Reclaiming America: Nike, Clean Air, and the New National Activismby Randy Shaw
Have activists taken the bumper-sticker adage "Think Globally, Act Locally" too literally? Randy Shaw argues that they have, with destructive consequences for America. Since the 1970s, activist participation in national struggles has steadily given way to a nearly exclusive focus on local issues. America's political and corporate elite has succeeded in controlling
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Have activists taken the bumper-sticker adage "Think Globally, Act Locally" too literally? Randy Shaw argues that they have, with destructive consequences for America. Since the 1970s, activist participation in national struggles has steadily given way to a nearly exclusive focus on local issues. America's political and corporate elite has succeeded in controlling the national agenda, while their adversariesthe citizen activists and organizations who spent decades building federal programs to reflect the country's progressive idealsincreasingly bypass national fights. The result has been not only the dismantling of hard-won federal programs but also the sabotaging of local agendas and community instituions by decisions made in the national arena.
Shaw urges activists and their organizations to implement a "new national activism" by channeling energy from closely knit local groups into broader causes. Such activism enables locally oriented activists to shape America's future and work on national fights without traveling to Washington, D.C., but instead working in their own backyards. Focusing on the David and Goliath struggle between Nike and grassroots activists critical of the company's overseas labor practices, Shaw shows how national activism can rewrite the supposedly ironclad rules of the global economy by ensuring fair wages and decent living standards for workers at home and abroad. Similarly, the recent struggles for stronger clean air standards and new federal budget priorities demonstrate the potential grassroots national activism to overcome the corporate and moneyed interests that increasingly dictate America's future.
Reclaiming America's final section describes how community-based nonprofit organizations, the media, and the Internet are critical resources for building national activism. Shaw declares that community-based groups can and must combine their service work with national grassroots advocacy. He also describes how activists can use public relations to win attention in today's sprawling media environment, and he details the movement-building potential of e-mail. All these resources are essential for activists and their organizations to reclaim America's progressive ideals.
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Reclaiming AmericaNike, Clean Air, and the New National Activism
By Randy Shaw
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 1999 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJust Don't Buy It Challenging Nike and the Rules of the Global Economy
When Jeff Ballinger was in Indonesia to monitor wages and working conditions from 1988 to 1992, he played on a softball team with employees of the Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike corporation. Nike had contracted with Korean and Taiwanese factory owners to operate production facilities for Nike shoes in Indonesia. Ballinger was not very familiar with the emerging structure of labor practices in the developing world and assumed that his teammates were directly managing Nike-owned factories in the country. The players were talking one day and Ballinger mentioned that he was in Indonesia to help protect the rights of workers producing goods for American corporations. One of the Nike employees laughed and told Ballinger, "I am your worst nightmare." The exchange was part of ongoing banter, and Ballinger did not ask the Nike employee what he meant by his comment.
Soon after this conversation Ballinger was monitoring wage data on Indonesia's sneaker industry. He discovered that Nike's Indonesian workers were being paid only fourteen cents per hour. Ballinger began to investigate the wages and working conditions of the mostly female Indonesian workers making Nike shoes. He learned that Nike's subcontractors were not even paying the below-subsistence wage required by Indonesian law. Ballinger also found abusive and often physically coercive working conditions. Based on his observations Ballinger examined the factors that appeared to lead Nike to shift its production facilities to Indonesia. He found that Nike had closed its last U.S. plants in Saco, Maine, in the 1980s, and during the 1970s had shifted most of its shoe production to South Korea, whose workers earned nowhere near the U.S. rubber-shoe industry average of $6 per hour. When South Korea's prodemocracy movement of the late 1980s gave workers the right to form independent unions and strike, Nike's work force won higher pay. The new salaries remained far below American standards, but Nike wanted a better deal. Indonesia, with its cheap labor costs and dictatorship whose military ensured labor peace, seemed the perfect choice.
As a result of his findings Ballinger wrote an article for the August 1992 Harper's, "Nike, the New Free-Trade Heel: Nike's Profits Jump on the Backs of Asian Workers." The piece consisted of Ballinger's commentary on a copy of a pay stub of an Indonesian worker named Sadisah. The stub indicated that the employer was not Nike but Sung Hwa Corp., a Korean-based company now serving as Nike's subcontractor in Indonesia. Nike was the first athletic footwear operation to fully subcontract its production facilities. Because the workers were not employed by Nike, the corporation could avoid legal responsibility for their wages and working conditions.
