Nike recently announced that they’re bringing out a line of “Exeter Edition” sneakers to commemorate their old plant in Exeter, New Hampshire. According to our local paper, my fellow Granite Staters are quite pleased. After all, Nike was born in Exeter.
Well, sort of. The company’s founders, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, opened Blue Ribbon Sports in Oregon in the 1960s. They sold Japanese sneakers out of the trunk of Knight’s car. Then, in 1974, they decided to get into the manufacturing game. They established their first plant in Exeter and renamed the company Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory. The rest is history.
The good people of New Hampshire are touched that Nike is “going back to its roots” (that inevitable phrase). And far be it from me to rain on their parade. But I won’t be buying a pair.
Nike shut down the Exeter factory in 1983. They’d quickly become one of the largest employers in town and devastated the local economy when they moved out. Phil Knight announced the decision was made “to balance production capability with sales and to reduce product costs.” In other words, they wanted to maximize profits by paying their workers less.
Of course, it didn’t end there. “Nike will consolidate all domestic footwear production into its Saco-Sanford, Maine, facilities,” Knight went on to explain. Yep: The Maine plants also closed two years later.
Because American workers are entitled to a safe workplace, a minimum wage, and other such luxuries, Nike shifted its manufacturing base to more employer-friendly countries like communist China. Thus began Nike’s transition to one of the most infamous employers of sweatshop labor since the Victorian Age.
So, it’s nice that the company is getting back to its roots. But there’s also something insulting about Nike selling out their American workers and then bringing out a new, foreign-made shoe to “commemorate” the communities they destroyed. “Honor the thousands of New England towns we plunged into chronic poverty by buying this ugly sneaker! Look—it’s green, like the Merrimac River, where we dumped chemicals for decades before giving your grandpa’s job to some Vietnamese wage-slave!”
Of course, Nike’s not the only offender. Less than 100 years ago, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was called the “Queen Slipper City” because it produced 10 percent of the shoes worn by the American people. My own ancestors worked in those shoe mills. It was such an important manufacturing center that Hitler put Haverhill on his short-list of American towns to blitz once the Third Reich conquered Europe.
After the war, however, those mill owners realized they could make shoes much more cheaply by moving their factories to the Far East. They achieved what Hitler never could—they devastated Haverhill. Today, it’s in the top third of the most dangerous cities in America. In downtown Haverhill, the poverty rate is over 30 percent. Nearby in Lawrence and Lowell (also former mill towns) it’s over 50 percent. That’s not to mention Exeter, Nashua, and Manchester in New Hampshire, where my family now lives.
Nike’s executive chairman Mark Parker, who resigned early last year, joined the company in Exeter in the late ’70s. His salary peaked at $47.6 million in 2016 but, due to falling sales, he was forced to take a pay cut. In 2017, Mr. Parker received a measly $13.9 million. Still, the company appears to be doing pretty well. With net income in excess of $2 billion, maybe Nike could honor the towns they screwed over by opening up a few new plants here. Just a thought.
Bear this in mind the next time some “populist” Republican takes a swing at “East Coast elites.” Most of us aren’t Ivy League doyens who wear Nantucket reds as we sail around the Cape. Take a stroll through Haverhill, Massachusetts, or Manchester, New Hampshire. They’re suffering, no less than Detroit or Cleveland. Why do these populist Republicans—these would-be champions of the American worker—never talk about the New England Rust Belt?
I’d like nothing more than for the Republicans to become a blue-collar party, but I also wouldn’t be the first to point out that they are doing a horrible job of standing up for workers’ interests. They summarily rejected Mitt Romney’s child tax credit, saying that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.” All right, fine. But they also refuse to support unionization at Amazon, the second-largest employer in the United States by a country mile. Where are those well-paying jobs supposed to come from, guys?
Still, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At least for a while. Men like Sens. Rubio and Hawley are making up the language of populism as they go along. They’re still much more fluent in Reaganism: Giving government money to struggling families is welfare, period; jobs are good, but unions are bad; while poor folks from Michigan who vote for Gretchen Whitmer are simply ignorant of their own interests, poor folks from Massachusetts who vote for Elizabeth Warren are entitled socialist elites. Why? Because Michigan is in the Midwest and Massachusetts is on the East Coast. Of course! What more is there to say?
I’m all for quoting Leo XIII. I’d love for the GOP to embrace a “both pro-family, pro-work” line. Let’s do it! But start by recognizing that Nike’s sins run deeper than hiring some woke quarterback to model their crappy sneakers. Let’s agree that Amazon has a deeper obligation to workers, and that two-day shipping doesn’t justify Amazon depriving their employees of basic labor rights. And let’s stop pretending that everyone who lives north of Raleigh is a doctrinaire Marxist who wants AOC to make it illegal for cows to pass gas.
Shut up about “East Coast elites.” It’s just as insulting and narrow-minded as those Dems who lecture West Virginia coal miners about their “white privilege.” Govern for the good of the whole country. That’s your job.
And, please, shut up about your multiracial working-class coalition. You can’t tweet it into existence. You have to build it. Go talk to folks who live in Detroit and Cleveland. Meet the people of Nashua and Haverhill. Ask them what they need from their elected officials. I wouldn’t be surprised if “cancel culture” doesn’t come up at first pass.
If those folks are unemployed or underemployed, ask them why. Is it because the only businesses in their neighborhood are Cumberland Farms and Little Caesars? Have there been no decent jobs since the mills closed a hundred years ago? Then fight to bring manufacturing back to those middle-sized towns, as Donald Trump promised to do in 2016. (Gosh, those were the days…) Raise tariffs on companies that outsource jobs. Offer tax breaks to those who come back.
Then, ask those families what they need to tide them over while you find them work. Would a Romney-style tax credit help them put food on the table? Then forget all the crap by Mises and Hayek you read for your Republican Study Committee meetings. Middle Americans are hurting because corporations like Nike stole their jobs and sent them overseas.
Remember: People don’t exist to serve markets. Markets exist to serve people. Sure, the mom with five kids and no husband might’ve made some bad choices in her life, but she’s not the villain here. If the best you can give her is a lecture on chastity, she’s going to keep voting Democrat. Republicans have been gung-ho about the disenfranchisement of the American worker since Dick Nixon wrapped Chairman Mao in his sweaty embrace. Here’s a tip for the GOP if they want to win blue-collar votes: Whatever you’ve been doing up till now, do the opposite.
Michael Warren Davis is the author of the forthcoming book The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).