Right till the end of January, Dita Sari, an Indonesian in her late 20s, was preparing to fly from her home near Jakarta to Salt Lake City to bask in the admiration of assorted do-gooders and celebrities mustered by the public relations department of Reebok for its thirteenth annual Human Rights Awards, overseen by a board including Jimmy Carter and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Make no mistake, the folks--usually somewhere between four and six--getting these annual Reebok awards have all been fine organizers and activists, committed to working for minorities, the disfranchised, the disabled, the underdogs in our wicked world.
Dita Sari's plan was to proceed to the podium in the Capitol Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, on February 7, and then, when offered the human rights award, reject it.
Now, this annual Reebok ceremony isn't up there with the Nobels, or the genius grants from MacArthur. Despite Reebok's best efforts, it's definitely a second-tier event. Nonetheless, it has paid off for Reebok. Says Jeff Ballinger, an antisweatshop activist who's organized with shoe workers in Indonesia for the past thirteen years, "With this kind of ceremony, Reebok gets its name into respectable company. When they give a prize to someone like Julie Su, a lawyer for immigrant workers in California, people who wouldn't be seen dead in Nikes are impressed."
Dita Sari got picked by Reebok's judges because she defied her government on the issue of independent trade unions. In her own words: "In 1995, I was arrested and tortured by the police, after leading a strike of 5,000 workers of Indoshoes Inti Industry. They demanded an increase of their wages (they were paid only US $1 for working eight hours a day), and maternity leave as well. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes of Reebok and Adidas."
She got out of prison in 1999. Since then she's been building a union in plants across Java. It was there that she got a good look at Reebok's contractors, the underbosses of all the apparel, footwear, computer and toy companies. These contractors run their plants in a notoriously harsh manner.
Reebok's flacks can brandish armloads of studies, codes, monitoring reports, guidelines and kindred matter, all attesting to the company's dedication to fair treatment of anyone making consumer items with the name Reebok printed on them. But nothing has really changed. "We've created a cottage industry of monitors and inspectors and drafters of codes," Ballinger says, "but all these workers ever wanted was to sit down in dignity and negotiate with their bosses, and this has never happened."
Due in large part to the efforts of the workers and Western allies like Ballinger's Press for Change, the daily wage in Indonesia actually went up more than 300 percent between 1990 and 1997, at which point the Asian economic crisis struck. Inflation wiped out all those gains. Workers' daily pay is now half what it was before the crisis hit.
These were the points Dita Sari was going to make when she got to Salt Lake City. Then she learned that Reebok intended to schedule her and other recipients for some public events before the actual award ceremony. Rather than let Reebok benefit in any way from her presence, Dita Sari pulled the plug and at last word is in Jakarta trying to raise relief money for workers left destitute by the worst flooding in decades. She's sent the speech she was planning to give at the awards:
I have taken this award into very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this....
In Indonesia, there are five Reebok companies. Eighty percent of the workers are women. All companies are sub-contracted, often by South Korean companies such as Dung Jo and Tong Yang. Since the workers can only get around $1.50 a day, they then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children. At the same time, Reebok collected millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award.
But isn't Reebok at least trying to do something decent? The way Dita Sari sees things, the attempt is phony. All the awards in the world--all the window dressing with Desmond Tutu, Carly Simon, Sting, Robert Redford--doesn't alter the basic fact that workers in the Third World are being paid the absolute minimum to make a very profitable product. The labor cost of a $70 pair of sneakers made in China, Vietnam or Indonesia is $1 or less.
Is there such a thing as a virtuous sneaker? Ballinger cites Bata, a Toronto-based company that runs its own factory in Jakarta. Its executives sat down with the union and worked out a contract with significant improvements on issues that employees care about greatly, like seniority. Though the margin has fallen recently, wage scales are better than minimum. Instances of bullying and intimidation are far fewer. Bata's shoes are sold in Indonesia for what an Indonesian can afford: $10 or less.
Ten years ago another courageous Indonesian, Teten Masduki, was asked by the Levi Strauss company to broker a clinic to be built near a contractor's factory. Teten, uncompromising labor advocate that he is, refused, even though the assignment would have made him a local hero. His reason: a clinic wouldn't give the workers what they need, a voice, the power to bargain.
