Just War Against Nike


In her syndicated column, which appears in the Newark Star-Ledger, Molly Ivins noted that Nike has cut its labor costs from $11 an hour (if it were paying American wages) to 11 cents an hour in its factories in Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. But the price of its sneakers hasn’t dropped at all. As Ivins points out, it’s no wonder that Phil Knight, founder and chairman of Nike, is worth $5.4 billion.

In the growing movement to expose Knight’s labor practices in Asia, I am most encouraged by the presence of young anti-Nike activists, students in settlement houses and colleges.

I have written here of the youngsters at the Edenwald–Gun Hill Neighborhood Center of the Bronx who, in a demonstration, discarded their Nike shoes at a store proud of its expensive Nike wares. Working with them is social worker Michael Gitelson, who has invited Nike representatives to an open public discussion at which New York kids will ask acutely pertinent questions.

Also, on January 19, Martin Luther King Day, Gitelson is organizing a second sneaker ”give back” at another Nike retailer. On that occasion, he says, ”we are hoping to be able to bring many more youth from around the city to celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy by fighting Nike for social justice.”

Gitelson was raised on pianist Horace Silver’s Blue Note records, so the life force of jazz reached him early and has extended to a strong desire to improve the lives of Nike’s brutally exploited workers in Asia.

In Newsday’s sports section, Steve Jacobson wrote: ”Gitelson says he sees kids at his settlement house wearing sneakers he knows they couldn’t afford unless the family was doing without or he was doing something not right.”

Gitelson has been teaching the youngsters that empowerment, real empowerment, means being able to do without Nikes, however desirable they may be, and choosing another brand.

Most of the reporting I see on the way Nike treats its workers–labor relations that appear to have been taken from the novels of Charles Dickens–is on the sports pages. I have yet to come across statements by such moral leaders of our time as Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton (it takes an American institution to nourish young workers on carcinogens), Bill Bennett, Billy Graham, Rush Limbaugh, Al Gore, or sports buff Rudy Giuliani.

In the New York Times sports section, Harvey Araton tells of Marion Traub-Werner, a 20-year-old junior from Toronto who has rowed women’s crew at the University of North Carolina. That school does $11 million of business with Nike, and Traub-Werner has started a campaign to reveal how Nike shoes are made, by whom, and at what physical and psychological costs to the workers.

Michael Jordan, as you may know, is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina. His indifference to what goes on in the bowels of Nike factories, says Traub-Werner, is ”so upsetting because so many people look up to him. He’s a role model for our era.”

In one of his columns–”Athletes Toe the Nike Line, But Students Apply Pressure”–Harvey Araton described the work of Ben Au, a 20-year-old student activist at Duke University. His group, Students Against Sweatshops, succeeded in winning a new school policy that requires the makers of items carrying the Duke logo to pledge they do not operate sweatshops. Companies must disclose the working conditions in their factories.

The famed John Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown, whose magisterial presence you may have seen on television, owns–reports Araton–80,000 shares of Nike stock and options, worth about $4 million in total. His profits come from sweatshops. I doubt he has any trouble sleeping through the night.

While coaches cannot be found among the protesters, student groups exposing the barbarous core of the Nike empire have been formed at the universities of Illinois, Notre Dame, and Michigan, among others.

I hope these student groups put pressure on college and university sports departments, some of which have shamefully strong economic ties to Nike. In the San Francisco Chronicle, sportswriter Tim Keown writes:

”We have public universities making private deals to accept Nike’s money as well as its gear. Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement–the city that can’t find a gas station because none of the oil companies fit the exacting human-rights standards–the basketball team there is funded in part by Nike.”

Tim Keown has a vision: ”Could you imagine how refreshing it would be if a major university–Cal or any other one–took a stand? Imagine the great press a university athletic director or coach could receive by calling a news conference to say, ‘We’ve read the reports, and we’re going to wear something else for a while.”’

Nike’s sanctimoniousness is worthy of Bill Clinton. When critics talk about use of cheap labor in Asia, a Nike spokesman, Antonio Tijerino, answers: ”There are poor people everywhere. We need to pray for them all.”

Then there are Nike’s television spots that preach the empowerment of girls through athletics. ”By contrast,” notes Tim Keown, ”there are the young Nike female factory workers in Vietnam. They are empowered into slave labor. For one, they are forbidden to speak while they work. And…the punishment for speaking is strictly corporal punishment.”

And, in The New York Times, Bob Herbert–who continues the powerful muckraking journalistic tradition of George Seldes and I.F. Stone–has reported that 56 women workers in a Vietnam Nike plant were ordered to run laps–over two miles–because they had worn unauthorized shoes to work. Even after some of them fainted from exhaustion, the rest were forced to keep on running. Twelve women were taken to the emergency room. And Michael Jordan gets standing ovations here!

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 23, 1997

Archive Highlights