The Common Good
March-April 1997

M-I-C-K-E-Y, Kathie Lee, and Me

by Julie Polter | March-April 1997

Churches take a stand against sweatshops.

In Haiti, people sew Disney clothing for 28 cents an hour when the prevailing local wage is 58 cents. In the United States, Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, makes $97,000 an hour. In Indonesia, 13-to-15-year-olds work to make products that likely are for sale in a mall near you. In many places around the United States, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, relocated to other places where labor costs are cheaper.

These facts, of course, are all connected. For many people, their share in the global economy isn’t goods and profits, but anxiety, hardship, uncertainty, and a sense of lack of control.

Multinational corporations and free trade are not going away. But might we find the power to help make the local impact of world commerce more benign, so that communities and ordinary people—not just CEOs and stockholders—profit? Church people and others around the country are beginning to try.

In 1995, the National Labor Committee in Support of Worker and Human Rights (NLC) launched a campaign that resulted in The Gap signing an independent monitoring agreement for its plant in El Salvador. Last year Wal-Mart agreed to pull manufacturing of its Kathie Lee Gifford line of clothing from a Honduras factory with abusive conditions.

The most recent campaign, launched late last year, challenged the Disney corporation to withdraw contracts from manufacturers with abusive labor practices, to require contractors to pay a living wage and allow employees the right to organize, and to agree to independent monitoring. Disney was also asked to withdraw from Burma, where half of the profits earned from producing Disney clothing went directly to the repressive Burmese military dictatorship. As a result Disney pledged to pull out of Burma by this past December.

Members of churches and synagogues have been a significant component of each of these campaigns. The People of Faith network, for example, mobilized people in its 2,000 congregations to write letters, visit and call company officials, and organize local demonstrations in front of stores and headquarters. Letters from pastors and church people helped make The Gap officials and Gifford pay attention to the issues they’d raised. The Gap signed its independent monitoring agreement at a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn.

PEOPLE OF FAITH FORMED in 1994 when Rev. David Dyson (a Presbyterian minister and former labor organizer) and other pastors were struck by the way the Republican Contract With America and the Christian Coalition’s Contract With the American Family ignored issues of poverty and racism—and by the mainline religious community’s lack of substantive response to these gaps. They decided, according to Dyson, to mobilize local congregations into a "hard list" with a solid contact in each. In a letter-writing project, he said, they can be counted on for a letter from the pastor on church stationery plus as many as 50 to 60 letters from the congregation.

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC, said that the impact of the People of Faith network is "10 times its size. The churches and synagogues come through with the letters, and companies haven’t figured out a way to write off religious people."

The network also mobilized around church burnings last year. Congregations have worked locally on other issues such as campaign finance reform, public school funding, and St. Paul, Minnesota’s living wage campaign.

The Wal-Mart and The Gap campaigns have in small but not insignificant ways improved work conditions for people in manufacturing plants. They’ve also placed the persistent problem of sweatshops (in the United States and abroad) on the public’s radar. And they show that improving conditions overseas is inextricably linked with preserving U.S. jobs and workers’ rights.

"We don’t want to pull those jobs—those countries need them," Dyson said. "We don’t want Disney to stop making a profit. But they should pay a competitive wage." When companies can with impunity export jobs and pay starvation wages, is it any wonder that the manufacturing base here is sharply declining?

Organizers foresee the Disney campaign being a long haul effort. "Morally we couldn’t be silent any longer about the abuses in labor practices and human rights connected with Disney," said Dyson. "They have taken the gospel of global economy to its lowest common denominator."

There has been progress already. Because of the public scrutiny, Disney has formed an internal international labor standards group to review all of its contracts worldwide and its corporate conduct guidelines. While this internal process is likely to stop short of the standards and stringent grassroots monitoring that the NLC seeks, it is still a victory. "It’s certainly a sign that Disney has been reached," said NLC’s Kernaghan.

Organizers are viewing the Disney campaign as an ongoing opportunity to educate people on global economy issues. The split between haves and have-nots is not merely between the industrialized world and developing world. The United States now has the greatest disparity between rich and poor of the industrialized nations. Knowledge—and action—gives all of us a choice other than apathy or despair.

People of Faith, c/o Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church, 85 S. Oxford St., Brooklyn, NY 11217; (718) 625-7515. National Labor Committee, 275 7th Ave., New York, NY 10001; (212) 242-3002.

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