The Labor Activist Who Just Can’t Do It Without His iPhone. [Updated, with a response to critics.]

OR “Is Mike Daisey Actually a Guerilla Marketer in the Employ of Apple?”

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Late last week activists delivered 250,000 signatures demanding that Apple improve working conditions for workers employed by its Chinese manufacturers. One of those petitions, organized by change.org, specifically cited the American radio program, This American Life, and a segment that it aired on January 6, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory. Mike Daisey, if you’ve never heard the program, is an American storyteller who, in the course of the segment, recounts his travels to Shenzhen and the gates of Apple’s major contractor, Foxconn. The picture he paints is not pretty (nor is it, I believe, accurate much less journalism – but that’s for another time) and as a result Daisey has become – in very short order – the de facto spokesman for iPhone users wanting to feel better about their next iPhone purchase.

A few weeks after Daisey’s piece ran, the New York Times ran articles of its own (needless to say, far more rigorous than Daisey’s ‘story’). But Mike Daisey is the one who got the ball rolling on the bourgeois outrage, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without Mike Daisey, there probably wouldn’t be 250,000 signatures sitting next to someone’s desk at Apple.

Anyway, yesterday I had the opportunity to join Daisey (and two other guests) on To the Point with Warren Olney, a terrific LA news talk show on which I sometimes have the honor to appear, to discuss Apple’s labor practices. It was, I think, an interesting conversation (downloadable here), worth hearing in its entirety. But for now I’d like to point my readers to a curious exchange between the host,  Warren Olney, and Mr. Daisey. In it, you’ll note that Mr. Olney would like to know if Mr. Daisey – inspiration for hundreds of thousands of Apple petition signers, still uses Apple products. For those listening at home, cue up to 33:15 in the podcast:

Warren Olney: So Mike Daisey, back to you, our author and performer doing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and also has been to China, have you given up your Apple products? As I recall, the last time we spoke you hadn’t.

Mike Daisey: That’s totally irrelevant to anything we’re actually talking about.

Warren Olney: Why? Isn’t the point here to reach the consumer?

Mike Daisey: If I throw away – because if I throw – if I throw away my devices, I will not be able to interact with the world. I wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation with you. It’s about reforming how the industry fundamentally works.

I am in no position to speak to Mr. Daisey’s particular circumstances, but – and I asked this during the show – couldn’t he have exchanged his iPhone for a land line, instead?

[UPDATE 2/15: I’ve received a few emails from folks writing to say, “Well, yes, but Mike Daisey is very upfront about the fact that he’s a fanboy.” Yes, he is. And that’s why I’d be much more impressed with his moral seriousness if he backed up his moral outrage at worker suicides, workplace accidents, and long hours, with some self-sacrifice. But what, in fact, has Daisey sacrificed in his pursuit of justice for Foxconn’s workers?

It’s really no different for the 250,000 folks who signed petitions that ask Apple, in polite language, to change its practices without threatening to stop using Apple products. It’s a really convenient cake-and-eat-it-too sort of solution to a very bourgeois conundrum: how do I feel good about purchasing expensive products that I know are made in factories? Sign a petition that asks the manufacturer to improve those factories! Then go buy another iPhone feeling like I’ve done my part.]

[Disclosure: I own two iPods, and I feel no guilt about how they were manufactured. I’ve visited factories like the ones in which they were assembled, and I consider the conditions in those facilities to be far superior to the base-line average for Chinese factories, and a good place for young Chinese with minimal educations to start work. And, apparently, so do the thousands who continue to line up for the opportunity to manufacture Apple products in China.]