Actor/activist Mike Daisey taking on Apple – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, in the heart of downtown DC, featured an unusual lineup this past Saturday night. Mike Daisey, actor, raconteur, and biting critic of Apple Computer’s labor practices in China, reprised his monologue, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey has been performing this piece since 2010, when he first appeared on Ira Glass’ NPR show, This American Life.

The performance is spellbinding for its ability to keep you on the edge of your seat for nearly two hours. At the close of Daisey’s monologue, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak came on stage and the dialogue began.

Daisey describes himself as a total Mac geek who read everything about Apple and knew every Apple model from the first clunky Apple 1 released on April Fools Day 1976 to today’s sleek feather-light laptops, iPhones, and iPads. He knows Apple intimately, what worked, what didn’t, the personalities inside the company, Steve Jobs’ firing by the board (Wozniak claims Jobs wasn’t really fired) and subsequent rehiring.

Daisey’s a witty observer of the brilliance and foibles of this outside the box company that introduced revolutionary designs – some of which were a complete failure, but others took off: the iPod, iPhone, the iPad, and a new way of thinking about machines for personal use has helped to transform our world so dramatically in the last 25 years.

But Daisey also thinks Apple has no business running a company with such draconian employment conditions; the Chinese manufacturing behemoth, FoxConn, shares the guilt here as the maker of Apple products and sets the restrictive and inhuman work rules. Daisey went into factories, posing as a businessman interested in looking for a manufacturing operation and observed hundreds of thousands of people working 14-, 15-, 17-hour-days, not always to talk to one another, doing repetitive motions for hours on end, and committing suicide in record numbers. So much so that Foxconn installed nets outside the factory walls to catch the dropping bodies.

After Daisey’s monologue, Wozniak came on stage and they began to talk. I have to say that Wozniak – whom Daisey describes as an “autistic bear” – seems like a decent man, brilliant, wonky, really only interested in engineering and design, and taken advantage of by Steve Jobs, who in the early days was making wads of money on their joint designs and not necessarily sharing his booty with Wozniak. But Wozniak also came off as hopelessly naïve. He denies that Apple has much responsibility and says he figures that – like in the USA – it will take many years for China’s factory owners and workers to ease the conditions. Mind you, Apple has little role to play here in Wozniak’s eyes. He argued “if we knew what to do to solve the problem of poor working conditions, we would have done it. But we don’t.” Seems like a total cop-out to me for Apple to depend on the workers and – god forbid – the company to change working conditions.

Both Daisey and Wozniak agreed that since Daisey’s expose – and the New York Times’ in-depth and excellent investigation – Apple has opened up its doors for inspection and reform. But these changes, to the extent any have taken place, have been marginal. Wozniak is on tour, apparently, and met with audience members for a bit in the lobby and then jetted off to someplace else on his tour. I give him credit for his willingness to enter the lion’s den since so many audience members clearly think Apple has a lot of work to do to improve conditions in their factories.

Daisey is working with NGOs in Washington, he said, to organize protests outside Apple Stores. We owe this actor/activist a debt of gratitude for raising awareness about the conditions in Chinese factories that produce the products we all seem to find indispensable.