Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 3, 2010

Those Levi-Strauss worker ads

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

For about the last month or so, I’ve been seeing Levi jeans ads on bus stops around New York that have some kind of message involving the working class but geared more to visual appeal than any kind of social commentary, although it is possible to glean something like that from the ads. I have seen two different slogans to this point–“Everybody’s work is equally important” (seen in the ad above) and “We are all workers”—but mostly the ads remind me more than anything of the Ralph Lauren ads of the 1980s with blue collar chic replacing the Connecticut wasp look of the Lauren ads.

Curiosity finally got the better of me and I did some poking around to find out what was behind this campaign. The Levi-Strauss website explains:

SAN FRANCISCO (June 24, 2010)– Amid today’s widespread need for revitalization and recovery, a new generation of “real workers” has emerged, those who see challenges around them and are inspired to drive positive, meaningful change.  This fall, with the introduction of Go Forth ‘Ready to Work’, the Levi’s® brand will empower and inspire workers everywhere through Levi’s®  crafted product and stories of the new American worker.   Bolstered by its pioneering spirit and ‘Go Forth’ rallying cry, Levi’s® will explore how a new generation of real American workers is rolling up their sleeves to make real change happen.  The campaign, created in partnership with Wieden+Kennedy, kicks off this July and will reach across the Americas from the top of Canada, throughout the United States, Mexico and South America.

“Last year, driven by the pioneering spirit the Levi’s® brand has represented for more than 150 years, ‘Go Forth’ created a resonate message underscoring a new vision of hope and progress,” said Doug Sweeny, VP, Levi’s® Brand Marketing. “This year, we’re turning that energy into something tangible by engaging in meaningful conversations around ‘real work’ and celebrating the individuals who are carving the way for a better tomorrow.”

‘Ready to Work’ Campaign Spotlights Real Work in Braddock, Pennsylvania

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

To contribute to the real change in Braddock, the Levi’s® brand is committed to funding the refurbishment of Braddock’s community center, a focal point of the town and their youth-based programming.   Additionally, Levi’s® is supporting Braddock’s urban farm which supplies produce to local area residents at reduced costs.

This deserves some commentary.

John Fetterman checking out a brick bread oven

I first ran across John Fetterman on Sunday Morning CBS news on July 4th, a show that is the television equivalent in many ways of those smarmy “local color” segments that pollute radio’s NPR. Reporter Jeff Glor was really into Fetterman:

Fetterman  is excited too. Pittsburgh investors have given money to a number of his projects including an urban farm he created to promote local produce. And Levi Strauss, the jean company is launching a nationwide advertising campaign today featuring Braddock residents. It`s also contributing more than a million dollars to help the town. All of this investments and his oversized personality have made John Fetterman somewhat of a media darling.

But long-time city council president Jesse Brown decidedly less so:

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.

I should add that the Levi-Strauss ads feature mostly white models even though the town, as Jesse Brown put it, is decidedly nonwhite.

Fetterman’s ideas for economic development in Braddock are borrowed from those of the ruling class of Pittsburgh, another Pennsylvania city that has lost its major source of jobs: the steel industry. Fetterman’s intention is to recast Braddock as some sort of arts and crafts/high technology/Green manufacturing oasis, the sort of post-industrial experiment that has been tried in Pittsburgh with less than overwhelming results. Indeed, this seems to be a deepening trend in the U.S. today with the Mayor of Detroit, former basketball professional Dave Bing, stating that the city must be shrunk to correspond to new economic realities.

Fetterman sounded a bit like Joseph Schumpeter when he proclaimed on his website: “Destruction breeds creation: create amidst destruction”. Of course, there is something a bit dubious about the idea of “creative destruction” in many ways. The assumption built into this former Marxist economist’s system is that when old technologies are made obsolete (the horse and buggy), new ones will come along that generate new jobs. Instead of blacksmiths, you will have autoworkers. What this schema does not anticipate is the possibility that a service-dominated capitalist economy will eventually find the disappearance of well-paying manufacturing jobs eminently unregrettable.

It was perhaps to be expected that an outfit like Levi-Strauss would get involved with Fetterman. This blue jean company has been very shrewd about marketing itself as an exception to the capitalist rule along the lines of American Apparel and Benetton. They brag:

By leveraging the power of our trade relationships and our brand, we seek to strengthen implementation and enforcement of labor laws and workplace standards in countries where we have a business presence.

What their website does not point out is that Levi-Strauss stopped making clothing in the United States in 2004, following the same route that the steel industry took. Despite the concern over Braddock’s economic health, the apparel company has participated in the same economic race to the bottom that has left this town and thousands of others virtual ghost towns.

