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$2/day pay for $70 sneakers = Nike's $7M

From a talk by Elizabeth McLaughlin at an anti-Nike protest at UNC-Chapel Hill, November 7, 1997


There's a lot to this problem, and we'll hear other people speak here today some of those parts; like what it means toby contracthave a giant corporation, owned by a handful of very rich men, now owning advertising and supply rights to public university athletic teams across the country. Or: what it means to have the chancellor of this public university shake hands on that contract the same chancellor who refuses to abide by a contract he signed with workers at this university a contract that would give workers here a chance to improve wages and working conditions and fight against privatization of their jobs.

I'm a socialist, and there's one part of this that we in the Carolina Socialist Forum feel is key a part that we all need to understand:

We're out here today to speak out against Nike. But this isn't about one bad corporation doing bad things to its workers in Asia.

This isn't just about Nike exploiting workers for a profit, because there's not a corporation out there that doesn't exploit its workers be they here in NC or in Southeast Asia. You can't be a capitalist corporation without exploiting your workers: that is how capitalism works, folks, and we must understand this good if this speak-out today is to have real power, real depth.

Capitalism is a system in which a minority of people own all the land, factories, equipment, so that those who are not owners have only their labor to sell in order to survive.

Of course, without the workers, the athletic gear wouldn't get made, the dorms wouldn't get cleaned, etc. So why are the producersthe workers poor while the owners, the CEOs get richer and richer? How does Nike get $7 million to buy off this university? By stealing the value of labor. The math is easy: you pay a worker some $2/day, that worker produces so many hundred shoes/day, you sell the shoes for $70/pair. The lower the cost of labor, the bigger the CEOs profit. That's where the $7 million comes from.

And that's why corporations like Nike move factories to places where people are so poor, so deprived of the ability to survive without selling their labor, that they'll work under prison-like conditions for $2/day. These corporations wouldn't be able to make such profits if they were forced to use US or European labor, because people heremost anyway don't have to work for $2/day. In other words, to make the same profit they're making off of so-called Third World labor, Nike would have to charge over $400 for a pair of their shoes if produced here of in Europe. Then who would buy their stuff? Very few people. We'd be in a depression if this went on in the other industries that have moved production across borders.

Don't misunderstand, either: these corporations are not providing Third World workers with an opportunity to earn enough money to survive. Be clear about the reality: these corporations are paying the lowest wages they can to build wealth for a few by perpetuating unbelievable poverty full-time workers living in cardboard huts kind of poverty. I just read an interview with the general counsel for Liz Claiborne, who was appointed spokesperson for the corporations involved in Clinton's Task Force to End Sweatshop Abuses. This group was supposed to come up with the Code of Conduct we've all been hearing about. Anyway, this woman, the lead lawyer in this group, tells this corporate law journal that when the labor rights organizations in the Task Force requested that a living wage be part of the Code, the corporations said Absolutely not! We will not pay a living wage! In fact, they wouldn't even acknowledge that wages are essential to meeting employees' basic needs. (See American Lawyers Corporate Counsel Magazine, August 1997).

No we're wasting our energy trying to get a corporation to pay a fair wage, 'cause there ain't no such thing as a "fair wage." Moreover, our government, which is supposed to protect the public interest, is so run by corporate greed that it makes an agreement like NAFTAputting hundreds of thousands of people here out of work so that a handful of people get rich from enslaving labor elsewhere.

If government won't fix this situation, who will? Ultimately, only workers will they have the power to stop the money-making machine: production. The core problem will be solved when the producers own the factories, the land the means of production.

And how will this come about?

The first step is organizingcross-border organizing, so workers here say No, we won't slave for you to get rich! And then, when the corporation runs to Mexico, Mexican workers say, "And we won't either!" And Haitian workers say: "Nor will we!" And Indonesian workers say: "Nope, not us either!"

But the first step in organizing is the hardest, because people need to survive in the short term. People are scared of losing the job they have, and plenty of workers have seen their better-than-welfare job go to Mexico or Haiti. Workers on this campus are getting threats that their jobs will be outsourced, privatized which means lower wages and worsened working conditions.

All this makes organizing a fearful thing. Which is why we must all support workers' organizing efforts really support them: by writing letters to the Daily Tar Heel to complain about understaffing in Housekeeping; by protesting the university's plans to outsource the Grounds Department; by joining a movement to change laws in NC that make it impossible for public workers to collectively bargain with their employer. Public workers can lead the way for organizing all workers, and only by organizing can we stop corporations from robbing us of our labor.

Let me end with a quote and you all try to guess who said this:

"Why are there 40 million poor people in America? When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. . . . I am simply saying that, more and more, we've got to ask questions about the whole society. . . . We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring." Dr. Martin Luther King, 1967.

  Elizabeth McLaughlin is a law student at UNC-Chapel Hill and is a part of many struggles for economic and social justice.  

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