Standing Up to the Swoosh

One Man's Crusade Against Nike

The setbacks seem only to have stoked Keady's fire. After Nike brushed off his offer to work in one of its factories for six months, he and a compatriot, Leslie Kretzu, made their own way to Tangerang, and scraped by on 325,000 rupiah for the month of August, enduring the anxiety of choosing toiletries or food, a typical factory worker's cement box, and "rats and cockroaches like I've never seen." The move impressed even Keady's pals, a number of whom initially thought his activism was, in a word, "crazy."

Ad exec Mike Pierantozzi accompanied Keady to Indonesia to film his college buddy, though he was "kind of on the fence on the issue—I'm not an activist." But when three young women came to Keady's room to detail humiliating treatment and 15-hour days at their Adidas factory, Pierantozzi got a shock: "It turned out these women had made the $80 sneakers I was wearing. The girl was actually showing me the place where she'd stitched the uppers!" The moment jolted Pierantozzi out of "my typical American obtuseness about the origins of our products." Keady, notes Pierantozzi with a laugh, was "wearing sandals. You know, the whole Jesus thing."

Keady certainly has a sense of mission. Father Surlis, Keady's prof, avers, "A word comes up with Jim—the word is prophetic. His is an effort to practice genuine religion." Indeed, Keady laces his conversation with references to Gandhi, King, and moral theology, and is so pure he won't even wear a swoosh-stamped ID badge when visiting Nike headquarters. Or as Surlis puts it, "He can be a bit in-your-face at times."

"Nike is paying a starvation wage in Indonesia," says Jim Keady. "I know—I starved on it."
photo: Dominique Vitali
"Nike is paying a starvation wage in Indonesia," says Jim Keady. "I know—I starved on it."

Where his supporters see passion, Nike detects prejudice. In an online response to Keady's campaign, the company questions his "sincerity and credibility," saying that Keady went to Indonesia to "bolster his profile, further his existing lawsuit against Nike, and generate interest in a book he is writing." And the company says Keady "trivialized and demeaned the lives of Indonesians who work in factories. . . . Given his privileged, Western perspective, Mr. Keady does not understand . . . the value and importance of a job . . . in Indonesia."

At least the same cannot be said of Julianto, a union organizer who for the last three years worked as a hot-press operator for a Nike subcontractor in Serang. Speaking through an interpreter, the 23-year-old described how, after helping to lead a massive protest at his plant last December, he was hauled into a manager's office, and with an Indonesian soldier standing by, was told to back off—or risk a visit by hired thugs. That claim received a measure of support last month when Community Aid Abroad-Oxfam Australia issued a report documenting claims of intimidation and harassment of union workers in Nike's Indonesian factories. Julianto has since quit to organize full-time, and met Keady last month. He says he admires Keady's campaign, though his sports idol remains Michael Jordan.

Nike icon Jordan remains an outsized figure for anti-sweatshop activists too, along with brandmate superheroes Tiger Woods and Mia Hamm, but as a target for conversion—and a source of disappointment. At the Al- ternative Opening Ceremony demo in Sydney, Keady urged Olympic athletes to visit Indonesia. He had little luck, though activists did engage Olympic stars when Tiffeny Milbrett and Brandi Chastain of the U.S. soccer team wandered into an anti-globalization protest in Melbourne. Alas, Milbrett used the occasion to defend Nike. The next week Sports Illustrated helpfully suggested that "the story of Milbrett . . . would make for a dynamite shoe commercial."

The great Jordan famously promised to investigate Nike's factories when sweatshop conditions made headlines in 1996. He has not been heard from on the issue since, and Temple basketball coach John Chaney may have spoken for many in the sports world when he was asked about Jordan's silence: "Why should he stick his neck out and risk his endorsement deals? You got a fucking problem with Michael making money? Michael should pick up every fucking dollar possible."

Given that context, Keady's refusenik stance can seem miraculous. Among American athletes, only Milbrett's teammate Julie Foudy has taken anything like a public stand against multinational exploitation (in 1997, the Reebok star insisted on inspecting overseas soccer ball plants herself before OK'ing an endorsement deal). "It's a credit to Jim as a person to risk being scorned in the soccer community," says Keady's former Imperials teammate Tim Mulqueen, now a coach with Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. "Especially in our profession, which is governed by these large sports companies."

Keady has had an impact. Following his campaign at St. John's, the university formed a task force on global sweatshops and helped establish two industry watchdogs, the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities and the Fair Labor Association. Activists, however, say those groups are tainted by industry sponsorship (Nike has pledged $7.7 million to the Global Alliance over five years). Prompted by students, more than 50 universities have joined the independent Workers Rights Consortium instead. But this spring, Nike bolted from negotiations over multimillion-dollar deals with Brown and Michigan when those schools joined the WRC. And Phil Knight personally pulled a $30 million donation to his alma mater and WRC-signee, Oregon, fulminating that "the university inserted itself into the new global economy, where I make my living."

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