And when they go somewhere else, it is with an iron fist rather than the velvet glove alluded to above as Ricky Baldwin reported in 2004:

When Dominican troops crossed into Haiti’s Codevi Free Trade Zone in June, it was not the first time troops had attacked Haitian factory workers there. Since the U.S. -backed coup overthrew the Haitian government in February, management at Grupo M, a Dominican-owned subcontractor for Levi Strauss, has repeatedly sicced troops of Haitian and/or Dominican origin on union sympathizers at the plant.

Jannick Etienne, a union organizer in Haiti, says that Ouanaminthe in the Codevi Free Trade Zone (FTZ) is at once remote from the center of Haitian political life and yet at the heart of recent events. The area is virtually cut off from the capital city of Port-au-Prince by miles of bad roads and difficult terrain. At the same time, Etienne says, Ouanaminthe is where the so-called “rebel” troops re-entered Haiti in February before the recent coup.

These “rebels” are actually a U.S. -funded proxy army, like the contras of Nicaragua, and many of them are veterans of earlier U.S.-supported coups and bloody repressions dating back to the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorships (1956-1987). A number of them had been in exile in the Dominican Republic following murder charges against their leaders related to the previous coup in 1991. These returning fugitives also freed others from prison as they swept through the Haitian countryside toward the capital.

Finally, a word on an eerie kind of unintentional admission on Levi-Strauss’s part. If you go to their website, you can watch a series of videos about their aims in Braddock. Very compelling stuff as you can see below:

This video has a brief introduction on the Levi-Strauss website:

When the steel mills closed in Braddock, PA, they left behind a dwindling population living in near apocalyptic circumstances. Now, a new generation of urban pioneers has come with a mission- to create a new frontier from the ashes of the once vibrant town. Brought to you by Levi’s in partnership with IFC and Sundance Channel.

Now it turns out that Australian director John Hillcoat has been hired to photograph the new ads for Levi-Strauss and conceivably had a hand in the production of the video above and others in the series. Was this just a coincidence? This Australian film director has “The Road” to his credit, a movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision of an economically ruined and environmentally despoiled America that has a population reduced to scavenging and cannibalism—not far I am afraid from America’s future unless the ruling class is stopped dead in its tracks.

16 Comments »

  1. they lioke this theme of the ‘frontier.’

    In one of the ads, the voice over explains, “We were taught how the pioneers went into the West … .”

    A very special sets of pioneers set out from Braddock. Braddock the town is the site where Braddock the general with his troops crossed the Monongahela to attack Fort Duquesne and entered a devestating ambush by the French and Indians.

    We are not deterred by disastrous defeats. There are peoples to exterminate and lands to be stolen.

    Thank you Gen. Braddock. Thank you Levi’s.

    Comment by Chuckie K — September 3, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  2. Louis,
    I have lived relatively near Pittsburgh for most of my life. In fact, it was a punk band based in that city that got me interested in radical politics to begin with.
    Anyway, the point of this comment is to ask if you know of any good resources dealing with the failure to revamp Pittsburgh through economic initiatives involving art and green technology. I would appreciate any info.
    Thanks.

    Comment by Rob — September 3, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

  3. ‘pioneering’ is always code for some sort of primitive accumulation, though perhaps in Braddock’s case accumulation by dispossession is more appropriate, to borrow a term from D. Harvey.

    You should be aware that the filming for ‘The Road’ was all real US landscapes, not CGI generated stuff. Parts were filmed in Pennsylvania, also Louisiana. The unnamed disaster that motivates ‘The Road’ is very much of the present.
    On the filming:
    http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2008-08-06-the-road-preview_N.htm
    link to a good review:
    http://politicalfilm.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/the-road-2009/
    I agree with her analysis of the movie’s flaws as well. Not quite as well executed an adaptation as the Coen Brother’s recent, but still very good and maybe more approachable.

    Still think you have McCarthy wrong.

    Comment by dave x — September 4, 2010 @ 1:22 am

  4. Louis,
    Thanks.

    Comment by Rob — September 4, 2010 @ 2:33 am

  5. Levi’s was one of the first corporations stung by the mid-1990s anti-sweatshop campaigns that fed into the anti-globalization movement, in particular for the working conditions of their subcontractor factories in Haiti.

    Jeff Ballinger has had a series of illuminating articles in Counterpunch on how little the CSR, codes of conduct etc. nonsense that Levi’s and other companies used to counter the anti-sweatshop campaigns. As one of the movement’s principal instigators, his conclusions that social audits, monitoring and consultations have yielded workers virtually nil are damning for all those naive NGOs that continue to champion CSR as a solution.

