Super Bowl of Shame

What’s more American than football, apple pie and Chevrolet? How about cool brand new radial tires?

That’s what Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, LLC wants us to believe. The former American, now Japanese-owned, tire manufacturer is spending about $10 million to sponsor this year’s Super Bowl halftime show in Phoenix. It will spend that much again in 2009 for next year’s halftime show when the Super Bowl takes place in Tampa. The company would like to fill your head with images of carefree cruising along some coastline, not a trouble in sight, riding on your four new Bridgestone Tires. It’s very important to Bridgestone Firestone that you retain this image and feeling inside of you whenever you hear the name Bridgestone Firestone.

Without this advertising-inspired image, you might start to consider and care about another one. Such as a seven-year-old Liberian girl, sick from toxins, with blistered skin, her eyes unprotected from the latex she is harvesting as she laboring on the Firestone Rubber Plantation. Or perhaps, you’d worry about striking workers and their families being beaten, detained and arrested solely because they want their union elections to be recognized and to, at last, be treated with dignity.

Child Labor

For the past 82 years, the tire giant has operated the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia. Children have worked on Firestone’s plantation in Liberia for decades. Rubber workers and their families have lived in squalid and inhumane conditions since the plantation’s beginning. Management wrongly believed that the world wasn’t paying attention. But they were wrong. Unfortunately for Bridgestone Firestone, the company’s dirty little secret is out of the bag.

Bridgestone’s legal and public relations dilemmas are now numerous. Former child laborers used on Firestone’s rubber plantation in Liberia have joined together in a 2005 class action lawsuit filed against the company in the U.S. District Court in the Southern district of Indiana, Indianapolis division. The lawsuit remains in discovery phase. With virtually no coverage in the mainstream press, its progress is being kept largely out of the public eye.

In late December, much to Bridgestone’s dismay, their Liberian farm workers who earn $3.19 a day, had their legitimate attempts to unionize approved by the Liberian Supreme Court. On December 6, when Firestone had earlier refused to recognize or bargain with the newly elected union, the workers went on strike and were brutally repressed by police forces.

“Firestone’s failure to recognize the results of a free and fair union election are a flagrant violation of International Labor Organization Standards,” said United Steel Workers President Leo W. Gerard. Since having its union approved by the Liberian Supreme Court, the pressure is on. Firestone must decide whether to listen to its workers or continue down its current path.

Workers’ Victory

“This is a huge victory for the workers,” said Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “We hope that Firestone’s management will resolve to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement in good faith with the new leaders.”

It’s been a tough couple of years for the tire giant. How can a corporation with this kind of reputation for disregarding human rights regain some of its international status and profits? How about agreeing to sponsor the 2008 Super Bowl XLII halftime show on February 3, along with next year’s Super Bowl halftime show and the 2008 Pro Bowl in Hawaii? What’s a better way to get Americans to associate the company’s name in a positive light than to flash it on all their television screens when they are having a good time, maybe drinking a beer, and enjoying a performance by rocker Tom Petty?

“Watched by 140 million viewers in the United States last year, the Super Bowl is annually the nation’s highest-rated TV program and the most-watched single-day sporting event,” the company said in its press release about the deal. FOX will broadcast the football game and the halftime show. In other words, sponsoring the Super Bowl guarantees high visibility. It’s therefore, a great venue for throwing in a couple of 30 second ads at up to $3 million apiece. According to Tirereview.com, Bridgestone’s other public relations activities currently include being the NFL’s “official tire” and sponsoring an interactive theme park.

Big Bucks

Of course, all of this adds up. Whether the money could be directed towards bettering the conditions at the plantation in Liberia is a good question to ask. While the exact costs associated with the 2008 Super Bowl XLII halftime sponsorship by Bridgestone Firestone are unknown, we do know that in 2005, Ameriquest reportedly spent $15 million for its Super Bowl halftime sponsorship. Sports Business Journal is estimating this that Bridgestone will spend about $10 million per year on the 2008 and 2009 Super Bowl halftime shows.

The United States buys more Bridgestone Firestone tires than any other country. We love our cars, but we should not be fooled into buying anything from a company that treats its workers no better than slave masters did long ago. They are simply profiting from the unjust sweat, toil and exploitation of fellow human beings.

If Bridgestone Firestone needs more proof of just how much the exploitation of child workers can affect their profits, they need look no further than to the effects such issues had upon sports giant Nike or Wal-Mart’s clothing line by Kathy Lee Gifford. Consumers felt ashamed to purchase these items once they learned the truth about their production. Profits and name brands were aversely affected.

Until Bridgestone Firestone improves conditions for its workers, enters into negotiations with elected union leadership and strictly prohibits the use of child labor on its rubber farm in Liberia, Americans should reconsider purchasing anything made by that company. This is an area where, absent a full-scale boycott by the U.S. government, a gesture made with the strength of the dollar speaks loudly and will be heard by Bridgestone Firestone’s owners. America’s solidarity with Liberia’s workers will also be heard and appreciated.

Jamie Menutis, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans. She worked with Liberian refugees in West Africa recording human rights abuses in the 1990s for the State Department’s U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.