Jim Keady played soccer. It was his passion. In 1997, his college playing days over, it seemed that his life in soccer was over too. But fortune smiled on Jim Keady. He landed a job as Assistant Coach for St. John's University soccer team, a team that had won the NCAA soccer championship just the year before and promised to be a national powerhouse for years to come. Jim Keady's passion was alive and his future bright.
James Keady, pictured above, was a star soccer player that became Assistant Coach of the champion St. John's University soccer team in 1997. The team's apparel contract stipulated that Nike would outfit the team in exchange for the advertising the company would get from the players' wearing the branded clothing. A graduate theology student at the time, Keady had been studying Nike labor practices for a research paper and began to protest that Nike's treatment of its Indonesian workers was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching and that the team should not be wearing the company's clothing. He was eventually fired from his coaching job for his refusal to wear and promote Nike's products. Yet by the next year Keady had left St. John's soccer team. He wasn't fired: he quit. It wasn't that he was disappointed in the players. The players were among the best in the country and they worked hard enough.
He just didn't like what they were wearing.
St. John's University had negotiated a contract with an athletic shoe company, Nike, to outfit their soccer team. The college received free uniforms and shoes: Nike received free advertising. This is common practice. Almost all major colleges and universities, many small colleges, and even some high school, basketball, football, soccer and other athletic programs have made the same kinds of deals.
But if it is common practice, not everyone thinks such contracts are a "good deal." Many, like Jim Keady, believe that Nike and other shoe companies ruthlessly exploit their workers, paying women and children in Vietnam or other parts of southeast Asia a pittance and working them long hours in crowded factories choked with glue fumes and noisy with the constant clatter of machinery.
So Keady quit the team and joined those in hundreds of protest groups at universities and colleges around the country, like Duke and Notre Dame, which have been pressuring their schools to force Nike to improve workers' pay and occupational conditions.1
The Nike story is not just about "the shoes" or the shoe company workers--it is part of a bigger tale of corporate globalization. Hats and shirts and jeans and rugs and hundreds of the other items with which we surround ourselves are made by cheap labor. Sometimes the cheap labor is within U.S. borders, and sometimes it is found in countries around the world. Sometimes it is young children, and other times mothers or fathers with several young mouths to feed in addition to their own. An estimated one billion workers around the world earn less than a dollar a day and an estimated 250 million children throughout the globe work to support their families. Workers in El Salvador earn about 24 cents for each NBA jersey they produce, which then sell for $140 in the U.S. Nor are sweatshops confined to distant lands only. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted in 2001 that in Los Angeles, 61% of cutting and sewing shops didn't pay their workers minimum wage or overtime, and in New York, 65 percent didn't. "In other words," writes Reich, "the vast majority of cutting and sewing shops in America's largest cities are ... sweatshops."2
The problem of work, wages, and industry, of course, is not a new one. People have gained little for long hours of toil, have depended on the labor of their children, and have endured hardships in work since the beginning of time. Roughly two centuries ago, however, an industrial revolution transformed first England, then much of Western Europe and the United States, and the world of work seemed to enter a new age. This revolution had its marvels, producing new kinds of products from steam engines to railroad locomotives and light bulbs to chewing gum as well as a new abundance of old products from furniture and clothing to flour and fruit. Yet it also appeared to bring a new concentration of poverty, new imbalances of wealth, and even new kinds of work: endlessly repetitive, monotonous, confined, and creating a despair and fear among many that such changes might never be reversed or reformed.
Some were thrilled by the workings of the new economy and feared throwing its benefits away while trying to fix its problems. They saw the riches and improvements it brought to the lives of millions in new products and abundance. The rags to riches stories became firmly rooted in American folklore by the late nineteenth century. There was Andrew Carnegie, the poor immigrant boy from Scotland that grew wealthy in the American steel industry. John D. Rockefeller, the chief force behind the massive Standard Oil company, made a fortune building oil refineries in the United States. Thomas Fortune Ryan was an orphan that made himself rich through crafty financial investments. These men were also philanthropists, giving large portions of their money to educational institutions, religious organizations, and toward the establishment of libraries. Thomas Fortune Ryan, for example, anonymously gave more than $20 million to Catholic causes, while Carnegie focused his philanthropy on libraries and education.
None of these individuals apologized for their wealth. They argued that with talent and hard work, anyone could improve themselves in the "land of opportunity" that was the United States. Leave the market alone, they counseled, let individuals rise or fall on their own skills and effort: the people who deserve to succeed will; the people who do not will not. Philosophers like Herbert Spencer in England or William Graham Sumner in the United States supported this idea by invoking their conception of Charles Darwin and the naturalist's theories of evolution. Adapting Darwin to social and economic relationships, they argued that the survival of the fittest--and thus its opposite, the extinction of the "unfittest" --was a rule of nature. Sumner once said that if you see a bum lying in the street, then leave him there, for it is better for the human race if he and all the other "unfit" should die off, and quickly.
