Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rosie the Riveter Revisited

Rosie the Riveter is the iconic image of women in the 1940's, venturing out of their domestic life to join the workforce and help their country out in a time of war.  Generations have painted the story with rosy colors, regaling us with tales of women working hard to help manufacture war materials.  Government posters supported the call for women workers and it seemed that both industry and labor were finally in agreement about an issue.  But then the war ended.  And with that millions of women were sent home.  Some continued to work but in more "feminine" positions such as secretarial work. But others retook the mantle of domesticity and married and had children.  What is often left out of studies of this time is that not only did these women marry, but their icon Rosie did too.  Rosie the Riveter and all of labor entered into an unhealthy and dysfunctional marriage with corporate America.  

       Labor and business had never had a good relationship to begin with. Since the Labor movement's inception in the late 1800's, workers have been tirelessly fighting for a safe working environment, reasonable working hours, higher pay, and more benefits.  Nevertheless, these demands, which seem reasonable to our jaded twenty-first century ears, were anathema to the factory owners just a century ago.  The Hay Market Massacre, which is commemorated today, was just one example of police interrupting a peaceful demonstration causing the arrest of Union leaders who were later sentenced solely because of their political beliefs.  Though much improvement has been made in the institution of regulation, too many businesses still fail to see the humanity of the people who work for them.  According to the AFL-CIO’s 18th annual “Death on the Job” report, on an average day, 15 workers lose their lives as a result of workplace injuries and disease, and another 10,959 are injured.  The dysfunctional marriage between labor and capital must be reconciled in order to not only protect the workers but to protect global industry.

       Bill Gates coined the term "creative capitalism" which he defined as "an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities."  The economic crisis we are embroiled in right now and the long-term problems of poverty and powerlessness it can only seek to exacerbate call for innovative solutions that will help both labor AND capital.  Initiatives such as No Sweat, which sources from Unionized factories in places like Bethlehem, in the West Bank Palestine, and the United States, and government initiatives that seek to encourage companies to devote more money to developing products for third world consumers, are steps in the right direction.  But as the rally against protectionism showed, now is not the time to be thinking of a national labor union, but a global workforce.  Labor should not be a burden whose only purpose is to provide a meager paycheck so the worker can put food on the table for his family.  Instead it must be a vehicle for social change by providing people with the resources they need to not only properly provide for their family but also move ahead in life.  As we remember past generations of Union laborers we should not only look back with pride at all they have accomplished but also look forward with hope and energy to all the work we still have to do.  Then perhaps we could finally wed labor and industry in a gown made by Union workers and a tiara sparking with the hope for the future. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

President Slumdog: Posted February 28, 2009 | 11:24 AM (EST) on Huffington Post

The silver screen is both a reflection and window into our collective consciousness. Hollywood has had uncanny interactions with presidential politics since Ronald Reagan failed to get the lead in Casablanca and wound up in the White House instead. No doubt there's a parallel universe in which Reagan landed the part and America had a President Humphrey Bogart.
Barack Obama's life has been touched by a glimmer of glamour since Guess Who's Coming to Dinner -- the 1967 classic about two liberal parents whose daughter brings home a black fiancé that she (like Obama's mama) met at the University of Hawaii.

I've been using my handy cinemascope to see around corners since China Syndrome, a movie about a nuclear power plant meltdown, was released a dozen days before America's worst nuclear accident took place at Three Mile Island. Life imitates art with a vengeance in our brave new world. Just before the Iowa primary last year I was trying hard to come up with a plausible scenario for how a country that was significantly racist, xenophobic, undereducated and overweight could possibly elect a skinny black guy from Harvard named Barack Hussein Obama. My son had my number. "A black sheriff?" he asked, perfectly imitating the line from Blazing Saddles. "In Mel I trust." I replied and never looked back. An audaciously improbable, darkly comic screwball happy ending that was the last best hope for mankind's last best hope winked her most seductive come hither smile. Hither we came.
But Bill Clinton's assertion that the Obama candidacy was a "fairy tale" proved deeply ironic. For all the superficial elements of a fresh prince sweeping America off her feet, it turned out that Obama was the only candidate inhabiting a truly adult narrative. Like the hero of Slumdog Millionaire, his ability to detach himself from the moment and carefully draw upon relevant episodes in his life allows him to serve not merely as protagonist but as his own narrator. This is what empowered him to write his own ticket.

