How activists got General Mills to dump its Israeli settlement factory
Michael Arria speaks with the AFSC’s Economic Activism Director Dov Baum about the successful Pillsbury boycott campaign, and what comes next.
BY MICHAEL ARRIA
PROTESTERS CALL ON GENERAL MILLS TO STOP MANUFACTURING PILLSBURY PRODUCTS ON AN ILLEGAL SETTLEMENT IN THE OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY IN SEPTEMBER 2020. THE DEMONSTRATION TOOK PLACE AT THE CORPORATION’S MINNEAPOLIS HEADQUARTERS ON THE EVE OF ITS ANNUAL BOARD MEETING. (PHOTO: EMMA LEIGH SRON / AFSC)
On May 31 General Mills announced that it had divested from its business in Israel and would stop making Pillsbury products in an illegal settlement annexed during the 1967 war. The move came after a two-year campaign by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which called on consumers to boycott Pillsbury products until they stopped manufacturing on stolen land.
General Mills has been using the factory, located in the Atarot Industrial Zone, since 2002. A 2019 report on the settlement from Al-Haq, documents how the facility impacts Palestinians living nearby. “When they pour the flour [into the mixers which are outdoors], the flour comes into our house. Sometimes the bags of flour overflow into the house,” explained one resident. In 2020 the United Nations identified General Mills as one of the 112 companies that are violating international law by operating in the occupied territories.
General Mills statement about the divestment does not mention AFSC’s campaign, or Israel’s human rights record. “This divestiture represents another step in General Mills’ Accelerate strategy, which is centered on strategic choices about where to prioritize our resources to drive superior returns,” it claims. “Internationally, the strategy includes efforts to reshape the company’s portfolio for sustainable, profitable growth by increasing its focus on advantaged global platforms, which include Mexican food, super-premium ice cream and snack bars.”
The statement has predictably been cited by pro-Israel websites who insist that the BDS movement can’t claim credit for the victory. Mondoweiss’s Michael Arria spoke with the AFSC’s Economic Activism Director Dov Baum about the factory, the end of the boycott, and how to parse the General Mills statement.
Can you talk about the General Mills factory and why the group began the campaign?
At AFSC we publish database of corporations that are directly involved in the Israeli occupation in specific ways and we look at all the larger corporations that operate factories in Israeli settlements on the West Bank. This is because settlements are illegal and also by the mere fact of being there, they exploit confiscated land. It’s land that was confiscated from Indigenous legal owners by force. They exploit the captive labor of Palestinian workers that have no civil rights and therefore no recourse for organizing.
One of these companies for years was General Mills. General Mills has sourced Pillsbury products from a factory in the Atarot Industrial Zone, which is in East Jerusalem and this is an area that was confiscated from Palestine many years ago. The company did not own the factory, but it did make Pillsbury products in it. In fact, the factory had a big sign on the entrance with the Pillsbury Doughboy logo and the word “Pillsbury” on it. They were making solely Pillsbury products. So we asked General Mills to stop producing in that plant. The company has appeared in a database published by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights as one of only seven US based companies with direct operations in the illegal settlements.
This campaign began in 2020. Can you talk about what kind of actions you carried out during that time and what other groups were involved? I’m also wondering if you had any communication with General Mills during the campaign.
We launched the campaign shortly after writing the company and sharing our concerns about this factory. We have not received any answer directly from the company. We have seen answers that the company has given to news outlets. For example, they would say things like, oh, we give Palestinians a good salary and a place to work, and we thought that was not a sufficient answer considering the fact that it is a Palestinian campaign asking companies to stop doing business in the settlements.
Shortly after we launched the campaign with the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), we had other national and local groups join the campaign coalition, including American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and local groups in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which is where the company is headquartered. One of those groups was Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), which organized several rallies outside the company headquarters, many at the same time as the company’s annual shareholder meetings.
There were local groups in Pittsburgh, Oakland, Philadelphia and other places that have staged vigils and picket lines outside grocery stores. For example, I’ve joined in with QUIT, Queer’s Undermining Israeli Terrorism, and they’ve organized some really colorful and creative protests outside grocery stores here in the Bay Area. They dressed up with big chef hats, handing out non-Pillsbury cookies, and handing out vouchers for consumers to buy “Killsbury” products. I thought that was hilarious. We also had someone wearing a large Doughboy suit that was handing out those vouchers and he was very popular, especially with the kids coming into the grocery store who wanted to poke his belly.
We also had an investor coalition. We contacted the company asking to learn more about their policies in conflict affected zones. We participated as shareholders in the annual meetings and encouraged other investors to ask the company questions about this factory. Both times we did that we actually got responses from CEO of General Mills that indicated that he was not very informed about the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, which was quite interesting for us to find out.
American Muslims from Palestine (AMP) launched a bake off during the holidays. Pillsbury usually sponsors a bake off competition during the holidays, so they had an alternative bake off. At the height of COVID restrictions, it was hard to come up with ideas for what people could do at their homes to show support for the campaign. Another action were initiative by two congregations, two local congregations that we hoped were the beginning of a wave of faith community involvement in the campaign. Two congregations declared themselves “Pillsbury Free.” One was United Church of Christ congregation that Charlie Pillsbury is a member of. Charlie Pillsbury is a direct descendant of Charles Pillsbury, who founded the Pillsbury company that later merged with General Mills. He and four other members of the Pillsbury family wrote an op-ed in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune last year calling for a boycott of Pillsbury.
