Taking a Stand
"It's the shoes, man! Is it the shoes? It's gotta be the shoes!"
Spike Lee, 1990s Nike Company Television Commercial
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.
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.[i]
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.”[ii]
[i] On Jim Keady and Nike, http://www.nikewages.org/sju.html
[ii] On sweatshops in general see Ellen Israel Rosen, Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/sweatshops/; Robert B. Reich, "American Sweatshops," The American Prospect Online, January 18, 2001.