Published in the August 23, 2001 issue of the Casco Bay Weekly (Portland, ME)
The Swoosh is Coming!
Demonstrators prepare to protest Nike's annual meeting in Portland and the Center for Cultural Exchange's decision to rent space to the company.
by Elizabeth Reilly
for Cultural Exchange, known for sponsoring hundreds of multicultural
performances, is renting its facilities in Portland to Nike Inc., a
footwear and apparel company known for its exploitation of workers in
sweatshops across the globe, for the corporation's annual shareholders'
meeting on Sept. 17.
The center's decision to do business with the Oregon-based Nike has sparked threats of demonstrations from several groups concerned about the company's record of exploiting Third-World workers.
The center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting cultural awareness by presenting performances of music and dance from a wide range of ethnic and refugee populations. It also rents its facilities in Longfellow Square to outside groups for meetings and events.
Beverly Dacey, the center's finance director, denied the organization had made a deal with Nike, insisting no contract had been signed. But Ken Kunin, the president of the center's board of directors, confirmed that co-director Phyllis O'Neill had committed the function hall for the stockholders' meeting.
"This is certainly not a [center] sponsored event," Kunin said. "It's a private rental of a space that the center maintains.
"Maybe after this meeting takes place, it would make sense for the center to take a look at its policies on private rentals," he added.
Both O'Neill and co-director Bau Graves were unavailable for comment.
According to Nike public relations representative Leslye Mundy, the company is holding the meeting in Maine because of its ownership of Yarmouth-based Cole Haan shoe company.
"We're a global business with global shareholders," Mundy said.
Local labor and human rights activists are already planning to demonstrate outside the center during the meeting to protest Nike's factory conditions.
"Nike is one of the biggest users of Third-World-country sweatshops," said Jack Bussell, an activist associated with Mainers Against Globalization. "I'm sure we'll want to protest [the meeting]. The center should not be holding a function like this. They should be aware of what's going on in the world."
Michael Boyson, a member of the center's board, also holds stock in Nike, and plans to attend the shareholders' meeting. Boyson said he was not involved in the negotiation between the center and Nike.
"I don't have a problem with Nike meeting at the center," he said. "I have confidence in [the center's] staff, and I have confidence in Nike. I know a great deal about the company, and as an individual citizen, I'm all for [the Nike meeting].
According to Nike's 2001 annual report, virtually all of the company's footwear is produced outside the United States, the majority in China (40 percent), with significant amounts in Indonesia (31 percent), Vietnam (13 percent) and Thailand (13 percent). In fiscal year 2001, about 5 percent of Nike apparel was manufactured in the U.S. and the remainder in 28 other countries, including Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and Malaysia.
"We believe that Nike would do well to operate in accordance with Maine values of common decency and basic fairness," said Bjorn Claesson, an organizer of the anti-sweatshop organization called the Maine Clean Clothes Campaign, "and hope that Nike's coming to Maine is a sign that Nike will indeed live up to its commitments to improve conditions for workers that make Nike products,"
Mundy said the company had "made a lot of progress over the past three years with improving working conditions internationally." In 1998, Nike CEO Philip Knight promised to bring "a sea of change" to the company culture.
"We were heartened by his statements," Claesson said in written remarks. "Unfortunately, a recent comprehensive examination of Nike labor practices by the human rights organization Global Exchange during the three years since Mr. Knight made his promises, reveals that Nike still has far to go."
According to a May 2001 report from Global Exchange, "The projects Knight announced have been of little benefit to Nike workers. Nike workers are still forced to work excessive hours in high pressure work environments, are not paid enough to meet the most basic needs of their children, and are subject to harassment, dismissal, and violent intimidation if they try to form unions or tell journalists about labor abuses in their factories."
That record has inflamed activists' passions about the Nike meeting and the center's decision to rent to the company.
"It seems to be kind of insensitive of [the center]," said Scott Miller, director of Peace Action Maine. "[Nike] creates misery for all the people they employ with abject wages and health hazards. The center is there to bring information from different cultures to broaden people's minds, where Nike [creates] very low standards of living across the world. They fracture cultures, and they have no place in the center."
Ned McCann, treasurer of Maine AFL-CIO, is "offended that Nike will be in Maine," and he promised the labor organization's members would turn up for the protest outside the meeting. "Some of us will be there," he said, "and we'll be making some noise."
David Ray, a former member of the center's board and the organization's current lawyer, defended the rental agreement, saying it was a simple business decision. "Some of the things the center does aren't intended to follow its mission," Ray said. "One part of the center is maintaining the rental facility, and the other is to promote our mission."