Charlie joined the campaign very organically. I mean, he’s somebody who has been active as an activist for many years. I had some conversations with him. He told me about campaigns he had joined 50 years ago, looking at corporate malfeasance and complicity of large corporations in all sorts of violations of people’s rights in war and occupation abroad. So this is not his first campaign. And it made sense for him to take a public stance on the company that uses his name as the brand name. That was a very powerful op-ed. I think it had a big impact on the general public, but also with the company itself.
When General Mills made this announcement they framed it as a business decision and didn’t mention the campaign at all. Their statement has been cited by pro-Israel media as proof that the BDS movement didn’t have an impact on them. What do you make of their statement and that argument?
There are two things that people really need to understand. The first and most important one is that companies are not moral subjects. We don’t expect the company to come out with an ethical, moral political announcement. Corporations are not people, they are money making machines. They are made up of people, but they are machines that are designed just to maximize their bottom lines. So in the 15 years of me working on these issues, I’ve seen dozens of companies stepping back for their exposure to the risks of doing business in occupied Palestinian territory. This is a controversy risk. It’s potential legal risk. It’s really a large controversy in a very small market. So it’s a good business decision. I want to just say very clearly, the company is telling us the truth. It is a business decision. I believe that a company such as General Mills cannot afford to continue doing business in an occupied Palestinian territory in an illegal settlement, especially after being highlighted, as it was internationally by the UN, because this is a high controversy issue. It is something that is not going away. And as a company that tries to sell things to people, I’m sure they didn’t want to be associated with this controversy.
Also it’s a very small business for them. That factory is a small factory. In fact, the entire Israeli market is a small market. So it is a very solid and sound business decision they have made and it’s very rare that a company would come out with an ethical statement on these issues. I know two such examples around the settlements, the latest one being Ben and Jerry’s. With the current legal situation and anti-BDS legislation, Ben & Jerry’s can expect a very serious backlash from Zionist organizations and from these new preposterous legal mechanisms that are penalizing all speech on Palestine. So I think General Mills made solid business decision to step away from this market, but at the same time try to avoid this hateful backlash from Zionist sympathizers. So they made a good decision. This is one big point. This is a good business decision indeed.
The second point to note is that they have a very clever messaging strategy. The company has chosen to come out with a statement about restructuring and a sale of the Israeli subsidiary, General Mills Israel, and to highlight the fact that they will continue making business in Israel. They have directed this messaging directly at Zionist media outlets and the Israeli media, they had lengthy conversations with these media outlets. They don’t want to end up on that list of companies who have caved to BDS pressure.
So I understand why they did that, but the messaging they came out with was misleading. For two years, our campaign has asked them to stop sourcing Pillsbury products from that factory, but their original statement didn’t say anything about that factory. So selling off their Israeli subsidiary did not necessarily mean that they would stop sourcing from that factory. We wrote to the company asking for clarification about that and, again, we received no answer. In the last few days, our campaign came out with a victory statement saying, yes, we think the company really, indeed plans to stop sourcing from the factory. We do that on the basis of reading between the lines of their statements and between the lines means that they came out with another statement saying that they would continue selling their other brands in Israel, which to me means they will no longer sell Pillsbury products in Israel.
They also said that they are moving away from the dough business. The factory is a frozen dough production line, so that means they would stop producing in that factory. In one of the news outlets, they were actually asked about the factory and they said, “Well, that is a dough factory. So we will not continue using it.” So I find this all to be very clever maneuvering on their part, but a total victory for our campaign. They’re doing what we’ve asked them to do and I congratulate them for that.
I think it was really important for the company not to come and clearly state that they would no longer make Pillsbury products in this factory because that might be interpreted as stepping away from the settlements. For us it really doesn’t matter how they speak about it as long as they’re doing it.
The boycott has ended, but what can people do to help support this effort going forward?
You can go to our campaign website BoycottPillsbury.org and sign a letter to the company thanking them for their good decision. I think it is important that the news of this campaign and the news of what General Mills is doing reaches a wider audience because they are not the first, and hopefully not the last, to withdraw from activities in the occupied territories and potentially in the Israeli market altogether. We don’t just want other people to learn about this, but also other companies. We have almost 20 companies that have done that already. In fact General Mills was almost one of the last large corporations with business in the settlements. There is maybe one or two left. That’s it. It’s important to create a new standard for corporate behavior on the ground. Even if the political situation is really awful it is still important that large multinationals do not have a stake in that business because they also have political influence and power. We don’t want them meddling and making sure settlements are recognized and legalized. So that’s one thing that people can do.
This is just one campaign out of many. If you go to Investigate.info you can find out more about companies around you. The main call for action right now is for institutions, including people’s workplaces or universities or faith communities, to divest from Israel. So if you go to our website you can see a divestment recommendation list. We’re asking institutions to divest from companies that are involved in severe human rights violations as part of Israeli apartheid and we give all the tools for them to implement such decisions. The hard part would be to come out publicly and say so. Maybe these days it is a little easier because so many corporations have announced stepping back from their activities in the Russian market or from activities in the occupied areas of the Ukraine. This is the same reasoning. We don’t want to directly support brutal military occupation with our money.