike the retailer in order to force the retailer to stop handling the manufacturer's products.

Although early American law regarded most strikes as criminal conspiracies, modern statutes like the wagner national labor relations act (NLRA) treat primary strikes in the private sector as "protected" activity, immune from employer reprisals. Even so, the Supreme Court has never held there is a constitutional right to strike. Furthermore, the Court sustained the constitutionality of statutory bans on secondary boycott strikes or related picketing in Electrical Workers Local 501 v. NLRB (1951). The use of group pressure to enmesh neutrals in the disputes of others was sufficient to enable government to declare such activity illegal.

Consumer boycotts present the hardest constitutional questions. Here group pressure may not operate directly, as in the case of a strike. Instead, the union or other protest group asks individual customers, typically acting on their own, not to patronize the subject firm. Yet if the appeal is to customers of a retailer not to shop there so long as the retailer stocks a certain manufacturer's goods, a neutral party is the target. The NLRA forbids union picketing to induce such a secondary consumer boycott. The Supreme Court held this limited prohibition constitutional in nlrb v. retail clerks local 1001 (1980), although there was no majority rationale. A plurality cited precedent concerning secondary employee boycotts, ignoring the differences between individual and group responses.

On the other hand, when a civil rights organization conducted a damaging boycott against white merchants to compel them to support demands upon elected officials for racial equality, the Supreme Court declared in naacp v. claiborne hardware co. (1982) that a state's right "to regulate economic activity could not justify a complete prohibition against a nonviolent, politically motivated boycott designed to force governmental and economic change and to effectuate rights guaranteed by the Constitution itself." The Court relied on the first amendment rights of freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of petition. The emphasis on the right to petition government raises the possibility of a different result if the merchants themselves, rather than the public officials, had been the primary target of the boycott. But that would appear incongruous. The Court needs to refine its constitutional analysis of consumer boycotts.

Theodore J. St. Antoine


Harper, Michael C. 1984 The Consumer's Emerging Right to Boycott: NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware and Its Implications for American Labor Law. Yale Law Journal 93:409–454.

Kennedy, Ronald E. 1982 Political Boycotts, the Sherman Act, and the First Amendment: An Accommodation of Competing Interests. Southern California Law Review 55:983–1030.

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A boycott is an organized, deliberate effort by consumers, workers, or businesses to avoid trade that benefits another group, business, or an entire country whose policies they disagree with. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights groups boycotted businesses in the American South that discriminated against African Americans. The goal of such boycotts was not only to protest nonviolently but also to coerce the targeted businesses to change their policies by directly affecting their revenues. The term boycott is derived from a nineteenth century British estate manager named Charles Boycott (18321897). During the potato famine of 1880, Irish tenant farmers on Boycott's land told Boycott he had to reduce their rents so they could survive the famine. Boycott refused, and the farmers joined together to refrain from any interaction that might benefit Boycott and his sympathizers. Boycott never backed down, but he eventually moved out of Ireland.

A strike by workers against a business for higher wages or an embargo of one country by another are both boycotts intended to force change. Consumers who band together to avoid a store known for its high prices are practicing a boycott, as are companies that begin doing business with a new vendor to get their former partner to lower its prices. So-called primary boycotts are direct boycotts against the targeted business or group. For example, the civil-rights protestors of the 1950s and 1960s directly boycotted the very storeowners who refused to serve them. Secondary boycotts are directed against a third party who does business with the targeted business or group. For example, citizens protesting South Africa's formerly racist social policies boycotted U.S. companies that did business in South Africa. In the nineteenth century United States it was quite common for farmers to boycott railroads to get them to lower their freight haulage rates. U.S. labor unions also frequently told their members to avoid purchasing products from nonunionized businesses, and non-unionized businesses used the reverse tactic on unionized firms. During the Great Depression (19291939), for example, the National Metal Trades Association encouraged its member firms to boycott metal firms whose workforce had unionized or was considering doing so. In a landmark 1921 ruling, Duplex Printing Press v. Deering, the Supreme Court decided that unions could be sued for the damages caused by their secondary boycotts. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed secondary boycotts and strikes completely.

