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Putting the Consumer Back into the Game

by JEFF BALLINGER

The little note on the “About Us” page of the Roots Canada website says it all: “Our Story is Being Updated and will be back soon”. I’m guessing that the “old” story made reference to the pride the founders had in the workers at the Toronto factory that they just closed last month. Since the company has, in the past, marketed the warm and fuzzy Canadian–company image, it will be interesting to see what the “new” story says. Could the reared–in–Detroit founders, Michael Budman and Don Green be doing a “No more Mr. Nice Guy” transformation to break into the big leagues of “lifestyle” brands? Perhaps there is there an IPO in the offing? Here’s what Budman told the Toronto Star about shutting the plant: “The reality is the customer doesn’t care. They want the right item at the right price.” Right out of the Phil Knight/Wal–Mart playbook.

While many “opinion leaders” and neo–liberal columnists are hedging a bit these days (we didn’t mean you had to outsource EVERYthing!), hard–boiled business reporters remain, it appears, true believers. When Levi’s announced the closing of its last U.S. factory (down to zero from 63), the BBC story suggested that the company was in decline since it “has been slow to follow the contract–manufacturing trend set by rivals such as Nike during the 1980s and 1990s”.

Well, our little web–based apparel company NoSweatShop has evidence that consumers DO care–we’ve sold our 100% union–made ‘no sweat’ apparel in 49 states and 32 countries. It’s been just a whisper in our ear, but encouraging enough to keep us humping and bringing new things to the “ethical consumer” market. This spring it’ll be a Converse knock–off to give the consumers who liked that “basic” shoe an alternative to the Chuck Taylors, since that brand was recently snarfed up by Nike.

If this idea sounds vaguely familiar, you might have read that Kalle Lasn, of Adbusters fame, had a similar idea. We tried working with him, in fact. We gave him a fabulous sample at a great price (it’s on the adbuster site right now, in fact), from a good union shop in Indonesia with fair wages and superb benefits. One day, out of the blue, Lasn decides that the shoe has to be made in China. This was months after our agreement that it had to be made in a union shop. In recent interviews he’s been thumbing his nose at the ineffective “whiners” in the anti–sweat movement, suggesting that their activism is more union–directed protectionism than human rights advocacy. Seems a strange way to market an “alternative” sneaker but, since he induced some backer to stump up half a million dollars for the project, we should see something from Lasn fairly soon.

Besides getting a some encouragement from consumers, NoSweatShop.com is happy to report that we’ve received support from the AFL–CIO. This is significant because we have never approached this as a Made–in–USA operation. From the beginning, the idea was to challenge the big brands on their own turf, sourcing from any union shops that might be operating (against all odds!) in the corrupt and repressive nations that seem to be doing all the garment work these days. Recently, Stephen Coats, executive director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project, has been nudging us toward a couple of factories in Honduras and one in El Salvador. (Sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep abreast of this and other “ethical sourcing” challenges.)
the decline of consumers’ influence

Budman’s callous outburst would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. In the early Seventies, apparel workers had won some measure of justice, due to the diligence of three generations of needletrades union activists. I was privileged to get an inside view as the coordinator of “student support” during the Farah Pants Boycott. What impressed me was that the “union label” staff of the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers had some of the union’s brightest lights and a budget sufficient to keep the industry somewhat in line. It was, I would learn much later, the only way to protect hard–won gains.

Over at the Ladies’ Garment Workers, the same ethos seemed to apply. I’ll never forget watching Johnny Carson as a kid and, whenever unions were mentioned, Doc Severinsen’s band would strike up, “Look for The Union Label”. This wasn’t some ditty that was penned by a sympathetic do–gooder — it was from Madison Avenue. Similarly, when Sally Field won the Academy Award for her portrayal of the J.P. Stevens sweatshop worker, the ACTWU hired a professional agency to get the REAL Norma Rae (Crystal Lee Sutton) booked onto local TV talk shows across the nation. But, as membership dwindled (I was in the Organizing Dept. of the Textile Workers when the union was losing 4,000 members per month), less money could be devoted to these tactics. By the time Harvard Business Review was lauding Phil Knight’s “hollow corporation” model in the mid–80s, things had hit bottom in the U.S.

Item: State Department of Labor and Industry figures from 2002 show Pennsylvania’s textile industry peaked in 1966, with 185,000 jobs across the state. In 2002 there were 26,000 jobs remaining.

It may be possible for unions to win back back some influence over the industry, but only if consumer sentiment can again be put into play. After four years in Indonesia, I thought I had found the “magic bullet” — Nike’s contractors there had pushed things down below any reasonable limit. The first strike that I read about in the Indonesian press was over a 2 1/2 cent–a–day pay cut at a factory producing for Nike and Reebok. This was when the minimum wage was 86 cents a day and the government of Indonesia’s own “minimum physical needs” figure was $1.30/day for a single adult. Wouldn’t consumers be outraged to hear that their $70 sneakers had labor cost of about 90 cents and workers were slapped around and sexually harassed to boot? Yes, consumers were angry and, several years after my article in Harper’s (an annotation of an Indonesian worker’s wage stub), some professor that analyzes web activism counted over a million anti–Nike web pages (pages, not sites).

However, we failed to harness that outrage to force meaningful changes–chief among them, collective bargaining rights. It didn’t help, of course, when Clinton convened the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP), a talk–shop that should have followed the pattern of the panel on race relations: a few resume–padding appointments, some medium–profile discussions and the issuance of a bland report. The AIP, however, would not go away, effectively neutralizing the unions that had the chance — however slim — of getting consumers back in the game.

A year after consumer outrage had subsided, the Partnership morphed into the Fair Labor Association (FLA); the unions and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility departed, at this point, but it mattered little, since the sweatshop firms had changed the media frame from “abusive contractors in repressive countries” to “look at what we are doing with our Code of Conduct”. A Patagonia representative present at the creation of the FLA told Nike’s hometown newspaper that it was Nike’s smarmy trade lobbyist in Washington, Brad Figel, that “kept everyone at the table” when Clinton’s initiative was dying from lack of interest (of course, no other company needed the cover the way Nike did). Anyway, all you need to know about the FLA is that Nike gave it an extra $1.5 million last year — when it settled the Kasky corporate–right–to–lie case. [see Mokhiber and Weissman on this travesty.]

Demise of the boycott

There are a host of reasons why the apparel industry is not intimidated by threats of boycott anymore. Three of the most significant are the shift to “contracting–out”, the conservative court climate and the declining importance of “main street” department stores. While “contracting–out” initially made companies more vulnerable — since they had ceded direct control over wages and working conditions — they soon cobbled together the “Code of Conduct for suppliers” dodge. A compliant commercial media helped this along, well illustrated by the faux NGO founded by Nike, Mattel, the World Bank, the MacArthur Foundation and the head of the Financial Times. The FT published several glowing articles about the activities of the group, never interviewing critics, of course.

Regarding the courts, while the unions and consumer groups have the right to do informational leafleting to pressure companies, most of these groups’ lawyers will tell you privately that they counsel against this tactic because they fear that the retail industry is ready to challenge this consumer–information strategy and take it all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, in the mid–20th Century, retailers in the rust–belt genuinely feared pickets out in front of stores. That gave workers workers clout. The great majority of shopping is now done at stores safely ensconced in shopping malls (not free–speech–friendly places), from catalogs, or on web–sites where consumers cannot even see country–of–origin labels; consumer activists have nearly lost this important weapon.

Jeff Ballinger is the director of Press for Change and co-founded NoSweatShop.com.

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