The PJ Tatler

Tomato Protest at Trader Joe's: Prototypical Example of Alinsky Tactics and Smug Self-Immortalization

Smug progressive? Check. Token Mexican? Check. Misuse of the word “justice”? Check. We’re good to go!

The topic of the protest is itself of little interest — something about forcing retailers to raise food prices in order to subsidize a wage hike for farmworkers in Florida.

Nor is it a significant news event; just another random protest on a random day on a random issue.

No, what makes it interesting is that it illustrates, in a perfect, encapsulated miniature way, the bullying and public-shaming tactics advocated by Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for Radicals. It’s obvious these young radicals have read their Alinsky well.

Let’s just say (I know this is a stretch — just stay with me on this for the sake of argument) that you were deeply upset that farmworkers in Florida voluntarily choose to work picking tomatoes for wages that you think are awfully low. For purely altruistic reasons, you’d like them all to get a raise. You complain to the growers, but they say that the income they get from selling tomatoes at low wholesale prices, plus high shipping costs and so forth, make it completely unfeasible to pay farmworkers higher wages.

The Tea Party is all white! Er, wait.

So: What do you do? How to solve the perceived problem?

Well, according to Alinsky, what you do is find a visible target, especially one that is sensitive about its reputation, and then savagely attack them in public, bullying them and shaming them so that they cave in to your demands just to make you go away.

If you can’t attack the people or group directly responsible for the problem, then attack a secondary target anyway, so that the secondary target will out of fear solve your problem for you — again, just to make you shut up and go away.

So, in this case, the altruistic Alinskyites came up with a solution: Go to produce retailers, and demand that they raise their tomato prices, so that they could then take that extra money from the customers and use it to voluntarily pay more per pound to the tomato growers, who would then take that extra money and give it to the farmworkers.

To the streets! 

(All photos shown here are taken from the group’s own original report; click to enlarge.)

Which is an interesting approach: instead of just focusing on one aspect of the problem, follow the chain of money all the way back to the consumer, and try to micromanage the economic flow so that money is taken out of consumers’ pockets and eventually through several intervening steps is put into the farmworkers’ pockets. Sort of the opposite of free-market capitalism, but in miniature: let’s just call it boutique redistribution.

But how to make all the parties involved comply with your demands? Well, that’s where Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals comes in: Public humiliation.

The protesters in this case decided to target Trader Joe’s, the natural-foods supermarket chain. (Try to ignore the inconvenient fact that very few of Trader Joe’s tomatoes even come from Florida; the altruists didn’t do their homework on this particular aspect, but we can forgive them, because their hearts are in the right place.) Having decided on a target, the goal would be to then threaten Trader Joe’s public image until they cave in, to save face.

“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.”

In this instance, the protesters’ strategy was to set up a picket line outside a Trader Joe’s in San Francisco on Sunday, and accuse the company of basically enslaving abused farmworkers to boost corporate profits. “End Sweatshops in the Fields!” say the signs. “We Demand Food Justice!” “Modern Day Slavery.” You know the drill.

The theory goes that Trader Joe’s will cave in to the demands (however bizarre and irrelevant they may be) because having a picket line in front of your store is bad for business, and bad for public relations. It costs less for the company to just pay extra for a couple of damn tomatoes than they would lose by allowing a picket line to drive away customers.

If you think this strategy could never work, think again: The same tactic already worked against Whole Foods Market, another natural food supermarket chain that is hypersensitive about its reputation for “social justice.” After earlier and similar protests, Whole Foods caved in and voluntarily paid extra for their wholesale tomatoes (and undoubtedly raised retail prices to make up the difference, which is one reason why Whole Foods has such expensive produce).

It’s 1969 all over again!

Now we move on to Stage Two of the Trader Joe’s protest, a sophisticated elaboration of Alinskyite tactics that even Alinsky himself didn’t envision. Since this protest is not a naturally occurring public uprising, but rather a planned maneuver by a clique of activists, one must generate one’s own media coverage, since it’s unlikely that any news outlet will deem your stunt worth covering.

So as part of the protest, you bring along your own photographer to immortalize Trader Joe’s public humiliation. But how to make it seem “important,” a historically significant protest that will be remembered for generations? Simple! Just switch the digital camera to “black-and-white” mode, so the images look like historical artifacts from the protest glory days of the ’60s and ’70s! Ah, those old black-and-white pictures of Cesar Chavez trying to unionize the farmworkers, these images are imprinted indelibly on the public consciousness. So we can replicate that importance and glory by making the pictures of our protest also be black-and-white. Instant gravitas!

Study question: Should we dismiss these Alinskyites as sanctimonious irrelevant buffoons, or are they successfully eroding the economy one penny-per-pound at a time, so that eventually a million micromanaged economic transactions will reach the tipping point into a completely controlled economy (which, after all, is their real goal)?