Infant Revolution

Nike's labor practices have motivated a wave of youth activism, but where do these children get their ideas?

By Dawn MacKeen
May 29, 1998 9:25PM (UTC)
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They came by the trash bag, old shoes plucked from their dusty
graveyards behind doors, under beds and in the darkest corners of closets.
In the past year, about 200 young adults from the Edenwald Gun Hill
Neighborhood Center in the Bronx have gathered these shoes -- all with the
trademark Nike swoosh -- and returned them to the Nike Town in Manhattan to
protest the athletic company's treatment of its workers. While the shoes
were just a symbolic gesture, the young activists wanted Nike to know that
they will not support a company that allegedly hires even poorer children
than them and then works them in sweatshop conditions. For many it was
their first taste of being political. "We have the power to make or break
this company," 16-year-old Christina Burton says as she and the others are
in the midst of planning yet another shoe return. "If it weren't for the
youth and the
parents who are spending their last money to make their kids happy, they
wouldn't be the sneaker giant that they are."

If it weren't for the youth? Christina's right about that: Nike's core
consumers are from 12 to 22 years old. But just how did she learn this,
and how did other kids, some as young as 6,
become aware of Nike and its alleged child labor indiscretions?
Seven-year-old Joey from San Francisco's Clare Lillienthal Elementary School learned about
the dark side of Nike from his teacher, who wears a "Just Don't Do It"
T-shirt to school, and from another child his age. "They make kids work
for peanuts," he says. "It made me sort of mad at them." Just like that,
Joey decided to not buy Nike shoes. While not as vocal as the Bronx teens,
children across the country have developed strong political views when it
comes to the
swoosh. Waging an unofficial boycott of Nike products, children are
quietly turning away from the latest Air Jordans to buy other brands.


"This is a new phenomenon. Children are discovering that they don't
have to be helpless because they can have an impact by getting together,"
says Janet Nelson, who works on children's rights at UNICEF's Geneva
office. On the international level, children have come together in the
fight against child labor by walking alongside adults in the Global March
Against Child Labour.
Sponsored by more than 1,000 organizations, the
global march is actually four marches -- through Asia,
Africa, Europe and North and South America. All of the marches will
converge in Geneva this weekend for the International Labor Organization's
convention on the most "intolerable" forms of child labor. Ironically, the
conference doesn't single out Nike as a perpetrator of the worst child-labor violations. According to UNICEF, the most egregious forms of child
labor occur not the confines of large multinational companies like
Nike, but in homes where kids are domestic slaves, in businesses where
they're exposed to chemicals, in
brothels where they're forced into prostitution.

But for the last two years, Nike has come under attack from human rights
activists, children's rights advocates and members of Congress for
employing underage workers and operating sweatshops. The accusations have
been so widespread that even the company's chairman and chief executive,
Phil Knight, admitted that the "Nike product has become synonymous with
slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse." So when Knight stepped
forward earlier this month and announced its new corporate policies --
raising the minimum age and improving conditions in its factories -- the
company's critics took credit. And the adult activists are sharing the
credit with the littlest voices of opposition: kids. (The policy raises the
age to 18 for factory workers and 16 for apparel, accessory or equipment
workers; and improves the air quality in overseas factories. While activists
applaud Nike's announcement, some have voiced concern that these may be
hollow promises that will never be fully implemented.)

"Kids haven't had their sense of moral outrage dimmed and when they hear
what Nike's been doing, they're incensed," says Trim Brissell, national
coordinator for Campaign for Labor Rights. "Their first reaction is outrage
and their second is: 'What can we do?'"


Both corporations and their opponents are engaged in the battle for the hearts and minds of America's children.

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For the past three years, Nike entered about 800 classrooms in 10 cities
across the country. The program was ostensibly designed to teach schoolchildren about the environment: In Nike's "Air-to-Earth" lesson plan, for example, kids
construct a running shoe and learn about what goes into manufacturing an
environmentally friendly product. "We're not the only company that provides
curriculum," Nike senior spokesman Vada Manager says. "I think it's
important for companies to let consumers know that the
products they support have an environmental or social dimension."


Manager denies that the "Air-to-Earth" program is a high-minded PR
campaign to offset Nike's growing reputation as an anti-child company, but
he admits that if the subject of child labor comes up in discussion, the
company will use that time to defend its practices. "We have to be vigilant
in speaking directly to consumers about their issues," Manager says.

Campaign for Labor Rights, a Washington, D.C., organization, also has
developed an educational program about Nike and other companies accused of
unethical child labor practices. To teach 4th to 12th grade students in Canada and the
United States about the issue, it sells the
"Global Sweatshop Curriculum Packet," which covers
everything from how much Nike factory workers make a day to the difference
between a minimum wage and a living wage. Although Brissell is quick to
point out that the organization doesn't advocate a boycott or suggest that kids stop buying
products, a question in its material asks: "When you buy a shirt, would it
matter to you if you knew that the workers are locked up in the factory
during the day so they can't get out and they might die if there was a


In a lesson about the difference between campaigns and boycotts, the text
concludes: "As an individual you are going to have to decide for yourself
what is the best way to support these campaigns. Some people decide as
individuals that they will boycott brands which are the focus of a
campaign. Others will write letters to the company."

But when kids tell their parents they disapprove of a product, are they acting out of sincere belief or simply repeating spoon-fed
rhetoric from adults? What came first? The kids' own activism or the
ideologies from adults?

Classrooms have long been target audiences for companies, says Kathleen
Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, because they
can "brand" the children early and instigate spending habits that could last a
lifetime. Lyons believes that special interest groups, such as Campaign for
Labor Rights, are also discovering just how impressionable children are.


"It's not good practice to use students as pawns in a political or
commercial enterprise," Lyons says. "They're trying to promote a point of
view or commercial product to a captive audience. Teachers want to
expose their students to a wide range of ideas, but they also want to expose
them to objective material."

Most educational materials are subject to lengthy approval processes,
with state and local boards of education analyzing the information before it
ever reaches the children. But corporations and
activists are getting around these review processes by shipping information
directly to the classrooms, says Lyons.

Case in point: When Geof Garner taught a lesson from Campaign for Labor Rights' Global Studies
Packet to his high school students, he never had to show the material to an
administrator. He feels justified in using the information as an
educational tool and scoffs at the utopian ideal of a nonbiased classroom.
"I was glad this had an angle and an attitude," he says. "Everything has a
bias; the textbook has an agenda just like this does. So I had no
reservations in using it. The more perspectives, the merrier citizens we
will have," he says. Garner maintains that teachers need the instructional
materials like the Global Studies Packet because many textbooks don't cover
the pressing issues of the day.


UNICEF's Nelson points out that while kids may believe in a cause
wholeheartedly, they sometimes need the help of adults to learn how to
contact the press, to organize, to make their voices heard. Whether
children have the necessary experience and access to information to make
informed decisions remains in question. But in a country where many adults
take less and less interest in public citizenship, children, with
their fierce passion for fairness, may be the last bastion of moral engagement.

Although Christina, the 16-year-old activist, originally heard about the
Nike controversy from the social workers at her community center, she
maintains that it was her own compassion that motivated her to get
involved. "It's a moral issue; it's clear to me that what's going on in
these countries is not right," she says. Her voice cracks as she grapples
with how to express her conviction, and then she begins to cry. "When I see
the hungry people in Somalia, I just cry. I see them on TV and it does
something to me. I just want to help out everybody -- regardless of race or

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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