Ballinger described how Nike's shifting of factories to increasingly cheaper labor pools had meant solid growth for the company. In 1991 Nike had its best year yet, with a record net profit of $287 million. As Sadisah's April 1992 wage stub showed, however, those making Nike's shoes had not reaped the benefits of the company's success. Sadisah was earning only fourteen cents per hour, less than the Indonesian government's standard for "minimum physical need." The International Labor Organization found that 88 percent of Indonesian women working at such wages were malnourished. Sadisah's wages allowed her to rent only a shack without electricity or running water.
Her wage stub showed Sadisah to be a very hard worker. She had worked sixty-three hours of overtime during the pay period and received an additional two cents per hour. She assembled 13 pairs of Nike shoes every day; the labor cost for a pair of Nike shoes selling for eighty dollars in the United States was about twelve cents. Ballinger concluded by observing that in order for Sadisah to earn as much as the $20 million annual endorsement fee paid by Nike to basketball superstar Michael Jordan, she would have to continue working six days a week, ten and a half hours per day, for 44,492 years.
Ballinger's description of Nike's labor practices was graphic and compelling. His Harper's article is the type of original historical document that should be included in the Smithsonian Institution, where many of America's archival materials reside. Like other social change visionaries, however, Ballinger had produced a critique of Nike and of global free trade that was ahead of its time. Nike had already achieved a nearly mythic status in America, and its advertising had connected its brand name to too many positive images for a critical two-page article by an unknown human rights activist, even published in an elite liberal magazine, to be noticed. Like activists who opposed the Vietnam war before 1965 and those attacked as "premature anti-Fascists" for going to Spain to save the republic from Franco and Hitler in 1936, Ballinger's viewpoint lacked sufficient public support to be espoused or endorsed by the mainstream media. Thus his groundbreaking analysis of Nike was not soon followed by broader media coverage of the company's Indonesian labor practices; Ballinger may have been alone in foreseeing that his article would lay the groundwork for a national campaign challenging Nike's labor practices and the prevailing rules for corporate responsibility in the global economy.
Ballinger's critique of Nike's labor practices emerged during a decade in which the leadership of both of America's national political parties strongly embraced unfettered free trade and escalating economic globalization. At an eight-nation economic summit meeting in June 1997 President Clinton declared globalization to be "irreversible" and thought it "difficult to imagine that this is even a serious debate right now." Clinton's view was promptly echoed by his purported chief ideological adversary, Republican House majority leader Dick Armey, who urged recognition of unrestricted free trade as a "basic human right." Armey also asserted that free trade was "liberating" for Chinese workers forced to work as either slaves or for meager wages making goods for American import. This bipartisan support led many to conclude that the national political arena was not a hospitable venue for activists seeking to rewrite the allegedly "ironclad" rules of free trade and the global economy.
Jeff Ballinger, however, believed that a successful challenge to the global labor practices of one of the world's most successful and popular corporations could establish a precedent for similar national grassroots campaigns. As impossible as a national campaign against Nike appeared at the time, the ensuing years brought results that have revised and may ultimately rewrite the rules for the global economy and change the substantive meaning of free trade. The anti-Nike campaign's success against overwhelming odds shows the continued power of national activism to reclaim America's progressive ideals.
Activists versus Nike: The Obstacles to Success
Jeff Ballinger's goal of inspiring Americans to force Nike to reform its global economic practices faced at least five formidable obstacles. These included Nike's positive corporate image; the difficulty of interesting Americans in Indonesian affairs; Nike's contracts with major college and university athletic teams; its adoption of a Code of Conduct that conveyed the message, albeit erroneous, that it carefully monitored its subcontractors' wages and working conditions; and the public perception that it was unfair to target Nike when other footwear companies allegedly engaged in similar practices. The impediments were so great that embarking on an anti-Nike campaign in 1992 seemed to violate the standard organizing rule of picking only potentially winnable fights; the growth of the anti-Nike campaign in the face of such obstacles demonstrates not only the power of activists acting nationally to rewrite the rules of the global economy, but the triumph of the activists' vision of what is possible over prevailing mainstream assumptions that have too often deterred social change efforts in all fields.
Nike's Image: Just Do It
Ballinger's exposé appeared during a period of dramatic growth for Nike. Nike's profits tripled from 1988 to 1993, and unlike Microsoft or other hugely successful corporations of the 1990s Nike was identified with hipness and style as well as dependability. The popular image of the Nike sneaker as a vehicle for personal transformation was imprinted on the public's consciousness through advertising campaigns whose budgets rose from $250 million in 1993 to $975 million worldwide in 1997. Nike's television advertisements have consistently proven as persuasive and evocative as any of their surrounding programming. In the 1980s Nike's ads featured a series of vignettes between basketball superstar Michael Jordan and film director Spike Lee; the idea was spawned when a member of Nike's ad agency saw that Lee's Mars Blackmon character in his film She's Gotta Have It refused to take off his red and black Nike Air Jordans even while making love. Nike's "Bo Knows ..." ads featured multisport superstar Bo Jackson to emphasize the sneaker's versatility. In the most famous of the "Bo knows" series, Nike displayed its clout and hipness at once by including in one commercial tennis star John McEnroe, hockey star Wayne Gretzky, Jordan, and a renowned blues original whose identity was revealed by his tag line: "Bo, you don't know Diddley."
