Boycott-Happy Berkeley

When you’re a city that boycotts as many companies as Berkeley, you gotta be pragmatic.

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Last month the press reported that Berkeley was about to run out of gas. In 1995, a boycott of businesses with ties to Burma and Tibet had forced the municipal government to stop using fuel from Texaco, ARCO, and Unocal. Meanwhile, environmentally-challenged Exxon has been unofficially placed on the no-no list for years for its tardy clean-up of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Then came the City Council’s latest decision to boycott products associated with Nigeria. Suddenly Shell and Chevron were out of the running — and Berkeley was left, the press snickered, without a big name oil supplier.

Turns out the press got it wrong. According to purchasing manager Janice Hansen, there was never any threat that the city would run out of gas. In fact, Berkeley’s long-standing oil distributor, Golden Gate Petroleum, didn’t raise an eyebrow at requests that the taboo fuels be eliminated from the city’s fuel stock.

The press may have overstated the situation, but they were on to something. They just got it backwards.

Berkeley isn’t the über-P.C. kind of city that would heroically run out of gas to protest the military dictatorship in Nigeria. Yes, the city already has seven active boycotts, and counting. And the list of no-no companies and products, already in the hundreds, piles higher and higher. But the city finds itself becoming at one with pragmatism. So far, every boycott resolution the city has passed includes a key clause which allows the city manager to override the boycott and purchase products and services critical to maintaining the city’s general health, safety, and economic well-being. The only exception is the Nuclear-Free Berkeley Act, which is part of the Berkeley city charter. Overrides to that must be voted on by the City Council.

Here are just a few of the companies boycotted by Berkeley city government — more than a couple still in use.

  • For an explanation of boycott reasons, see the legend below.

    Boycott Reason Still Buying?
    Bank of America Nigeria NO.
    Canon Burma YES. In an effort to stop using other boycotted office machines, the city standardized to Canon copiers and fax machines, but Canon has recently emerged on the Burma list.
    Caterpillar Nuclear YES. The city has one.
    Chevron Nigeria YES. Doesn’t use the gasoline, but will use the gas cards for the next couple months. Needs to find an alternative soon. Would use British Petroleum, but there are no pumps in Berkeley. The closest station is in Oakland.
    Coca-Cola Nigeria NO.
    Colgate-Palmolive Burma NO.
    Compaq Burma YES. Servers, purchased pre-Burma boycott, are Compaq and need repairs and replacement equipment.
    Exxon Valdez Disaster NO.
    Federal Express Burma YES.
    Ford Nuclear, Burma YES. The city recently purchased 10 Ford Compressed Gas Unit vehicles. Ford is the only manufacturer that makes the CGU cars, which are more environmentally sound than gasoline cars. Also, Berkeley buys cars from a limited stock purchased by California. The state seems to prefer Fords and at this point, Berkeley’s fleet is primarily Ford.
    General Electric Nuclear, Burma YES. GE products were banned because of the company’s strong defense ties. The city substituted Phillips for GE in streetlights, city buildings, and generators. Both Phillips and Westinghouse also had nuclear defense contracts, but their contracts were smaller than GE’s. Then GE cleaned up its act and the city returned to using its products. But the company recently showed up on IRRC’s Burma list.
    Hewlett-Packard Nuclear NO.
    Holiday Inn Occupied Tibet MAYBE. The city doesn’t monitor hotel use.
    Honda Burma NO.
    IBM Burma YES. Used in the city’s mainframe and Wide Area Network (WAN). Too expensive to replace, but continually needs to purchase upgrades.
    Johnson & Johnson Burma NO.
    Kaiser Aluminum Occupied Tibet NO.
    Motorola Nigeria, Nuclear YES. In police vehicles, CBs, and intercom units. The entire 911 system is Motorola. The system is too costly to replace so the city continues to buy replacement parts and accessories for the units.
    NEC America Occupied Tibet YES. The city has some equipment and will most likely order parts for repair in the future.
    Procter & Gamble Burma YES. The city jail dispenses Safeguard disinfectant soap, a P&G product, to its inmates. The senior citizens centers, the fire stations, and the children’s centers might also have Ivory or Tide doing the dirty work in their laundry rooms.
    Sharp Electronics Burma YES. Photocopiers, computers, and calculators are everywhere, as the result of pre-Burma boycott purchases. The city plans to return to Xerox machines and Dell computers soon.
    Shell Nigeria NO.
    UPS Burma YES.


    Burma – In opposition to the repressive regime in Burma (Myanmar). Prohibits the city from purchasing products and commodities from companies who do business in or with Burma.

    Nigeria – In protest of the military dictatorship in Nigeria. Prohibits the city from purchasing products and commodities from companies who do business in or with Nigeria.

    Nuclear – In 1986, Berkeley voters adopted the Nuclear-Free Berkeley Act into the city’s charter. Works to minimize city contracts with investments in the nuclear weapons industry and opposes work for nuclear weapons.

    Occupied Tibet – In protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Prohibits the city from purchasing products and commodities from companies who do business in or with occupied Tibet.

    Valdez Principles – City’s adoption of specific environmental safety and recycling plans.

    IRRC – Investor Responsibility Research Center provides information about corporations and organizations for those concerned about making socially responsible investments. Offers a detailed directory to the city of Berkeley at a cost of about $950/year.

    Nuclear-Free America – Nonprofit educational clearinghouse for the nuclear-free zone movement. The city of Berkeley uses a database from NFA, but the organization hasn’t been able to update it since 1994-95. The city pays about $1,200/year for its use.

    Disclosure Agreement – City vendors are required to sign a disclosure statement which declares whether their offered commodities or services are associated or connected with businesses in any of the boycotted countries.

    Waiver – The prohibitions of the boycotts do not apply if the city manager finds that:

    1) the person offering the service or commodity made in the boycotted country is operating for the purposes of news reporting or publishing.

    2) the special characteristics of the service or product are necessary for the efficient operation of the city or its health, safety, and welfare, and no product or service is available for a comparable price.


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