Teten Masduki and Dita Sari see the world clearly, a lot more clearly than the celebrities and activists massed at such events as the one organized by Reebok in Salt Lake City, which is already awash with Olympian bunkum about human brotherhood. Dita Sari turned down $50,000 from Reebok. Teten Masduki turned down a tempting position with Levi Strauss. These days he's been responsible for chasing out a corrupt attorney general from his post as head of Indonesia's Corruption Watch. Do-gooders should study these fine examples and stiffen their spines.
In the wake of losses before and after September 11, labor unions gear up for the next tough fights.
The AFL-CIO is fighting two wars: standing with President Bush in the war on terror, and against him in his war against workers.
The fighters are powerless workers in need of rights and justice.
The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center led journalists and image-makers to rediscover New York's working class. In an extraordinary essay in Business Week titled "Real Masters of the Universe," Bruce Nussbaum noted that during the rescue effort, "big, beefy working-class guys became heroes once again, replacing the telegenic financial analysts and techno-billionaires who once had held the nation in thrall." Nussbaum fulsomely praised "men and women making 40 grand a year...risking their own lives--to save investment bankers and traders making 10 times that amount." In The New York Times Magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg, describing the construction workers who formed the second wave of rescuers, wrote, "A city of unsoiled and unroughened hands has learned to love a class of laborers it once tried hard not to notice."
Until September 11, working-class New Yorkers had disappeared from public portrayals and mental maps of Gotham. This contrasted sharply with the more distant past. When World War II ended, New York was palpably a working-class city. Within easy walking distance of what we now call ground zero were myriad sites of blue-collar labor, from a cigarette factory on Water Street to hundreds of small printing firms, to docks where longshoremen unloaded products from around the world, to commodity markets where the ownership of goods like coffee was not only exchanged, but the products themselves were stored and processed.
Much of what made post-World War II New York great came from the influence of its working class. Workers and their families helped pattern the fabric of the city with their culture, style and worldview. Through political and ethnic organizations, tenant and neighborhood associations and, above all, unions they helped create a social-democratic polity unique in the country in its ambition and achievements. New York City became a laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality and popular access to culture and education.
Over time, though, the influence and social presence of working-class New Yorkers faded, as manufacturing jobs disappeared, suburbanization dispersed city residents and anti-Communism made the language of class unacceptable. Then came the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which saw a rapid shift of power to the corporate and banking elite. When the city recovered, with an economy and culture ever more skewed toward a narrow but enormously profitable financial sector, working-class New York seemed bleached out by the white light of new money.
The September 11 attack and the response to it have once again made working-class New Yorkers visible and appreciated. Not only were the rescuers working class, but so were most of the victims. They were part of a working class that has changed since 1945, becoming more diverse in occupation, race and ethnicity. Killed that day, along with the fire, police and emergency medical workers, were accountants, clerks, secretaries, restaurant employees, janitors, security guards and electricians. Many financial firm victims, far from being mega-rich, were young traders and technicians, the grunts of the world capital markets.
The newfound appreciation of working-class New York creates an opening for insisting that decisions about rebuilding the city involve all social sectors. Whatever else it was, the World Trade Center was not a complex that grew out of a democratic city-planning process. We need to do better this time. Labor and community groups must be full partners in deciding what should be built and where, how precious public funds are allocated and what kinds of jobs--and job standards--are promoted. Some already have begun pushing for inclusion; others should begin doing so now.
In the coming weeks and months, we need to rethink the economic development strategies of the past half-century, which benefited many New Yorkers but did not serve others well. Might some of the recovery money be better spent on infrastructure support for local manufacturing, rather than on new office towers in lower Manhattan? And perhaps some should go to human capital investment, in schools, public health and much-needed housing, creating a work force and environment that would attract and sustain a variety of economic enterprises.
Winning even a modest voice for working-class New Yorkers in the reconstruction process won't be easy. Already, political and business leaders have called for appointing a rebuilding authority, empowered to circumvent zoning and environmental regulations and normal controls over public spending. The effect would be to deny ordinary citizens any role in shaping the city of the future. As the shameful airline bailout--which allocated no money to laid-off workers--so clearly demonstrated, inside operators with money and connections have the advantage in moments of confusion and urgency.
But altered perceptions of New York may change the usual calculus. On September 11, working-class New Yorkers were the heroes and the victims, giving them a strong moral claim on planning the future. Rightfully, they had that claim on September 10, too, even if few in power acknowledged it. It ought not require mass death to remind us who forms the majority of the city's population and who keeps it functioning, day after day after day.
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