An adult narrative assumes that you are, like everyone else, the hero of your story but also your own worst enemy. That every antagonist you have is someone you've antagonized. From this perspective, there are no good guys or bad guys, just more or less well intentioned people who are more or less confused. This detachment from his own narrative allows Obama to read each would-be adversary like a book and recruit them into supporting roles, willingly or not. See the unbridled ambition and narcissism of the Clintons harnessed to the Obama chariot. Our new president gets to focus 100% on the economy while maintaining a very formidable and public presence abroad. And by practically designating Hillary heir apparent, Obama made her the most forceful secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, enhanced but unencumbered by Bill's back channel relationships. See the congressional Republicans rise to the bait and assume the role of perfect obstructionist foils. Watch him appear so resistant to nationalization that even Alan Greenspan is begging for it! Obama will nationalize the banks after he's made it absolutely clear to all that he really doesn't want to get thrown into that briar patch. And if John McCain wants to be an asshole to him--well, even the president needs a perfect asshole.

The left worries about Obama for obvious reasons. He knows their narrative backwards and forwards but remains detached even as he embodies it. Democrats have certainly had their share of vacillators-in-chief with Clinton and Carter. There are pronouncements of this administration that to a jaded left ear might sound like déjà vu all over again.

To best see Obama's future, read his past. He defied all probability when he became a community organizer, settled into south-side Chicago and embraced an African American identity; in many ways the available identity most foreign to his own. But even so, he embraced it as being emblematic of the American identity, the poor, tired and huddled masses longing to be free; the essence of the American promise, not the exception. Obama is the brother from another planet. It is written and it's being produced.He'll carefully consider every alternate narrative there is, first. But in the end it will be change we can believe in. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is a Sweatshop Better Than Nothing? Published: January 18, 2009

Re “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream” (column, Jan. 15):

Nicholas D. Kristof is absolutely right. Sweatshops are much better than a sharp stick in the eye. But when jobs aren’t a pathway out of poverty, they create an asymmetric, unsustainable global economy of producer countries and consumer countries that can stand on its head only so long.

In fact, the sweatshop workers of China were the canary in the coal mine, the starting point in a vicious circle that has impoverished us all.

A managerial ethos that tolerates the exploitation of workers in sweatshops won’t hesitate to exploit consumers with deceptive mortgages and melamine-tainted milk and, finally, bilk investors with bogus “securities.”

The neoliberal daydream of sweatshops leading inevitably to a prosperous future has brought us to our current global nightmare. It’s time to wake up. An injury to one is truly an injury to all.

Adam Neiman
Boston, Jan.

15, 2009

The writer is the founder and chief executive of No Sweat Apparel, producer of union-made clothing and sneakers in the United States, Canada and the developing world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Obama and the Jewish Question

Obama’s election was liberating in many ways for all of us. For me, as an American Jew, there was a surprise. I had long held a secret resentment of African Americans, secret even from myself.

I grew up in Georgia during the civil rights movement. My mother was critically involved in the desegregation of the Atlanta school system. I befriended the first black kids to enter my elementary school – and was beat up for it, too. I’ve had close black friends throughout my life. As a Jew, I felt empathy for a brutally oppressed minority, not guilt. And yet there was something that held me back from fully absorbing the African American narrative. Oh, I knew my own racism, had confronted it and wrestled with it. When Barack Obama was elected it dawned on me. There was something else here besides racism. It was narcissism. Here, in the new world, it wasn’t all about us, the Jews.

In the old world it really was all about us--God’s chosen people. From Pharaoh’s Egypt to Hitler’s Germany, through the Babylonians and the Greeks, the Roman Empire to Mohammed and the rise of Islam and the Crusades, to 1492, when Columbus sailed and our expulsion from Spain began, we were the little bit of yeast that Western Civilization got a rise out of stomping on. Every religious war, every conspiracy of Jews and Masons, communists and bankers and elders of Zion, at every turn- there we were. Oh sure, there was a Greek narrative, a Roman narrative, a Spanish narrative, a French narrative, an English narrative and so on. Each, in their brief time, absolutely convinced it was all about them- that they were the chosen ones. It was the Jewish narrative that connected the dots, that persisted and prevailed. Monotheism? We invented it. Christianity? Invented it. Capitalism? Invented it. Socialism? Invented it. Psychotherapy, relativity, the bomb? Invented it. Gutenberg’s Bible? We wrote the book! We defined Western Civilization and ultimately, in the holocaust, demolished its cherished premise of superiority, of even being civilized at all. And for all the suffering we endured, for all the wisecracks asking why couldn’t God chose someone else just once, we loved it. It validated our absurd sense of self-importance and sustained our narcissism, indeed, our very existence.

Not so in America. Here, from Crispus Attucks to Barack Obama, from the civil war to civil rights, from gospel to Jazz and R&B in all it’s permutations, from Birth of a Nation to the Jazz Singer and beyond, from Jesse Owens to OJ Simpson, the critical narrative thread is black. Yes, there’s a raft of powerful immigrant narratives that make up the gorgeous crazy quilt that is the fabric of American life. Of course there’s the Native American tragedy and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their pioneer saga; the heroic founding fathers—with their dark and dirty secrets. But we cannot even think of the American dream without reference to King’s speech and the parallel nightmare that has been so much of the black experience. What drives the American narrative, what ties it together and gives it a pulse, what defines the relationship between our ideals and our reality in starkest terms of black and white, what makes it compelling and as great as the greatest story ever told is the African American narrative. American Jews have had a wonderful supporting role. We can be proud of the fact that at the moment of truth Jews voted for Barack Hussein Obama by a greater percentage than any other ethnic group in America, except black Americans. The African slaves recognized themselves in us when they first read Exodus. Now, we recognize ourselves in them.

