Taking a Step Ahead for Labor in Union-made Shoes

By Jeffrey Klineman

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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Two decades after a brush with prison turned his loud life into a quiet suburban existence, a former political crusader is suddenly muscling his way back into activism, albeit in a new arena: the sneaker business.

On May 1, “May Day,” Adam C. Neiman, 47, plans to strike a blow for union labor in the apparel industry by unloading his first shipment of “No Sweat” sneakers, a $35 high-top produced at one of the only unionized contracting shops in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Neiman and his partner (and now wife), Natalia Muina, founded No Sweat Apparel in 2002 with the goal of capitalizing on what they saw as a growing awareness of large clothing companies’ willingness to employ so-called sweatshop labor in manufacturing facilities abroad. Another co-founder was Jeffrey Ballinger, a former union organizer who wrote an expose of Nike’s allegedly abusive labor practices for Harper’s Magazine in 1992.

No Sweat’s lines offer a hip take on the old ad campaign that told consumers to “Look for the union label” by guaranteeing that all of its clothing is made in union shops. While its lines have all been produced in the United States or Canada until now, the move into Indonesia is important because it follows the route that much of America’s apparel industry has taken — out of the country and into the Far East, where work is cheaper and less closely regulated than it is domestically. Neiman believes that his company will capitalize on a growing consumer backlash against worker exploitation.

“What we’re producing is just as good as The Gap,” Neiman said over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., where he struggled to find something that accommodated the Passover dietary laws (he is not Orthodox, but is Passover-observant). “We’ll never be as cheap as Target or Wal-Mart, but all things being equal, I believe that most consumers would prefer that the stuff they purchase be ethically produced. What CEOs do is what people want them to do as consumers. If consumers make the right choice, the CEOs will, too.”

Now No Sweat is taking a big step by going after the business that in the minds of many Americans represents the heart of sweatshop labor: athletic shoes. After two years of catalog sales of stock items like T-shirts and yoga pants, Neiman is anticipating the arrival of No Sweat Sneakers as a way of issuing his loudest cry for worker rights to date.

In each box of the shoes, which echo the famous “Chuck Taylor All Star” line of Converse lace-ups, workers have placed a “No Sweat Challenge,” a document listing the wages and benefits of the people who made the shoes that dares larger sneaker manufacturers to match them. According to Neiman, it also forges a bond between the company and its customers, most of whom are likely to be buying the sneakers because of what they themselves believe in.

While unions might not be the most popular groups in America right now, Neiman said, they are certainly more appealing than companies that exploit their workers. The decision to purchase clothing that represents a statement for workers’ rights is one that Neiman believes — and bets his economic future — that consumers will make, even if the clothes cost them a bit more. So far, it seems to be working: The company is projecting gross sales of $1 million this year, a target Neiman believes is a number that will legitimize it in the eyes of potential investors.

Of course, Neiman is fully aware that a small business like his could fail, and he’s made that clear to his customers since November with a message on his Web site (www.nosweatapparel.com) telling them that without new customers, No Sweat could be in jeopardy. “If there isn’t a significant number of progressives who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, yeah, we’ll go under,” he said.

Besides Neiman’s economic future, No Sweat is also a link to his activist past. A campaign operative so young he could have been regarded as a prodigy, Neiman worked full-time on George McGovern’s presidential run at a time when he should have been walking the halls of his high school. He had developed his political sensibilities at the feet of his uncle, Abraham Chayes, a Harvard Law professor who served under John F. Kennedy, and from a socialist grandmother who was an attorney at a time when most of the women working in law offices were either cleaning them or taking dictation.

Neiman chose to attend Harvard in the 1970s, he says, “because they got the most press when they shut the campus down.” But his promise as a liberal activist soon spiraled into a miasma of dismayed idealism, academic failure and a felony count of cocaine possession.

After a year at Harvard, Neiman took a leave of absence to work for the Carter campaign in 1975. But a split in the philosophy of the campaign staff caused him to become disillusioned with the political system, and lost in his academic life.

“I went there very much for politics, and once I dropped out of politics, I didn’t know what I was going to Harvard for anymore,” Neiman said. He left the school in 1979 without graduating, and it was his expired Harvard ID card that he presented to a Cambridge police officer upon his arrest three years later for possession of nearly two ounces of cocaine — enough for a felony count of possession with intent to distribute.

Neiman was sentenced to serve six months of a 30-month sentence, but with his attorney working on an appeal, managed to make bail after just a week of imprisonment. Although that appeal was ultimately denied in 1986, by then Neiman had gotten clean and started a successful business in the roofing trade. A judge suspended the prison time remaining from his first sentence, keeping him in business and out of prison. Life on the edge became life on the roof, and he turned his attention to raising his family in buttoned-down Newton, Mass.

Asked why he would decide to start a company like No Sweat after so many years of working as a quiet businessman, Neiman looks back at his family and the examples they set.

“I wanted to show my kids that it mattered what they did as ordinary people — that ordinary people would and could make a difference,” he said. “I started thinking about it a lot in 2000. My uncle was dying, and he was an ordinary man who’d done extraordinary things. My mother is the same. I believe in the ability of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and I asked myself, how do I show it to my children?”

Neiman said he believes the variety of his experiences has afforded him an understanding about class in America that most CEOs lack, and that is what’s keeping him working to produce his clothes at union-only shops.

“My story is a story of someone who knows all the different elements of class in America well or better than anybody possibly could,” he said. “I’ve been to Harvard and I’ve been to jail. I’ve hitchhiked across America in the cab of a teamster and I’ve ridden in a limo with the next president of the United States. That knowledge of class I think matters a lot, and it’s both brought me to this project and brought a perspective to this project that’s a little different. I don’t have the ‘noblesse oblige’ of a rich liberal. I know that nobody is going to save working people other than working people themselves.”

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