Levis & Braddock: Exploitation or Visibility?

The billboard is arresting.  As I drive down Boulevard of the Allies, a postwar mini-highway that runs along the south edge of Pittsburgh, I look up at the giant image of six-year-old old Jarral People, an African-American child, adjusting the collar of his dad’s faded denim shirt.  His father, twenty-three year old Anthony Price, is looking down at his son and holding back his own hair—a massive mane of narrow dreads.  They are both beautifully lit in this black and white photo and seemingly caught in a tender family moment.  A caption runs across the photo that says WE ARE ALL WORKERS.  And, in the corner, in red, there is the iconic, 150 year old Levis logo. 

Yes, this is a Levis ad.  And what is more, it was shot in Braddock, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh: a ghost town with 3,000 residents, boarded-up buildings, and crushing poverty—though it was once a thriving metropolis of 20,000.  Levis partnered with Braddock earlier this year to produce a unique and perhaps unprecedented advertising campaign.

According to Levi company press releases, the advertising firm that created Levi’s Go Forth campaign, the Portland based Wieden+Kennedy, noticed a profile of Braddock’s young mayor, John Fetterman, in The Atlantic magazine issue on “25 Brave Thinkers” of 2009.  They approached Fetterman with the idea of making Braddock the centerpiece of their advertising campaign with slogans like “Real People + Real Work = Real Change” and “Everybody’s Work is Equally Important.”  They offered Braddock one million dollars in aid to help with restoring the historic Carnegie Library in Braddock, the Braddock community center, and Braddock’s urban farm. Finally, they partnered with IFC Channel and Sundance to make eleven exquisite “mini-films” about the town, featuring the key development issues in the town.  In return, the people of Braddock would wear the new line of Levis jeans and pose for (and get paid for) photo shoots doing the “real work” of roofing, farming and neighborhood revitalization.


The criticisms of this campaign have been many, loud, and angry.  There are at least three lines of argument against Levis and Fetterman for this partnership. First, from within Braddock itself, veteran filmmaker Tony Buba—who has made Braddock the star of virtually all of his films and political activism for thirty years—complains that few of the models in the Braddock/Levis campaign look like anyone who still lives in Braddock. “I never knew there were that many thin people in Braddock until I watched those spots — or that many people with six-pack abs. You don’t see anybody 300 pounds and wearing a pair of Levi’s jeans walking across the screen.” Another critic of the campaign, long time Braddock City Councilman Jesse Brown, has never been a fan of mayor Fetterman: “Him and I don’t see eye to eye. For some reason he’s come to Braddock which is a predominantly Afro-American community that he seems want to be the– the white savior for this community and I just feel different.”


The second and most frequently voiced criticism of the Levis campaign is that it doesn’t bring any Levis jobs to Braddock—or anywhere else in the United States.  Of the 40 blog sites and news stories that I reviewed about the ad campaign, most excoriated Levis for taking its denim garment production overseas and for cynically using the still-unemployed people of Braddock as models for clothing they probably could never afford without the Levis campaign.


The third criticism of the Braddock campaign focuses on Levis’ treatment of workers in Third World countries.  According to anti-capitalist author and blogger Christopher Lehmann of theawl.com, Levis has suppressed the efforts of its Haitian and Mexican jeans-makers to organize a union, and in Taiwan and Turkey Levis waste chemicals are polluting water and people.  According to the French news show Envoyé Spécial, 44 Turkish workers in a jeans plant have died from silicosis—contracted while using a specific technique to distress Levis and H&M jeans.


These criticisms strike me as enormously valid;  I am especially sickened by the revelation of Levis’ international crimes.  When garment workers are mistreated in places like Lesotho, Taiwan, or factory towns in Egypt and Turkey, it seems clear that leaving worker protections to these individual states is wrong.  I also agree that it would be much better if Levis would commit to bringing “real jobs” to those so-called “real workers” in Braddock.


At the same time—and maybe I was just born with a counter-intuitive brain—I am willing to consider some arguments in favor of the Levis/Braddock partnership.  First of all, the partnership has brought Braddock an avalanche of press and attention.  Googling Levis and Braddock produces nearly a half a million results.  Moreover, most of these blog posts and articles are sympathetic to Braddock’s plight (though not to Fetterman’s Faustian bargain), and they see Braddock as part of a broken system—rather than an isolated case.


