The Way the World Works

The Nation
July 3, 2000
No. 1, Vol. 271, pg. 8
by Alexander Cockburn

Beset by entirely convincing accusations from Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker that he is a war criminal (Iraq, class of '91), Gen. Barry McCaffrey reached out to human rights groups. David Shull, deputy general counsel and human rights officer at McCaffrey's Office of National Drug Control Policy, sent a fax to six human rights activists asking them to help "discredit the Hersh article from your perspective."

This fax was speedily leaked to the press, thus providing us with one of those indispensable reminders of the way the world works. McCaffrey has been at the heart of a fierce White House campaign to persuade Congress to provide $ 1.7 billion to fight leftist insurgents in Colombia. Isn't it odd to find this apostle of counterinsurgency, an accused war criminal, turning to human rights groups in his hour of need? It turned out that McCaffrey had good reason for optimism in at least one case. Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch/Americas, had concluded (wrongly) that McCaffrey's aid package was bound to clear Congress. The prudent strategy, according to Vivanco, was to install in the bill language insuring that the Colombian military would be forced to respect human rights. Well, if you lived through the eighties and saw how many human rights groups comported themselves in Central America, you know how that sort of story goes. You've guessed it. Human Rights Watch/Americas is claiming significant improvement in devotion to human rights by the Colombian military, and McCaffrey's No. 2 rushes a fax to Vivanco's office requesting that the group bail out his boss on the war crimes charge. There's synergy for you!

One has to be on one's toes at all times, alert to these unnatural unions. There was an affecting moment, back in 1996, when Bill Clinton and Phil Knight of Nike clasped each other warmly in the Rose Garden and hailed the birth of the Apparel Industry Partnership. At his best as always when enjoying consummations, President Bill hailed the partnership as "an unprecedented coming together" of industry, labor, church and human rights groups, united in their resolve to confront the issue of labor exploitation in sweatshops overseas. Companies abiding by a code of conduct would be rewarded with a "No Sweat" label.

Two years rolled by and the Apparel Industry Partnership gave birth to a lovely child, the Fair Labor Association. News stories did not dwell on the fact that the labor rep on the partnership, UNITE, and the largest church group, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, had both quit, protesting the failure of the group to consider the explosive topics of wages and the right to organize.

In fact, the final document laying out the mandate and protocols of the Fair Labor Association was largely drafted by lawyers for Nike and by Michael Posner, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, an outfit whose scrupulous objectivity on issues of corporate responsibility was advertised by the presence on its board at the time of lawyers from Patton, Boggs; Akin Gump; Skadden, Arps; Williams and Connolly; Arnold and Porter. Further luster was added by the presence on the Lawyers Committee advisory board of reps from Reebok, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Disney.

The drafters did their work well. Information on overseas factories would be kept secret. Better still, a company could win a "No Sweat" endorsement for one product, even if 95 percent of its total output was put together in a slave camp.

Twenty months have rolled by since the Fair Labor Association was set up, and they have not been trouble-free for Nike and its campaign to portray itself as zealous custodian of workers' interests, although you wouldn't know this from the FLA. Indeed, the very fact that one could hear nothing disobliging about Nike from the FLA prompted students across the country to protest involvement by their universities with the association. Among those students was a group at the University of Oregon. When Knight heard this he withdrew a $ 30 million donation to the U of O, prompting the school president, Dave Frohnmayer, to issue repeated descriptions of Nike as a "world leader" in promoting fair labor. There are few so eloquent as university presidents when they see bequests slipping through their fingers. The Eugene Weekly, on the other hand, has risen splendidly to the occasion with a fine resume by Alan Pittman of Nike's recent outrageous conduct and PR gyrations.

In April a coalition of fair labor groups put out a report about terrible working conditions at Nike contract factories in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and China. Punishment for minor infractions by workers have included slaps and fines. Some workers have been forced to stand in the sun or run laps round the plant. In Chinese factories there's forced overtime, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. (The coalition's report says Nike has increased China's slice of its overall sneaker production from 10 percent to 40 percent in recent years; a wage of 11 cents an hour is an attractive inducement.)

Let's return now to the Fair Labor Association. Why the silence on Nike? After all, it has not just corporate lawyers but nonprofits on its board: the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the National Consumers League, in addition to the Lawyers Committee. For illumination we can turn to the Washington-based Nonprofit Watch, which tells us that since the formation of the Apparel Industry Partnership there has been a "specific increase in apparel industry companies donating to the group." The National Consumers League gets contributions from companies such as Liz Claiborne. As for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, it has accepted funding from Nike, the Gap and Levi Strauss. Richard Donohue, who has been at various times in his twenty-three-year career at Nike president, chief operating officer and, most recently, vice chairman, has been a a forty-year intimate of the Kennedy family. It's the way of the world. Another sweatshopper, Kathie Lee Gifford, is a Kennedy in-law. We need Marcel Proust to evoke the corruptions of this aristocracy.