Nike, according to ancient Greek mythology, was originally the daughter of the goddess Styx. Legend says that Styx brought Nike to Zeus on the eve of the Titan War. Zeus then enlisted Nike as an ally for this titanic battle, appointing her to the position of divine charioteer. She, along with her three siblings and a number of other deities, aided Zeus in his conquest of Mount Olympus. Thus Nike became the symbol of victory, not only in battle, but also in sport for the ancient Greeks, and later the Romans (who would call her Victoria).
Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, cofounders of Nike, Inc. hoped to invoke precisely this legacy of victory and triumph when they adopted the goddess’ name for their fledgling company, initially named Blue Ribbon Sports. The stellar growth that this company has experienced and the seemingly infallible position that it now occupies on the national and world markets–as if it stood upon the very summit of Mount Olympus–towering above the competition, might lead one to suspect that the ancient goddess were still alive today, bestowing her blessings upon the corporation.
However, Nike does not merely tower above its corporate competitors, it stands on the very backs of those millions of voiceless, powerless people condemned to slavery for their mere subsistence. It crushes them beneath its tremendous weight, with no regard for their humanity, disregarding them with the callous carelessness with which one would discard a dented cog.
And yet you already know this. The greedy exploitation and apathetic abuse that sustains Nike’s industry has become common knowledge. The iconic swoosh logo, and certain celebrity names like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, may yet remain as the first images that one associates with the company’s name–but now the images of disheveled, destitute women and children, buried beneath their own bodies, toiling away in the shadows of some squalid sweatshop follow close behind.
Undeniably these images have racked your conscience, and you have vowed to somehow avenge these tormented workers. However, you may have never known quite how to realize your vengeance. Perhaps you have even despaired at the distance that lies between yourself and them. “How could I possibly make any difference in their lives from here?” But justice is determined by action, not distance. King waged war from behind the bars of his jail cell.
And it is now time again for the pen to strike against oppression. In 2000, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national organization of students united around the ideal of humane labor practices, initiated an independent organization dedicated to policing large corporations that frequently employ sweatshop labor as their default means of manufacture. This organization, called the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), was founded by students and their universities, and it is still maintained by the support of these universities along with aid from the federal government and charitable organizations. It is in no way supported by or responsible to profit driven corporations. Accordingly, there are no conflicting interests that prevent it from honestly reporting on these businesses.
Of course, this independence presents a dangerous conflict of interest for Nike, whose only concern is profit, even at the expense of humanity. Nike instead prefers to regulate themselves through the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a seemingly benign organization that claims to have much the same mission as the WRC, which however is funded in part by the very companies it must monitor. As such, it cannot be trusted to remain neutral and honest in its reporting, and thus cannot be trusted to remain faithful to its stated mission. Indeed, the FLA has a well documented history of failing to meet their responsibilities (such documentation can be found on the USAS website). It is no wonder, then, that Nike has failed to continue reporting the locations of their factories to the WRC and has now even begun to blatantly deny the WRC access to those factories.
This in turn creates a serious conflict for Grinnell College. Our institution continues to purchase apparel from Nike, which supplies it with Grinnell-branded apparel, but it is also an affiliate college of the WRC. Without factory locations, the WRC cannot find the factories it is meant to monitor, and of course Nike’s denial to allow the WRC to inspect their factories directly impedes the WRC’s objective. But because Grinnell is affiliated with both the WRC and Nike, it is in a unique position of power. It can push Nike to uphold its obligations to the WRC by providing them information on the location of their factories, and permission to then inspect those factories for human rights violations. Both of these actions are mere requisites of the obligation that Nike has to the WRC through its relations with Grinnell, a WRC-affiliated institution
But Grinnell College will remain complicit in its partnership with Nike unless it is pressured by us, the students, to retaliate. Grinnell Students Against Sweatshops (GSAS), a chapter of USAS has thus begun a campaign to build student support of the WRC and their battle against Nike, and then to demonstrate this support to the college so that it will act swiftly and decisively against Nike. We met with the Grinnell Apparel Committee earlier this semester on March 15 to discuss their business relations with Nike in the hopes that they would stand with us in pressuring the corporation to comply with the WRC. The committee was largely sympathetic to our demands. They helped us draft a letter to Nike asking for a response within sixty days and threatening to escalate our retaliation even to the point of ending all business with them. In the mean time it is imperative that students continue to show that they stand in solidarity against Nike and their refusal to maintain the well being of their workers.
We have drafted a petition which students can sign: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1rPBdFFu9WiV-He0KmX51LEBr4jMHECM4vACo4X6ZnVo/viewform?ths=true&edit_requested=true
We also have a Facebook page, Grinnell Students Against Sweatshops, and there is a campaign page, both of which students can ‘like’ to show their support and stay updated on the campaign. Students can also attend the weekly GSAS meetings in ARH 223 Wednesdays at 6:30 PM.
Only by taking these actions will we, the students of Grinnell College, succeed in upholding basic standards of humane labor, and our institution’s proclaimed commitment to social justice. By supporting GSAS and the WRC in their battle against Nike, we can assist our siblings abroad in their fight for basic human decency against their titanic oppressor.