See also: Taft-Hartley Act

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boycott, concerted economic or social ostracism of an individual, group, or nation to express disapproval or coerce change. The practice was named (1880) after Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott, an English land agent in Ireland whose ruthlessness in evicting tenants led his employees to refuse all cooperation with him and his family. In the United States the boycott has been used chiefly in labor disputes; consumer and business groups have also resorted to the method. Boycotts may be either primary or secondary. A typical example of a primary boycott is the refusal of aggrieved employees and their supporters to purchase the goods or services of an employer. A secondary boycott occurs when the aggrieved party attempts either to boycott a third party or to coerce it into joining an ongoing boycott. Thus, workers instituting a boycott may refuse to patronize firms that continue to deal with the initially boycotted party. Similarly, a secondary boycott would occur if workers struck an employer in order to force him to join the boycott of another firm. In the United States, such secondary actions are prohibited by both the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959), although little has been done to enforce the ban. Beginning in the late 1960s, the United Farm Workers union employed a series of boycotts in an attempt to gain recognition as the sole bargaining agent for grape and lettuce fieldworkers. The boycott has been used as a weapon in political and racial conflicts. Outstanding examples are the refusal of American colonials to buy British goods after the passage of the Stamp Act (1765), the Chinese boycott of U.S. goods (1905) because of the poor treatment of Chinese in America, the refusal of Gandhi's followers to buy British-made goods in India, and the Arab League boycott (1948) of all companies dealing with the state of Israel. The legal status of the boycott differs with various governments.

See H. W. Laidler, Boycotts and the Labor Struggle (1914, repr. 1968).

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Boycott ★★★½ 2002

Superb HBO docudrama re-creates the Civil Rights movement's early days, from Rosa Parks's (Little-Thomas) refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama, bus, through the subsequent boycott of the bus system by the city's black population, to the success of the boycott and the rise to prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Wright) as the movement's most eloquent and popular leader. Through the use and mix of many different visual styles, director Johnson uses artful touches to tell the story without overplaying his hand. Wright is fantastic as King, with other outstanding performances turned in by Howard as Ralph Abernathy and Pounder as boycott organizer Jo Anne Robinson. 112m/C VHS , DVD . Jeffrey Wright, Terrence Howard, CCH Pounder, Carmen Ejogo, Reg E. Cathey, Brent Jennings, Shawn Michael Howard, Erik Todd Dellums, Iris Little-Thomas, Whitman Mayo, E. Roger Mitchell, Mike Hodge, Clark Johnson; D: Clark Johnson; W: Timothy J. Sexton, Herman Daniel Farrell III; C: David Hennings; M: Stephen James Taylor. CABLE

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boy·cott / ˈboiˌkät/ • v. [tr.] withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest. ∎  refuse to buy or handle (goods) as a punishment or protest. ∎  refuse to cooperate with or participate in (a policy or event). • n. a punitive ban that forbids relations with other bodies, cooperation with a policy, or the handling of goods. ORIGIN: from the name of Captain C. C. Boycott (1832–97), an English land agent in Ireland, so treated in 1880, in an attempt instigated by the Irish to get rents reduced.

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A lawful concerted attempt by a group of people to express displeasure with, or obtain concessions from, a particular person or company by refusing to do business with them. An unlawful attempt that is prohibited by thesherman anti-trust act(15 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.), to adversely affect a company through threat, coercion, or intimidation of its employees, or to prevent others from doing business with said company. A practice utilized in labor disputes whereby an organized group of employees bands together and refrains from dealing with an employer, the legality of which is determined by applicable provisions of statutes governing labor-management relations.

A classic example of this is a consumer boycott whereby a group of customers refuses to purchase a particular product in order to indicate their dissatisfaction with excessive prices or the offensive actions of a particular manufacturer or producer.


Labor Law.

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boycott XIX (first used of the action of the Irish Land League against those who incurred its hostility). f. name of Captain C. C. Boycott (1832–97), who was a victim of such treatment as agent for the estates of the earl of Erne, Co. Mayo, Ireland, at the hands of the tenants.

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boycott Refusal to deal with a person, organization or country, either in terms of trade or other activities, such as sport. The term originated in 1880, when Irish tenant farmers refused to work for, supply or speak with Captain Charles Boycott, an agent of their landlord. Boycotts can be powerful protest tools, if they have sufficient support. See also embargo

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boycott withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest, from the name of Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832–97), an Irish land agent so treated in 1880, in an attempt instigated by the Irish Land League to get rents reduced.

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