A lonely Cracker Barrel restaurant stands alongside the highway that runs near my house. I always wonder who eats there, given that it’s just a few miles from Lesbianville (aka Northampton, Massachusetts). I have my own doubts about its Southern cooking, but mainly I know that the chain has been a target of boycotters for more than a decade to protest discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.
In 1991 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store implemented a now-infamous policy of firing gay employees, regardless of their performance. Cheryl Summerville, a hardworking cook with a mortgage to pay and a son to raise, received one of the eleven pink slips. Our image of gay civil rights battles dropped out of the realm of middle-class comfort and security and landed in the working class, demonstrating that we’re all vulnerable to bigotry. After many protests and the boycott, the company rescinded its discriminatory policy but never rehired Cheryl and the other fired workers. The boycott quietly continued. In the meantime, Cracker Barrel stubbornly refused to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy.
Not much changed until late November, when pressure from company owners–the people and institutions who own shares of stock in Cracker Barrel–pushed the company to promise not to discriminate. A majority of shareholders voted to add sexual orientation to the company’s nondiscrimination policy over the management’s wishes, an embarrassment that prodded the company to take action on its own.
On the surface, this looks like a victory for economics over politics. Who needs the messy world of organizational politics when we can marshal our vaunted gay economic clout in the service of social change? On closer examination, though, the Cracker Barrel victory shows the promise–but also the limitation–of gay people’s economic power. We certainly took business away from the chain. My decision to avoid their restaurants, despite their convenient allure on long cross-country drives, wouldn’t have mattered a bit. But collectively, with leadership from gay organizations, widespread gay determination and the help of our allies, we got the word out. Lots of people avoided the restaurants and learned about the need for new laws to prevent this from happening again.
Did we make a sizable dent? Nobody knows how much money gay people and allies would have spent at Cracker Barrel without the boycott. The income and earnings of parent company CBRL Group, Inc. over the past ten years don’t show an obvious effect, however. The company’s performance is consistent with research on boycotts showing that companies have more to fear from bad public relations generated by a boycott than they do from the loss of sales revenue. Then there was the threat that investors might avoid buying Cracker Barrel stock because of its regressive labor management policies. On its own, that effort seems unlikely to have provided enough economic pressure on the company, given the fact that stock prices reflect, more than influence, a company’s bottom line.
But shareholders have another weapon for change–the brute force of owners voting to change company policies. That, too, required a massive ten-year effort by investor activists, led by the New York City Employees Retirement System and the Equality Project, to get pension funds and other big players to pledge their votes to the cause. They also had to lobby and sue the Securities and Exchange Commission, which wanted to stop shareholders from placing antidiscrimination resolutions on the ballot. Shareholder activism took a decade to work, because the key was not economics–it was politics. In the context of social change, economic power doesn’t work unless it’s organized in a purposeful way. The grassroots might be greener in a shareholder resolution battle, but they need the same organizational nurturing that legislative efforts require.
We should celebrate this victory, but we shouldn’t see it as the direct result of gay economic pressure on Cracker Barrel’s bottom line. Our economic clout depends on our ability to wield it collectively, not individually. Personal shopping and investment decisions may feel political, but they’ll lead to change only if we make them in the context of a political movement.