President Obama plows ahead on trade with plans to visit Nike, defying critics

Obama further upsets foes of Trans-Pacific Partnership as he prepares to visit Nike despite its spotty record

To Democrats and others leading the charge against President Obama's push for a major Pacific Rim trade deal, the White House announcement that he would travel this week to the Oregon headquarters of shoe giant Nike, with its spotty history of overseas labor practices, only deepened their suspicions.

"I gasped," said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, an activist group that opposes the trade pact, pointing to Nike's history of substandard factory conditions. And a labor rights advocate likened it to promoting an agreement on clean water by highlighting the accomplishments of BP.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist seeking the Democratic nomination for president, sat down to dash off a letter to Obama noting that Nike makes thousands of shoes in Vietnam but none in the U.S.

Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks even joked that perhaps the scheduling of Obama's trip was an act of subterfuge.

"Maybe there are some good Democrats on the president's staff that want this matter to fail," he said. "I want to thank them for their efforts."

On the contrary, though, the visit to Nike is of a piece with Obama's view of the world: Engage even if it looks unseemly, and help write the rules, or drift defenselessly at the whims of those who do.

That vision of Obama's brought the U.S. into negotiations with Iran over its rogue nuclear program, with a Cuban regime holding American political prisoners, and with a host of other world leaders despite their records of human rights abuses and aggressive acts toward the U.S. or its partners around the globe.

Now, as Obama enters the final years of his presidency, he is steeping U.S. policy more deeply in his worldview as well. Nike might have a poor reputation on labor practices, and highlighting its work risks the ire of activists and his own party, but Obama might be rewarded with a commitment to better labor practices by an iconic American brand. The White House's calculation is that that prize is worth enduring the criticism.

And, as White House officials view it, engaging with imperfect partners doesn't reward bad actors but gives incentive for them to turn themselves around, rather than just allying with movement leaders.

"You can cut a climate deal with Denmark, but that doesn't make a big difference," said one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss White House thinking before the Friday trip. "You have to talk to China."

White House officials recoil from comparisons that put U.S. firms in the same category as hostile foreign governments. But over his time in office, Obama appears to have increasingly taken pleasure in dancing with partners that even his allies don't like, and over recent months has done so not just with foreign leaders but with U.S. entities on the outs with Democrats.

After publicly announcing a personal boycott of Wal-Mart in 2007, complaining of low pay for workers despite healthy corporate profits, Obama praised its chief executive this year for raising wages to $1.75 above the federal minimum wage.

Around the time that Obama speaks at the Nike headquarters in Oregon on Friday, the company is likely to make its own manufacturing announcement.

During the 1990s, Nike was the target of many protests because of poor working conditions, low wages and the use of child labor at subcontractors' factories in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

Later that decade, Nike began making a concerted effort to enforce higher labor standards overseas.

The company increased audits and monitoring of factories. It also created a nonprofit group, the Fair Labor Assn., to nudge other brands to adhere to policies such as a minimum wage.

Industry watchers lauded Nike for taking a lead on this issue, but some say the company is still not doing enough.

"Nike's corporate social responsibility programs have been good at protecting the company's image, by creating the appearance of a lot of earnest activity, but bad at actually improving conditions in its factories," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that conducts investigations of working conditions in factories around the world.

Labor rights violations remain widespread and wages are extremely low, he said. Labor rights groups charge that they still find illegal overtime in China, violations of association rights in Central America, a lack of fire exits in factories in Bangladesh and a failure to meet the minimum wage in Indonesia.

Democrats opposed to the trade pact point to past deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, as a factor in America's manufacturing decline.

"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," Sanders wrote to Obama.

Nike did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is one of Obama's top remaining legislative priorities. Negotiations with the 11 participating nations, which include Japan, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam and Singapore, are in late stages, and Obama has pressed lawmakers to give him the authority to finalize a deal.

In their effort to win over opponents to the trade agreement, White House officials have heavily courted progressives. Obama has done an interview with MSNBC, made phone calls, brought centrist Democrats to the White House and delivered an address to a summit of Democratic activists, where he compared opposition to the trade deal to the "death panel" arguments against his healthcare bill.

And fellow Democrats like the president's ambition. They have defended his global efforts to talk with the world's most controversial leaders against regular attacks from Republican critics.

But on this home-turf subject, some are skeptical that the potential reward is worth highlighting Nike's practices.

"There is this idea that we should be incredibly proud because if we create this agreement, then Asia, which is enormous, will be working under America's trading rules," said Sherman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

"I think we should be as proud of the trade rules that developed on Wall Street as the citizens of Madrid are proud of the Spanish flu."

christi.parsons@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Times staff writer Shan Li in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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