Others, however, were not convinced that leaving individuals on their own in a free market was the best response to industrialization. They doubted that many people actually rose from rags to riches. Historians have since confirmed those suspicions. Analyzing job statistics from cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts; South Bend, Indiana, and Poughkeepsie, New York, historians have found that many immigrant workers did find better jobs over the course of their lifetimes but a majority did not. Some of those who did, moreover--especially among Irish or Italian immigrants--often slid back from their white collar jobs as sales clerks or shopkeepers into the ranks of factory workers over time.
Discouraged about moving up on their own, hundreds of thousands of workers sought to improve their wages by banding together and brandishing the threat of a strike. In America strikes rose to such dizzying numbers from the late 1870s to the early 1890s that some historians believe this era was akin to industrial war and they have called it the "Great Upheaval." It began with a railroad strike in 1877 that spread from Baltimore and West Virginia through violent near citywide strikes in Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis to San Francisco. Seventeen years later in 1894 another rail strike shut down most of the railroads west of Chicago until the federal government called out the army to suppress it.
Between these two great rail strikes were thousands of others, ranging in size and devastation from the Homestead Steelworks Strike of 1892, a bloody, bitter battle fought between company police and thousands of steel workers, to the thirty day walkout of seventy eight bakers in St. Paul to win better wages on the morning of May 1st in 1886. Many of these strikes were spontaneous. Workers did not form unions; they merely banded together for a few days or a few weeks to get what they felt they needed from employers.
Unions, however, played a critical role in the "Great Upheaval" and in strike activity after it. The most important of these during the upheaval was the Knights of Labor. In 1886, at its high point, the Knights claimed nearly 700,000 members. In the 1890s strike activity and union organizing subsided somewhat but by the early twentieth century labor was again on the rise. The American Federation of Labor (AF of L), a federation of craft unions (unions of workers with a particular skill, such as plumbers, electricians, and carpenters) formed in 1886, reached a million members by 1901 and four million by the late 1910s. Two of the major affiliates of the AF of L, the Amalgamated Iron, Steel and Tin Workers and the United Mine Workers, undertook major strikes in the early 1900s; the steelworkers failed, but the miners were successful.
Workers employed other methods besides the strike to try to achieve their aims. Boycotts were popular in the 1880s. Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, preferred the boycott to the strike. Cigar Makers employed a version of the boycott in their union label campaign. Here, the absence of the union label warned consumers away from non-union made goods.
By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries many Americans believed that neither individual initiative through the free market nor labor organization through conflicts and negotiations with company owners and managers would ensure a fair living for most working people. Those people looked to the government and legislation to help raise living standards and improve working conditions. Through much of the nineteenth century the state governments and even the federal government had been tiny and generally avoided intervening in the economy to curb the power of the wealthy or help workers. There was, however, a tradition in American republicanism that emphasized the common good, and working people from as far back as the Revolutionary Era invoked that ideal to justify government help for themselves and protection against the power of the wealthy. Such ideas inspired workingmen's parties in the 1830s and agrarian protests like the Grangers and Greenback Party in the 1870s, and the Populists in the 1890s.
It was not until the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, however, that
efforts to involve the government in the economy earned broad support and won significant success. The initial and main thrust of the Progressives was to regulate business, but by the second decade of the twentieth century, several states passed laws to protect working men, women, and children. Twenty-two states passed child labor laws, for example, between 1909 and 1916, and by 1917 thirty seven states had compensation laws. By 1917 eleven states had instituted minimum wage legislation for women and children.3
Examining the Catholic church's role in these efforts, historians have seen it as a conservative force. They point to the church's steadfast antagonism to socialism and communism and to the bishops who opposed union strikes and boycotts or government legislation. In 1886, for example, the Archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, took a strong public stand against the noted social reformer, Henry George, a candidate for mayor in the municipal election that year. Archbishop Corrigan also disciplined a popular local priest, Father Edward McGlynn, an open backer of George. In the twentieth century the church became one of the most powerful and outspoken opponents of socialism, a belief system to which many unionists were attracted because of its sensitivity to the position of the worker in the economy.
Yet the Catholic reaction was far more diverse than such views imply. Catholic workers made up a substantial proportion of the labor movement at the turn of the century. The head of the Knights of Labor after 1878, Terence Powderly, was Catholic, and most of the 700,000 Knights themselves were Catholic in the 1880s.4 Catholics were also active in the AF of L leadership, as well as its rank and file. Catholic politicians, moreover, played a vital, if often overlooked, role in the passage of progressive social welfare legislation. In the 1910s, the Democrats, the party of most Catholic immigrants and their children at the time, took over the legislatures and/or governorships in Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois. Led by men such as Governor David I. Walsh and legislator Martin Lomasney in Massachusetts or Governor Alfred E. Smith and Assemblyman "Big Tim" Sullivan in New York, these Catholic ethnic politicians pushed through a wide array of social welfare laws-minimum wage, maximum hours, and workmen's compensation laws, for example-in their states.
In the process, they began to transform the Progressivism of the early twentieth century into Urban Liberalism, set the stage for the New Deal coalition that would see Franklin Roosevelt into the White House, and created a context for the social and economic programs of the 1930s.