Second, some residents of Braddock are grateful for the attention and support that Levis has provided.  Of course, Fetterman is especially articulate on the project’s behalf, but he is not alone.  For example, an African-American Braddock resident, Deanne Dupree, age twenty three, who lost her job as a hospital housekeeper when UPMC closed its Braddock branch earlier this year, was thrilled to model for the Levis campaign: “A lot of people told me I should [go into modeling], but I told them I would need a contact and some money first. I never looked into it until this came along, but now I’m so excited about it.”

Finally, there is the bizarrely radical message of the ads themselves. Certainly no Levis advertising strategist has read In Between Labour and Capital with the seminal essay by Barbara and John Ehrenreich on “The Professional Managerial Class,” but one way to understand Marxist class theory is to believe that “we are all workers.” Even the high-salaried advertisers at Wieden+Kennedy are not “owners.”  And it’s pretty weird having a beautifully shot billboard advertising this fact on the Boulevard of the Allies.  One half of me wants to reject it, for being the apotheosis of cynical corporate marketing—how Levis has turned one of America’s most ravaged landscapes into a surreal branding opportunity.  But part of me is simply stunned by the beauty of the Braddock residents, and what I believe to be the rightness of at least two of the campaign slogans.  Most of us are workers—not owners.  And everyone’s work is equally important.  Now, if only these were the slogans of a progressive political party, instead of Levis.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

Social Media: What Is It Good For?

In June of 2009, a movement of Iranians mobilized to protest the apparent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government moved to suppress dissenting voices by censoring text messages, blogs, and other forms of communication. Observers around the world got excited not only about the prospect of change in Iran but also about the cyber-window through which they could watch the streets teeming with green-garbed, freedom-seeking young Iranians.  Twitter users added green to their profile pictures and retweeted anything about Iran to show solidarity, in the hope that they might play some marginal role in changing the world. The U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to reschedule a system upgrade so as not to disrupt the ability of Iranians to coordinate or broadcast via its network.  In the intervening year, much of the hype surrounding Twitter’s centrality to the revolutionary happenings in Tehran has deflated. After all, as Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor at Global Voices, points out in The Guardian, while “Twitter was important in publicising what was happening . . . the west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology.”

Malcolm Gladwell, writer of best-selling books breaking down the complexities of sociology, took to the pages of The New Yorker this month to poke a few jabs at those who put too much faith in the ability of social media as a force for social change. The article, subtitled “Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” revisits the sit-ins of the 1960s that played a pivotal role in desegregation and the organizational tactics that made them successful. He posits that when we give tools like Facebook and YouTube credit for their roles in popular uprisings, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

In his attempt to contrast mouse-click activism with boots-on-the-ground organizing, Gladwell too often relies on knocking down straw-man social media evangelists to put Facebook and Twitter in their place.  “The evangelists of social media,” he mocks, “seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”  He goes on: “Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.”

Gladwell’s tone seems intended to spark reaction, and it has. Of the many responses, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, writing in AlterNet, perhaps do the best job of course-correcting the topic:

Social networking websites are not a form of organization at all; they are a means of communication. Comparing Twitter to the NAACP is like comparing a telephone to a PTA. They are not the same thing, they don’t perform the same kind of functions and therefore their effectiveness or lack thereof simply can’t be compared.

Gladwell dwells heavily on the “strong ties” of person-to-person relationships that develop in the real world of churches and neighborhoods versus the “weak ties” among those with a common interest in, say, sharing cartoons via email. The former, he asserts, is the only reliable bond for the discipline of activism. Gladwell asks, “Of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?”   Of course, the movement did not coordinate protests only at Sunday morning services. Gladwell touts the alternative transportation organized for the Montgomery bus boycott, but surely such a network might have been easier if the workers needing assistance to get to their jobs could have accessed a website or Facebook network to request a ride?

While getting everyone together in the same room is a core strategy of organizing and motivating, online communication offers an opportunity for sharing information in real time rather than waiting for the next church service or neighborhood potluck. The question is whether such workers can be found on Facebook.

A recent demographic survey of Facebook users reveals 90% to have a high school diploma, though only 21% completed a Bachelors or Graduate degree. 68% earn more than $50,000 annually. If political actors are building consensus from social media users, therefore, they are missing the voices of less educated, lower-income workers. And the workers who are being organized are likely being reached through neighborhood groups.