    Haiti is of course in the sights of the imperialists as never before, with the post-quake reconstruction money (at least that which doesn’t get eaten up by corrupt disaster capitalists and their local elite allies) slated for transforming the country (once again) into a textile manufacturing hub. Lowest wages in the hemisphere, anyone?

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — September 4, 2010 @ 2:50 am

  6. Earlier this year there was a losing, but not finished, struggle to keep Braddock Hospital open.

    UPMC – the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – itself a health insurance company with a millionaire CEO – has conquered the local infrastructure of health service delivery – closing hospitals in cities like Braddock, building them in suburbs like Monroeville.

    http://www.savebraddock.com/

    voices of activists fighting to keep Braddock Hospital open

    op-ed by Brown and Fetterman
    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10019/1029186-109.stm

    Perhaps Mike Stout’s rendition of the old song should be performed for the masters of Levi-Strauss – with the demand that Levi-Strauss “contribute to real change in Braddock” by giving the funds needed to reopen that hospital.

    Mike Stout sings=

    Comment by b. yun — September 4, 2010 @ 3:42 am

  7. Whether or not Pittsburgh has been ‘successful’ isn’t even relevant. It is always possible to construct one or two Potemkin-esque villages and smarter ruling class factions develop strategies to encourage this. It makes it so much easier to scold and ruthlessly suppress the ‘laggards’.

    Comment by purple — September 4, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  8. […] Proyect with some poignant commentary on the hypocrisy and cynicism behind the new Levi’s promotional campaign, “We Are All […]

    Pingback by Links 9/5/10 | The Luxemburgist — September 5, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  9. >Fetterman’s ideas for economic development in Braddock are borrowed from those of the ruling class of Pittsburgh, another Pennsylvania city that has lost its major source of jobs: the steel industry. Fetterman’s intention is to recast Braddock as some sort of arts and crafts/high technology/Green manufacturing oasis, the sort of post-industrial experiment that has been tried in Pittsburgh with less than overwhelming results.

    Not true as far as I know. I’ve worked on community projects with this guy and he’s more concerned about getting jobs in the community and a sandwich shop where people can afford to eat in the town. If you’ve been to Braddock you know how laughable the idea of any type of oasis is. Fetterman had to put up with a lot of resistance from skinheads when he ran for election and while he’s not an unrepentant marxist, he is a strong leftist and it’s not worth giving up on what he’s doing because he’s taking money from existing economic channels.

    To be honest, those Levi ads did make me cringe though.

    Comment by Mark Elliot Cullen — September 6, 2010 @ 2:17 am

  10. Also, I should note as a resident that Pittsburgh has been doing much better in the last 10 years than most other American cities. It avoided the housing bubble, it has a powerful educational and medical economy and good public transportation. The mayor and his level of government is idiotic and unrepentantly middle of the road pro business democrat, but it’s not a bad town to live in. Good housing, cheap living and the quality of life has been steadily improving there since the low point after the end of manufacturing. It’s not a perfect model of economic recovery and certainly not ideal from the standpoint of most readers of this blog (myself included), but it is doing very well and is a very livable city.

    Comment by Mark Elliot Cullen — September 6, 2010 @ 2:24 am

  11. “the Levi’s® brand will empower and inspire workers everywhere through Levi’s® crafted product”

    How incredibly bloody patronising & stupid is it possible for these marketing people to be?

    Comment by JN — September 7, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

  12. Hey Mark, if Pittsburgh is such a “livable city” how come the population has fallen by at least 9% a decade for the last 60 years?

    Comment by The Idiot — September 15, 2010 @ 5:06 am

  13. When I lived in Homestead in the late 1970s I commuted across the Mon river to Swissvale where my plant, Union Switch & Signal was located. Braddock was off to my right, or east of the bridge. It had the distinction then of having the oldest blast furnaces in the U.S….over 100 years old. The workers took the iron ore, made it into pig-iron, shipped it across a dedicated steel bridge, right into Homestead Works oxygen furnaces to turn it into steel. They had their own local of the USW there as well.

    It’s other distinction was having the highest cancer rate in the U.S. I believe it even beat Baltimore a few times.

    However, Braddock and Homestead were part of the grimy beauty of the Monongahela Valley. Small steel producing towns that in a few cases pre-dated the Civil War, each with it’s own small village of steel or iron workers around them. Each with a Catholic or Russian Orthodox church providing an architectural balance to the mill. Each with a small, red-brick building “Main Street” bridging them.

    All gone.

    David

    Comment by David Walters — April 12, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  14. […] for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running […]

    Pingback by Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 21, 2014 @ 8:04 pm


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