Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders says U.S. trade policies have failed American workers. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is urging President Barack Obama to cancel a planned visit to Nike’s headquarters over the low wages it pays foreign workers.
Obama is scheduled to travel to the sneaker giant’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters Friday, part of the president’s effort to galvanize support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade deal between the United States and 11 other countries, including Vietnam — where Nike manufactures most of its shoes.
“Given Nike’s legacy of offshoring American jobs and exploiting low-wage workers, I would strongly encourage you to cancel this meeting,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Obama Wednesday. “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.”
The independent senator and Democratic presidential candidate cited a recent study by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights which found that 330,000 workers manufacture Nike products in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is “about 56 cents per hour.”
“If Nike can sell a pair of LeBron XII Elite iD shoes online for $320 in this country, it should be making these shoes and other products here, not in Vietnam or China,” he wrote. “It is no secret why Nike is supporting [the Trans-Pacific Partnership]. [It would] … increase the profits of Nike … but do nothing to encourage Nike to create one manufacturing job in this country.”
President Obama is pressing Congress to give him trade promotion authority, which would “allow the administration to send a final agreement to lawmakers for an up-or-down vote, without amendments.”
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are among the most vocal opponents of such an agreement, which is expected to be brought to the Senate floor next week. On Tuesday, Warren said Obama’s efforts to “fast-track” trade legislation could “tear down” Wall Street oversight.
“A Republican president could easily use a future trade deal to override our domestic financial rules,” she said.
Sanders, of course, is not alone in his criticism of Nike.
“With less than 1 percent of its more than 1 million production jobs located in the United States, Nike perfectly depicts America’s lost-jobs, low-wage future under the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Elizabeth Swager, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, said in a statement.
“Nike is one of the companies that helped perfect the sourcing model that now defines production in footwear and garments and other major light manufacturing sectors,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, told NPR. “And it’s a model based on cheap labor and poor working conditions.”
President Barack Obama — here sporting Nike sneakers — should skip his planned visit to Nike headquarters, Sanders says. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
The Obama administration says the proposed agreement will raise labor standards in the participating countries.
“The president believes that by raising labor standards and raising environmental standards in Southeast Asia principally, but all throughout the Asia Pacific region, that will level the playing field for American businesses,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. “And no longer will companies be able to gain an unfair advantage by capitalizing on those low labor standards.”
But Sanders said he would rather see the Obama’s energy spent creating such jobs for American workers.
“While manufacturing may not be the most glamorous job,” Sanders wrote, “I’m sure there are workers all across America, from Baltimore to Los Angeles to Vermont to Ferguson who would be more than happy to be paid $15-$20 an hour to manufacture the Nike products they buy.”
He added: “If you disregard my advice and happen to go to Nike headquarters, please ask [Nike chairman] Mr. [Phil] Knight when they will begin manufacturing their footwear here in America, and not just in low-wage countries.”
Nike, for its part, disagrees with critics like Sanders.
“We believe trade agreements that encourage free trade allow Nike to do what we do best: innovate, expand our businesses and drive economic growth,” Nike said in a statement to the Oregonian. “Nike supports TPP because it will open global markets and enhance Nike’s ability to compete. We have more than 26,000 employees in the U.S., including more than 8,500 jobs in Oregon, that depend on free trade and our ability to reach athletes in the 190 countries around the world in which we sell our product.“
Sanders, meanwhile, appears to be gaining in early 2016 polls, though he remains far behind Hillary Clinton.
In a Quinnipiac University survey of likely Democratic Iowa caucus participants released Thursday, Clinton leads with 60 percent; Sanders is second, with 15 percent, followed by Vice President Joe Biden (11 percent). The same poll, conducted in February, had Sanders getting just 5 percent of the vote.