Farhang Rouhani, in “The Spatial Politics of Leisure: Internet Use and Access in Tehran, Iran,” relates that Internet use in Iran is primarily available in urban areas like Tehran, which is the first accessibility concern. For those with physical access to Internet-enabled venues, “the leisure time to spend an afternoon at a cybercafe is much more a marker of affluence than it is a real possibility for the working class of Tehran, unless the individual happens to be unemployed or underemployed, in which case the monetary question of cost becomes even more significant.”

Assuming workers were among those clashing with security forces on the streets of Tehran, Rouhani’s analysis frowns on the likelihood they were contributing any tweets.

So, about that revolution?  To evaluate the role of social media in activism, we need to do what Gladwell did not: look at contemporary examples where online networking has translated into street-level action. In the summer of 2007, here in Youngstown, the City had drawn up plans to redesign West Federal Street, a main downtown thoroughfare, doing away with tree-lined medians and parallel parking in favor of a more strip-mall feel, with angled parking and no medians. In any other decade, this might have passed without comment in Youngstown. But there was a new secret weapon in play: a listserv hosted by the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), whose headquarters fronted Federal Street. The YBI, which hosted several growing software businesses, and the young professionals in its network, saw attracting people to Federal Street as a key to downtown’s revitalization and viewed the City’s plans with alarm. Using the listserv, a network of 30-40 people shared information about the plans and how to prepare for an upcoming public meeting. An online petition gathered 695 signatures to show the force of the public opposed to the plans, and a small impromptu committee coordinated through email and a few in-person meetings to draft talking points for the campaign.

All of the online conversing could have been for naught had the turnout in front of City Council not materialized. Partly as a result of coverage of the petition in traditional media, those who turned out reached beyond the online community to include leaders and members of local churches and neighborhood associations. The City recognized the broad-based resistance and created a compromise plan that incorporated more medians and less angled parking.  Maybe not a revolution, but our local online organizing has made a difference in the life of the city.

Gladwell’s central thesis is not wrong: social change happens through people speaking out by showing up. This is true regardless of the focus of the movement, for the struggle for democracy in Iran as much as for the fight for labor and immigrant rights in the U.S.  But discounting the ability in our modern age to motivate people through the use of modern tools is mere neo-luddism. Yes, there are limits to online organizing. While access to the internet has broadened over the past decade, Americans do not yet have equal access to online tools.  Social media works well for organizing professionals, as we saw in Youngstown, but it has not reached its full potential for poor and working-class communities.

Returning to the Iran protests, Hamid Tehrani puts things in perspective: “The cornerstone of this movement is not technology, it’s people.”  People weren’t online in the 1960s, so it’s impossible to know whether Martin Luther King Jr. would have tweeted, “I have a dream. Meet me at the Lincoln Memorial on the 28th 4 more!” Today, however, the force of online organizing is proven potent at the local and national levels and will be integral to campaigns for change in any arena. To see the fullest potential of online organizing, the Internet must continue to become more accessible across divisions of education and income.

Tyler Clark is a technology and web marketing consultant who writes about Youngstown .  He also serves as technology consultant and web developer for the Center for Working-Class Studies.

New Center for Working-Class Studies Survey: The American Dream

Dr. John Russo, Co-Director of The Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University (CWCS), announced today that the Center is fielding its fourth in a series of  on-line public opinion surveys. The poll, will measure respondents’ attitudes regarding a number of topics critical to the upcoming general election, including President Obama’s performance in office, the Tea Party movement, and the economy.

The survey for the first time also asks respondents to define the “American Dream” and whether they believe they have or will achieve it.  The three previous surveys conducted by the CWCS measured opinion about the Obama administration’s first 100 days, health care reform, and the state of the economy.  Results are available on the Center’s website.

“Speculation about how—and in some instances whether—working class Americans will vote in this election has been a primary topic of discussion among pundits in the run-up to November 2,” Dr. Russo said.  “The survey provides those Americans with an opportunity to speak for themselves.  I’m sure that candidates and consultants from both political parties as well as the media will be extremely interested in what they have to say.”

The survey will be accessible through the CWCS website, from Monday, October11, 2010 until Thursday, October 21, 2010.  Results and analysis of the data collected will be available on Monday, October 25, 2010.