And to every nice Jewish boy suffering from a messiah complex; that secret nagging dread and masochistic desire that the impossible burden of saving this world’s sorry ass from itself will fall on the narrow shoulders of some poor descendant of the House of David who will most likely be crucified for his efforts, I have just one thing to say. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!

Monday, December 8, 2008

This just in after launching our holiday blast. Enjoy a little skirmish from the war on the war on Christmas. Oy.

Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 3:44 PM
From: Jim Kackley;
Subject: Re: Just thought you needed to know.

I received your email and wanted to remind you this isn't just a holiday (holyday), it is CHRISTmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. I support your efforts but don't support the secularization of such an important day.


Jim Kackley
General Manager
Thomson Family Adventures

Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 4:24 PM
From: Adam Neiman
Subject: Re: Just thought you needed to know.

Jim if I were just speaking to Christians, I’d happily refer to Christmas. But many of my customers (and myself) will be celebrating Hanukah and a number of my secular customers will not be celebrating this as a holyday at all. Long before the birth of Jesus this time of darkness was celebrated with light. Could I refer in the email to each person’s particular reasons for celebrating in this season? Sure but it’s not only awkward prose but bad practice. In this time of year it’s best to emphasize our common humanity and what binds us together- not what separates us. It helps us all to love our neighbors- of whatever faith- as ourselves. So that’s how I speak to ALL my customers, Jim but to you, let me wish you a very merry Christmas. Have you had the pleasure of buying any of our Bethlehem T-shirts yet?

most sincerely,


Adam Neiman
617-562-0099 x 206
Cell # 617-686-5434

Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 4:44 PM
From: Jim Kackley;
Subject: Re: Just thought you needed to know.


I couldn't agree and disagree more. On the one hand I am very happy to wish you and my other Jewish friends a Happy Hanukah. I admire your religion and faith. It is the basis for my own. On the other hand I don't find their faith or the faith of my Moslem friends in Tanzania as something that separates them from me. It is who they are and I celebrate that. In places like Tanzania with people of Christian, Moslem and Animist faiths there is no attempt to water down any of the religions as there has been here in the West. We worry so much about offending someone that we loose the true meaning of these Holydays. We haven't removed Lador from the Labor Day celebration or Veterans Day from that celebration. Why should it be OK to eliminate Christ from the Christmas Holiday and change it to Happy Holidays or Merry Xmas. As a Christian who really loves celebrating Passover, I would never want it be called the Happy xover and to remove the Story of Moses and the exodus from the Holyday. I think it would offend me for my Jewish friends. It is an part of who they are.

I realize it is difficult for you as a business manager. There must be a way around this because presently there are a pretty large list of us who are boycotting any stores that refuse to celebrate this as Christmas.

Take care and keep up the good work. I heard about your group from a friend Dan Larner who is committed to your cause.

General Manager
Thomson Family Adventures

From: adam neiman []
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 5:54 PM
From: Adam Neiman
Subject: Re: Just thought you needed to know.

Jim, no offense, but I can’t understand how a Christian could boycott a store for saying happy holiday, but not for using sweatshops! I’ve read the gospels a few times & I don’t see how Jesus would approve (ethically OR tactically) of what your group is doing in his name. He was big on carrots not on sticks, more inclined to honey than to vinegar, at least as I read him. It may be hard for those inside your group to see this, but the seculars love this little conflict. For folks who are agnostics, it reinforces the perception that the religious are fundamentally intolerant and drives many into the arms of atheism when time & patience might well have made them one with the faithful. Let them enjoy the honey, the sweetness of the season- however they can. With time, many will grow curious about the bees that made that honey. The “war on Christmas” and the opposing “war on the ‘war on Christmas’” has become regular fodder for the media to feast on & for a few unscrupulous promoters to make a (minor) fortune & fame off of. It’s not because they favor the faith based. Quite the contrary. There are far better and more urgent battles for Christian soldiers to fight- at least in the mind of this Jewish admirer of your lord, Jesus Christ.

speaking of urgent battles you never answered my question about our Bethlehem Tees, so I assume the answer is “no”. Here’s what my company is doing for the holydays (all of them) this Christmas in Bethlehem. What do you think? I can’t understand why more Christians aren’t interested in THIS. It’s a crying shame that the little town of Bethlehem, that has given the world so much, should be so poor. An honest answer requested. Thanks &

Merry Christmas,

No Sweat Apparel’s organic cotton T-shirts are produced at a sweatshop-free Palestinian owned factory on Virgin Mary Street in Bethlehem. Here’s a link to an al Jazeera segment about the project.

