Richard Cole, San Francisco – The multi-billion dollar Nike empire and its muscular sports machine rolled into town Thursday to launch a new store, but instead ran into the city's protest movement and eked out a public relations draw.
Demonstrators carrying giant mock Indonesian shadow puppets gathered outside the new Nike Town super store's media opening to accuse the footwear company of exploiting workers in Asia.
Walter Johnson, head of the San Francisco Labor Council, said he would call on the AFL-CIO to launch a national boycott of Nike products until 25-cent-an-hour wages were raised and conditions improved.
Caught in the crossfire was San Francisco 49ers record-smashing receiver Jerry Rice, who for 12 years has had a contract to promote Nike.
Rice was visibly upset by questions about Nike's factories, saying he had heard of the controversy only when he arrived at the Union Square store Thursday. He finally stalked away from reporters.
"I think it's unfair you guys throwing this in my face," Rice told reporters. "I understand it's a situation that has to be dealt with, but it's also something you have to think about. You can't just respond right off the bat."
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown displayed his political cross-training by sidestepping the controversy after oohing and aahing at the slick, expensive – $79 for a U.S. soccer team shirt – three-story retail store. Brown said he welcomed the jobs Nike was bringing to the city.
"I'd love to have the same thing happen to people all over the world, but my first responsibility is obviously to San Francisco," the mayor said.
Nike spokesman Jim Small defended his company's record, saying Nike pays at least the minimum wage in all its factories, and an average of 50 percent more.
Nike, he noted, is a member of a committee of apparel makers that will make recommendations to President Clinton next month on how to protect overseas employees of U.S. firms.
"Nike will not tolerate the abuse of workers in our facilities," he said. "We care about them."
But union organizers and advocates for Nike workers told a different story outside the Union Square building.
Katie Quan, Northwest regional manager of the garment workers union, said Nike's contractors in Indonesia have consistently fought against efforts to organize their factories.
"The labor leaders there have been fired and imprisoned," Quan said.
Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange organized the protest and contrasted conditions she saw in visits to Indonesia with the plush Union Square environs of Nike Town, which opens Saturday.
Phil Knight, chairman and chief executive officer of Portland, Ore.-based Nike, she noted, is one of the world's richest men.
"Nike sweatshop workers in Indonesia make $2.20 a day – well below the liveable wage, yet Nike continues to pour money into bloated megastores, into its CEO's $5.2 billion hoard, and on multi-million dollar promotional contracts with rich sports stars," Benjamin said.