Nike's reliance on African-American sports stars in its commercials was a dramatic break from the past. Before Nike's advertising campaign, even the greatest African-American superstars such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown failed to receive the national endorsements of their less successful but Caucasian peers. Nike's willingness to break the marketing stereotypes that had denied endorsements to African Americans both helped sell Nike shoes in inner cities and contributed to the company's progressive image.
Also contributing to Nike's progressive identity was its choice of subjects for its "Just Do It" campaigns. For example, in 1988 Nike's "Just Do It" ads featured a wheelchair racer competing at racquetball and basketball, a forty-two-year-old female New York City Marathon champ, and an eighty-year-old who ran seventeen miles through the streets of San Francisco each day. The ads conveyed the idea that Nike sneakers were worn by people of all ages, genders, and disabilities, and that the buyers of Nike shoes had the grit and determination to take on the type of challenges included in the advertisements. A widely distributed Nike poster reflected the company's apparent recognition of the country's social, economic, and racial injustices. The text, "There are clubs you can't belong to. Neighborhoods you can't live in. Schools you can't get into," appeared above a photo of a lone runner on a country road. The text then concluded, "But the roads are always open. Just Do It." Wearing Nikes offered a route to spiritual if not political salvation in an unjust world.
By 1992 Nike's advertising strategies had convinced millions of Americans that paying up to $150 for a pair of sneakers costing $5 to make was a small price for certified acceptance into the world of the socially hip and adept. Nike even defined such a purchase as a revolutionary act, using the Beatles' song "Revolution" to pound this point home in a 1980s advertising campaign. Wearing Nike shoes brought status and security to young people, while trying other brands risked peer group criticism. The Nike swoosh had become a seal of approval; if it was good enough for Michael Jordan to wear, no kid could challenge its preeminence.
As a result of its creative advertising campaigns, in 1993 Nike was one of the first three companies to be inducted into the American Marketing Association Hall of Fame (the others were Coca Cola and Absolut Vodka). This honor was bestowed only upon brands that "represent innovative and trailblazing marketing and have had a dramatic impact on our lifestyle, becoming enshrined as American icons." In light of the icon status of Nike sneakers and of the company's progressive and racially groundbreaking image, is it any wonder that Ballinger's Harper's article was widely ignored? The larger question seemed to be how Ballinger and other activists could successfully challenge the labor practices of a company that had achieved a cultural status that seemingly rendered it impervious to activists' campaigns.
Indonesia: The Lost World
The second obstacle to the growth of a national anti-Nike campaign was that Nike's wrongdoing through 1992 was occurring in distant and little-known Indonesia. By moving its production facilities to Indonesia, Nike had chosen one of the most brutal regimes of modern times as its guarantor of labor peace. Indonesia must have seemed the country least likely to permit worker unrest over wages and working conditions. Traditional assumptions about American attitudes toward social and economic injustice in other nations also made Indonesia a seemingly safe harbor for Nike's production facilities. The fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia is a nation of thirteen thousand islands and several hundred ethnic groups located south of Malaysia and northeast of Australia. Relatively few Americans have visited Indonesia, there is no sizable or politically potent Indonesian immigrant community in the United States, and therefore Americans do not have strong religious, ethnic, or racial ties with Indonesia like those that have mobilized them to focus attention on other foreign countries. Indonesia's longtime dictator, President Suharto, was barely known in America in 1992, and as a strong ally of the United States, Suharto did not engage in the confrontational posturing that raised public awareness of Libya or other distant lands. Although Indonesia aroused controversy among human rights groups for its 1975 invasion of neighboring East Timor and its subsequent murder of more than a quarter million East Timorese, this genocide brought little American media attention, and Suharto retained bipartisan political support. The dictator had provided a safe and stable profit-making environment for multinational corporations since coming to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1965; if the American public and media had not been aroused by Suharto's genocide and reign of terror, there was no reason to expect them to be outraged by stories of poor wages and working conditions of Indonesian workers making Nike shoes.
Excerpted from Reclaiming America by Randy Shaw Copyright © 1999 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Author of Ecology: A Pocket Guide and Ectopia
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Randy Shaw is Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, located in San Francisco, California, and author of The Activist's Handbook (California, 1996).
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