This Halloween, don’t buy the Great American Chocolate Bar.
I am sick about the walkout on the Hershey plant. Haven’t heard about it? Neither has anyone else I have asked about it since it happened this summer.
Here’s the story, in a chocolate-coated nutshell: Hershey invited, for the small cost of up to $6,000 each to the students, 400 or so top-performing young people from China, Nigeria, Turkey, and all over the world. They were supposed to learn the American way of business, and did they ever, as Jennifer Gordon wrote in “America’s Sweatshop Diplomacy,” her column for the New York Times.
Packing boxes of Kit-Kats over fifty pounds all night on shifts that started at 11 pm working conveyor belts that moved too fast getting docked pay for rent so that they couldn’t do anything else during their time in America. As Jenny Brown suggests in “Hershey’s Walkout Exposes J-1 Guestworker Scam” in Labor Notes: Putting the Movement Back in the Labor Movement, it’s a version of trafficking, it’s exploitation, and it comes a couple of years after Hershey fired 600 workers and replaced them with workers in Mexico.
I grew up singing, “Hershey’s is The Great American Chocolate Bar. Even if you cross the wide world over, it really doesn’t matter where you are… Hershey’s is the Great American Chocolate Bar.”
I’m disgusted. Does anyone remember the Nestle Boycott of 1977? It happened when Nestle promoted infant formula in underdeveloped nations, causing breast milk advocates to bring to light the suffering and deaths of underprivileged infants. I still boycott Nestle, unless I really want to make chocolate chip cookies, which is teaching my children about social justice, hypocrisy, laziness and inconstancy in one fell swoop.
In the seventies you could get a “Boycott Kit” if you wanted to boycott J.P. Stevens, the company with the unfair labor practices featured in the film Norma Rae. In the eighties I majored in labor relations in college and there were stickers all over the walls that said “Don’t Buy J.P. Stevens Sheets” and it was easy, and you could remember it when you were at Macy’s.
Then it got complicated, and you couldn’t really keep track, especially when there was more than one boycott for different reasons (see Domino’s Pizza) or progressive and conservative thinkers were boycotting the same place over the years for socially opposed reasons (see Tyson Chicken) and we all just got tired and convenience-oriented (see earlier entries in this column).
But in preparation for this Halloween, I’m dragging my son down to Economy Candy on the Lower East Side to make a point, particularly because we all need a point we can see in this foggy fall. Since my son has a brain, he was able to say, “Mom, let’s go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum” which translates as this: “Mom, I heard you say in a sentence one day that we went to Economy Candy when we went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; therefore, if I say let’s go to the museum we could end up at the candy store.”
Eleven is the peak of syllogistic thought.
I will probably even remember to bring my cloth bags to Economy Candy because I will be so busy making a point that day. While I have never known when a boycott ends, and I still don’t buy the things I started boycotting in the seventies, I just want my son to know this “one simple thing” as they say in the marketing world: workers deserve justice.
We’ll be down on the Lower East Side that day, where his great-grandfather and namesake Nathan sewed shoulders and served as the president of his local chapter of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Who knew that for years Nash’s sister would interpret “sewed shoulders” to mean that her forefather was a surgeon? We have so thoroughly severed our ties with people who work with their hands that it would not cross her mind her ancestors did such work. Living in a tenement, too destitute to raise a daughter (my mother) and placing her in foster care. That’s “What Work Is,” as Philip Levine, our new Poet Laureate, might say. And so the children of foster children on the Lower East Side grow to write columns about buying candy there.
Economy Candy is not “the little guy” it once was thanks to its presence on the internet, which means we can all buy Razzles and Pop Rocks by mail. But Nash and I will be showing up and walking through the door this Labor Day weekend, instead of going to Hershey Park, so that the holiday can mean more than make your own sundaes and finish your summer homework… for one simple moment, on one simple day, steaming up out of the molten vat that is the past.