Boycott should be more steak, less sizzle

Editorial/Opinion by
McGill Tribune

In response to the closure of the Architecture Café, the Students Society of McGill University Council passed a resolution last Thursday in support of boycotting all campus food locations owned by McGill Food and Dining Services until the administration proves more willing to engage in student consultation. While the Tribune applauds the spirit of this motion, we are worried that it may be both misdirected and ineffective. Instead, SSMU should consider supplementing this sort of negative action with an increase in positive ones.

Several councillors raised important concerns regarding the boycott’s efficacy. For one thing, it may not be as direct as it appears. The primary target is not McGill—which profits little from their food sales—but Aramark, the company that has an exclusive contract to provide McGill’s food. Even if, as one councillor noted, few students lose sleep over cutting into the profits of a large corporation, we are wary of endorsing a boycott directed at the wrong target. That’s not grassroots democracy—it’s mob populism.

We are also worried about the boycott’s effectiveness. Aramark is a multinational corporation with annual revenue exceeding $12 billion.  Moreover, the majority of its ordinary McGill customers are first-year students in residence, for whom it is impractical to boycott, and prepaid meal plan users, whose money Aramark already has—two groups which are exempt from the SSMU resolution anyway. Should the rest of us commit to the boycott, there is only a small chance that our efforts will cause a financial loss significant enough that Aramark will approach the McGill administration about re-opening the Architecture Café. The lost business may be but a dent for the company. In the unlikely event it does cause a major decline in business, the people who will feel the most pressure will probably be the food services employees, who have done nothing wrong.

Despite these concerns, if a cause is right then it is worth pursuing even if there are doubts about its feasibility. This is one of those causes. Even if neither Aramark nor Food and Dining Services nor the McGill administration feel any negative effects from a boycott, the places to which business is diverted will surely feel the benefits. Places like AUS Snax have already seen increases in sales. Despite Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning)Morton Mendelson’s claim that the Architecture Café was financially untenable, and that McGill isn’t in the business of subsidizing student lunches, the university’s own Food and Dining Services seems only able to sustain itself through monopolistic business practices.  A boycott of Aramark may also serve as an expression of widespread campus support for small, student-run food services, and indicate that that is where demand would flow were it not coerced by the university into other channels.

The boycott is a good idea that may have some tangible rewards for certain small groups.Ultimately, though, the Tribune would like to see more of a positive effort from SSMU, rather than merely passive support for a negative strategy. We recognize and applaud executives’ continued efforts to address this in direct talks with the administration. However, we feel that more visible displays would provide a more valuable catharsis for impassioned students. Alternative coffee stands run by SSMU, for instance, would be a more convincing argument against Tim Hortons than just saying, “Don’t go.” There must also be more attempts to show the administration directly—rather than via Aramark—that students are still fuming over the lack of consultation in the decision to close the Architecture Café.  Finally, if SSMU is truly interested in promoting student-run food services, it needs to literally put its money where its mouth is. Its second floor cafeteria tenants’ contracts are coming up for renewal this year, which is a perfect opportunity for SSMU to tangibly demonstrate its  support for the idea of student consultation and student-run food services. If they truly believe in the principles they claim to be supporting, SSMU should hold forums and consider leasing to students before asking the administration to do the same. If they do not—if they decide that student businesses are not even suitable tenants for the Shatner Building—then it will be hard not to sympathize with the administration in thinking our representatives, and the boycott they support, might be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.