Our Jewish, Israeli & US mainstream press has been just as positive. Apparently we’ve found an elusive piece of common ground- more good jobs for Palestinians in Palestine will help the situation. While economic development is no substitute for a diplomatic settlement, no settlement can survive without a sustainable Palestinian economy. So while waiting for a political resolution we have created a mechanism for ordinary citizens of good faith to build good will on the ground & support the peace to come. We’re marketing these T-shirts wholesale (blank or custom printed) to Jewish, Muslim, Christian & secular schools & camps in the US, Canada & Israel.

The concept is simple. When faced with an apparently irresolvable conflict, if there is any one thing all parties agree on- do that one thing and see what happens.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

To support the Bethlehem initiative go to and pick up the threads.

Sent: Monday, December 08, 2008 9:53 AM
From: Jim Kackley;
Subject: Re: Just thought you needed to know.


I now am beginning to enjoy this because you are putting up reasonable arguments. I will get back to you. I think a lot of my answers will be drawn from the Psalms of David who fought many of these battles in his time.

Take care

Jim Kackley
General Manager

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Back to work....

Well, rapture is all well and good, but in the immortal malaprop of our soon to be ex-president, it doesn't "put food on my family". One friend's comment on this end of the world was "but we're still here!" I said, "That's precisely the point. We're still here but the world is different." As the rabbis said, "When the moshiach comes everything will change but almost imperceptibly." Most Jewish notions about the messiah are very different from most Christian theology, btw. For us this is not a divine figure w/ superhuman powers. Just (JUST!) a rightful and righteous ruler who redeems the nation. Within the realm of the possible but still quite remarkable. But if we really want the 21st century to be a bridge to a millennium of peace and justice we’ll all have to be moshiach for 15 minutes!

A world has ended & with it an ocean of blood money has disappeared. That ugly, accrued American reality that stood in direct contradiction to our ideals. The land stolen from the Indians is now facing foreclosure. The fortunes made from slaves, whale oil, beaver pelts, opium, sweatshops, mines, oil- gone gone gone. Or at least marked down 50%. The miracle is that the reality is going & the ideal remains, stronger and brighter than ever before. Very good for the soul but not so hot for business.

Time to get back to work & try to save my company from this shit storm. Sure is a hard rain that's falling. So are sales. I'm running out of time & money & bright ideas. What would Obama do? Take stock of the situation for starters. What hasn't changed is the enormous mess to clean up, which includes sweatshops, so there's still a good reason for my company to exist.

What has changed is many people's awareness of the consequences of centuries of abusive labor practices and unsustainable consumerism. There's a new generation that feels its power to change the status quo & how easy that can be. No sweat. They don't want their parents' brands- not the Clintons or the McCains. Why should they want the GAP or Nike either? No, they want to be the change they want to see in the world. they want to feel it & breath it & taste it & wear it. Most of all, they want to make it happen.

A big part of Obama's appeal was the way he empowered a generation to make him possible. All the really successful brands of the 21st century - Google, MySpace, Youtube, Facebook- share this quality- they were created by their own consumers. It was what my company tried to do from the start via word of mouse. Necessity was the mother of this invention- we had no budget to advertise & wouldn’t- not if we wanted to pay a living wage & sell a competitively priced product. Before we launched in 2001 we ran a survey asking people if they would forward info about the company to their friends & family. We sent the survey to 1000 email addresses. 12,000 people sent us emails back saying YES we can & will. Then came spam & our marketing medium was shot to hell. New media & social networks- logs, MySpace & Facebook – cropped up in part to shelter their members from spam, at least somewhat. So that’s our medium. The $64,000 question? How to reach out to them w/out spamming them.

Step one. Ask our blogger, MySpace & Facebook friends & affiliates for advice and assistance. Step two? Follow their advice. Comments, anyone?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

With God On Our Side

Forty years from King’s assassination on 4/4 to 4/11 & we get our 44th president. A long march in 4/4 time. From Grant Park in ‘68 to last night, once again, the whole world was watching. The commentators didn’t recognize the orchestral flourish after Obama’s victory speech. It’s Dylan’s great antiwar anthem, with God on Our Side. 1st verse is uncanny on many levels. This & Michele’s black & red rising & setting sundress is a good signal, however cautious a general election campaign they ran, that the Obama presidency will be just as audacious as conceived. So we’ve paid an emperor's ransom to redeem our republic. Good deal. Lost the world to regain our own soul?  That’s my idea of manifest destiny.

"With God On Our Side" (complete lyrics-

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And the land that I live in
Has God on its side.