In the immediate aftermath of the Janus vs. AFSCME ruling, my first thoughts turned to the question of fighting back. The Janus decision was the culmination of a coordinated campaign to weaponize the First Amendment and bleed our union of the funds it needs to represent our financial and political interests in state and national politics.
For the wealthy individuals and organizations who supported Mark Janus (the Koch Bros., The Galbraith Foundation, Donor Capital Trust, etc.), the work we do and the children whom we serve represent nothing more than an annoying tax liability that they want to reduce to an absolute minimum.
It is often intimidating to consider resisting individuals and organizations with the resources to bend American political tradition and legal precedent to their will. I was confronted with the age-old question: What can I, as an individual, really do?
As I began to read about these individuals, a small ray of hope presented itself. While the Koch Bros., for example, built the bulk of their wealth in the chemicals and natural resources industries, they also own controlling stakes in everyday products like Brawny paper towel, Mardi Gras napkins, and Time magazine.
The same holds true of other wealthy individuals who are notable opponents of public education. The DeVos Family, for example, has a financial stake in the Whole Foods grocery chain.
If some of the products we buy and places we shop are feeding the financial machine that is working to undermine our profession, then it is logical to search for a way to coordinate this information and use it in our financial and shopping decisions.
I began to search for ways to do this and stumbled upon an app called “Buycott.” Available in both the Android and Apple app stores, the app has a simple premise. It allows people to create product boycott campaigns around a chosen cause and then crosschecks this cause against a database of products sold in popular physical and online stores, enabling consumers to make informed buying decisions based on their political and ethical convictions.
If, for example, a person is concerned about cruel animal testing practices, they can subscribe to an “ethical treatment of animals” campaign. At the grocery store, they can use their smartphone to scan product UPC codes before they put the items in their cart. If this person scans a bottle of soap, and it was not tested on animals, the app will notify the user that the product is approved. If the soap is produced by a company that uses animal testing, the app will suggest an alternative product from a company that does not employ such practices. I tested the app and it was quick, intuitive, and easy to use…and sure enough, there are already campaigns against the Koch Bros. and other anti-union forces.
It would, however, be foolhardy to assume that an app can solve all of our problems. If anything, the app speaks to a deeper political and economic reality: As employees, taxpayers, and citizens, our convictions matter very little to the individuals and organizations looking to dismantle public education.
As consumers, however, our dollars still matter to them in their role as business owners. In this context, the NJEA represents a block of 200,000 New Jersey consumers. Imagine what we could do if we all voted with our wallets. The NEA has around 3 million members. A product boycott by three million people would send a powerful message to individuals and organizations opposed to collective bargaining rights.
And even at the local level, this strategy can be successfully implemented. Does a hostile board member own a local business? No app is needed to divert the business of the local association towards a competitor.
The lesson of the Janus case is that a group of committed individuals— pooling their resources and operating with a coordinated strategic vision—can reshape society. Let’s make “Buycott” one small step in using our resources and resolve to fight back in the name of public education.
John Grimaldi is a German teacher at Hopewell Valley Central High School. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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