General Electric Boycott

Compelling a Corporation to End Its Involvement in Nuclear Weapons Production

Can the people take on corporate giants and win? The mass boycott of General Electric (GE) in the 1980s was successful in putting pressure on the company to end its decades-long involvement in the nuclear weapons industry. Kelle Louaillier, the executive director of Corporate Accountability International (formerly Infact), explains how it was done.


ICAN: What involvement did GE have in nuclear weapons production?

Kelle Louaillier (KL): In 1984 in the United States, thousands of companies were involved in some way in producing parts for nuclear weapons systems. GE produced more parts to more major nuclear weapons systems than any other corporation. GE was involved in the promotion of nuclear weapons to the government and in production since day one, with its role in the Manhattan Project.

Specifically, GE was responsible for the critical components, including, for example, the neutron “trigger” for every US nuclear bomb. Notably, before becoming president, Ronald Regan was a spokesman for GE.

ICAN: How did you put pressure on GE to end its involvement?

KL: Corporate Accountability International, then called Infact, organized an international grassroots campaign, including a consumer boycott of all General Electric products and services. We used the full range of tactics, from engaging more than 500 campaign-endorsing allied organizations to calling on medical professionals to stop purchasing expensive life-saving medical equipment from GE.

We produced a short documentary film, Deadly Deception, that was shown in movie theatres and on TV stations in more than 40 nations. Our organizing strategies focused on key corporate vulnerabilities: exposing the truth behind GE’s corporate image; creating internal conditions demanding the company move out of the nuclear weapons business, impacting sales; altering the cost–benefit ratio for GE to be in the nuclear weapons business; and more.

ICAN: How did people respond? Was there any public resistance?

KL: Once the public began to understand industry’s role in the nuclear weapons build-up – both creating the demand for and directly providing the weapons – the campaign was met with overwhelming public support. For the campaign’s kick-off, events were held in 36 cities in 26 states, with 18 million people participating.

By 1990 four million people in the United States alone were boycotting GE. Campaign activities continued in all 50 US states, across Canada and into Western Europe. In 1989, three years into the boycott and five years into the overall campaign, GE spent four times more on brand advertising – not product advertising – to defend its brand image than in the past four years combined.

ICAN: When and why did GE finally decide to end its involvement?

KL: In April of 1993, General Electric completed its move out of the nuclear weapons business. GE announced this move as a “business decision” – underscoring a key approach to Corporate Accountability International’s campaigns. By altering the cost–benefit ratio (which takes years when engaging a multi-billion-dollar transnational corporation), we can all make change real.

Our international boycott of GE products cost the company over $50 million in lost medical equipment sales. Major retail stores including Safeway and Target began stocking light bulbs made by other companies. When our campaign began, 50,000 nuclear warheads were on constant alert and the United States was building five nuclear bombs a day. At the close of the campaign, no nuclear bombs were in production on US soil. Allied organizations continue to work toward the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

ICAN: What advice do you have for other campaigners?

KL: This isn’t a numbers game: big business will always have more resources than campaigners. What we have at the core of it all is righteous truth that puts people’s lives (public health and human rights), environmental safety, and democracy ahead of corporate greed.

Think and organize with boldness: the stakes are high enough to ask people to do what might seem impossible. Be smart, be strategic, have a laser focus, be clear about what you are campaigning to achieve – and let your adversary know what is required of them. Dig in for the long haul. Keep your friends close and your adversaries closer … there are people within these corporations making decisions: know them, expose them, and call on them to change. With enough pressure, they will.

For more information, visit Photo courtesy of Corporate Accountability International.

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