Saturday, July 31, 2010

Political consumption victories in two anti-sweatshop campaigns

Two recent stories that ran in The New York Times detailed victories led by the Workers Rights Consortium and United Students Against Sweatshops in using consumer power to regulate corporate activity.

The first story describes the living wage experiment being conducted by clothing company Knights Apparel in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. The company, which is the leading provider of logo-imprinted apparel to American universities, has promised to pay workers in its factory there wages of $500 a month, triple the prevailing region's rate. The company has also promised to upgrade the facility to improve safety.

The second story describes a much less-willing Nike Inc., which bowing to pressure from several universities and the USAS agreed to provide help for laid-off workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when two of its subcontractors closed their facilities.

Both stories highlight an important aspect of political consumption as I am coming to understand it. Specifically, it seems to work best when organized into some kind of structure through which efforts can organized and deployed.

In the case of Knights Apparel, the corporation works closely with the WRC to certify that workers are treated fairly. Nike, which was founded on the principle of exploiting the value of disaggregated production, had to suffer the threat of economic sanctions in order to do what many consider to be the thing. (Even still, the company disavows any responsibility for ensuring its contractors meet their financial obligations to their workforce.)

But in both cases it was the combined efforts of the WRC, which monitors the production practices of suppliers for 186 universities, and the USAS, which organizes the purchasing power of students across the nation, to muster the critical mass to be effective. Political consumption practiced at an individual appears to be far less so, as many studies have shown.

In a recent article posted on Alternet, John Goekler used the term "constructive networks" to describe new sociopolitical structures he sees emerging from the increasingly inoperative nation-state system. These "post-national" systems are not unlike what others have termed solidarity economies, networks through which mutual interdependence flows outside the formal politics of the state on the one hand and the private sphere on the other, but embracing elements of both. How effective these structures can be over the long run remains to be seen.

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