In 1913, when a member of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations asked him how Pullman porters were supposed to live on $27.50 per month, L.S. Hungerford, Pullman’s general manager, replied: “All I can say is that you can get all the men you require to do the work.” Eighty-five years later, Nike CEO Phil Knight trotted out the same line to a crowd at the National Press Club, who had come to hear him talk about plans to improve labor conditions at contractors’ factories in Indonesia. He cited a report from the field by Jill Ker Conway—the best-selling author, first female president of Smith College, and paid member of Nike’s board. Conway, who was seated on the dais with Knight, had reported that she’d observed over three hundred job applicants lined up outside an Indonesian factory that produced Nike sneakers. As it happened, I knew something about Conway’s report; I had called her shortly after her return from Asia. She freely admitted that she’d been on a Nike-guided tour, and that she had never before spoken with a factory worker in Asia. The workers, she said, “didn’t seem intimidated.” She deemed the working conditions exemplary.
Early this summer, in the depths of Indonesia’s economic crisis, I visited shoe factories in Tangerang and Serang—industrial boom towns about an hour’s drive west of Jakarta. This was not the Nike-guided tour. The workers had many complaints, some of which were the same that I’d heard from their predecessors in the early 1990s, when I was director of the AFL-CIO’s Indonesia office: low pay, abusive treatment from supervisors, inadequate breaks, punishing production quotas. And despite the high hopes of this past spring, President Suharto’s fall has not brought any serious liberalization. In July, the military publicly threatened to “cripple” the independent labor movement led by Muchtar Pakpahan....
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