It came as a shock to labor activists that President Obama chose to make his stand in the current fight for trade negotiating power at Nike headquarters in Oregon, ground zero in the American war over free trade.
WASHINGTON — During years of debate about the costs and benefits of trade, few businesses came to symbolize the dark side of international commerce more than Nike, the multibillion-dollar apparel giant with armies of low-paid factory workers in Asia stitching together Air Jordans.
So it came as a shock to labor activists, and a surprise even to some in his own administration, that President Obama chose to make his stand in the fight for trade negotiating power at Nike headquarters in Oregon, ground zero in the American war over free trade.
At the heart of Obama’s planned visit to Nike’s Beaverton home Friday morning is the larger clash over America’s economic future in the world. Once seen by many as the embodiment of all that was wrong with globalization, Nike maintains it has reformed its practices and become a showcase of the advantages of opening global markets.
Obama in effect will try to convince the country — and his own balky Democratic Party, in particular — that the tides of history have turned on trade and that old nostrums need to be updated.
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As he negotiates a 12-nation Pacific free-trade pact that would be the largest in more than two decades, the president wants to transform Nike from an argument against lowering trade barriers into an argument for it.
The White House has hinted it will have an announcement to make Friday that will serve that goal, perhaps a prediction or commitment by Nike concerning the jobs it will be able to create in the United States if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is ultimately approved.
“It will become much clearer to all of you why this is a useful illustration of the significant economic benefits for the American people and for middle-class families, associated with finalizing and implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters this week.
But liberals and labor activists remain unconvinced. Some plan to protest outside Nike’s headquarters Friday to highlight what they call the company’s continuing exploitation of cheap Asian labor at the expense of American workers.
“Nike epitomizes why disastrous, unfettered free-trade policies during the past four decades have failed American workers, eroded our manufacturing base and increased income and wealth inequality in this country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a letter to Obama this week.
Nike argued that it had learned from its mistakes and moved beyond the practices that drew so much criticism in the 1990s. Further trade liberalization, it added, would be good for American business and workers.
“Our past lessons have fundamentally changed the way we do business,” the company said in an email Thursday. “We’ve made significant improvements and driven positive change for workers in contract factories that make Nike products.”
The company said partnerships with government, unions and nonprofits would lead to systemic change in the industry, and it welcomed worker protections that Obama promises will be included in the Pacific pact.
The president’s trip to Oregon is part of a high-stakes, high-profile push to win what is called fast-track authority from Congress to negotiate trade deals and submit them to lawmakers for up-or-down votes without amendments.
Every president for the past four decades has had such authority at some point while in office, but Obama finds his chances of securing it threatened mainly by fellow Democrats wary of the impact of greater foreign trade on domestic workers.
The Pacific Northwest is important territory for Obama to pick up votes, given that Democrats in the Midwestern industrial states are almost all resolutely opposed.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been a crucial voice favoring trade authority, although he will not appear with the president because of scheduling conflicts, his office said.
White House advisers said Obama’s visit would telegraph wavering Democrats that he would provide political cover if they stood with him. But Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said Obama picked a poor example for his argument.
“We always welcome the president to Oregon,” he said Wednesday. “But it’s unfortunate in this case that he’s coming to promote policies that will be to the detriment of the vast majority of the people of Oregon.”
DeFazio said he respected Nike, but added, “I just disagree with us continuing to facilitate 60-cent-an-hour labor in Vietnam.”
Through much of the 1990s, Nike was an emblem for opponents of greater trade liberalization because it was a pioneer in moving production overseas to countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, where wages are low, work standards lax and enforcement spotty at best.
At one point, Phil Knight, a co-founder of the company and its chairman, even acknowledged that in the public mind its products had “become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse.”
Since then, Nike has worked to raise its standards.
It boasts of being the first company to publicly disclose the names and sites of all the overseas factories it contracts with. It created a factory-performance measurement index that it says elevates labor and environmental standards to equal importance with such measures as quality, cost and delivery.
With $27.8 billion in annual revenue last year and some of the world’s most famous athletes pitching its products, Nike has 26,000 workers in the U.S. and recently created 2,000 new, high-wage positions in Oregon.
But its contract factories employ 1 million workers overseas, about a third of them in Vietnam, who make a fraction of what they would earn in the United States.
Jeff Ballinger, founder of Press for Change, a group fighting sweatshop economics, said Nike hadn’t changed its stripes, citing the case of an Indonesian worker fired in the 1990s who has never been fully compensated.
“Her story, and hundreds like it, makes a mockery of the ‘Nike’s new leaf’ narrative,” Ballinger said.