In the months since he and collaborator Ryan Lewis took home four Grammys for their album The Heist, Macklemore has shown a knack for stumbling haplessly into public gaffes and minor scandals. First, there was the apology he texted to Kendrick Lamar after winning best rap album, which many read as disingenuous. And right now, he’s getting flack for dressing up, hopefully accidentally, like a Jewish caricature at a recent live performance.
The rapper’s ties with T-Mobile CEO John Legere, however, remain mostly uncontroversial. But a group of student labor activists is trying to change that, and have joined the chorus of Macklemore critics by launching MacklemoreSucks.com. The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national student-run organization that campaigns for workers' rights, launched the site last week as part of a larger effort against T-Mobile's labor practices, alleging that T-Mobile's call centers have become "electronic sweatshops." The site itself is fairly bare-bones; just a litany of complaints made against T-Mobile, a call for people to get involved, and a photo of a certain wistful-looking Grammy winner. But to get people’s attention, the site uses the meme of Macklemore's missteps to advance a cause that might otherwise be ignored.
The USAS believes Macklemore is an influential voice for social issues
It’s not that the USAS even hates Macklemore. It actually believes (somewhat quixotically) that the rapper has become an influential voice for such issues as marriage equality and racial profiling. "Macklemore is a role model for millions of young people," the group writes, "and as a well-known celebrity has tremendous leverage over the direction of social-justice conversations." So, the group took umbrage when the rapper got chummy with T-Mobile's CEO after CES. Legere, apart from being the abrasively vocal mouthpiece of the fourth-largest telecom in the US, happens to be a big fan of his. He even went out of his way to get Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to perform at a T-Mobile event later that month. To date, even though T-Mobile doesn’t sponsor him in any official capacity, Macklemore has spoken mostly kind words about the company.
All this has given the USAS the opportunity to call both Macklemore and Legere out. First came the protest at the concert during Grammy Week:
Then came the website, which, the group reports, has already reached 10,000 uniques in the week since it launched. According to Jan Van Tol, a USAS national organizer, the URL itself was a stroke of luck. "We just thought of it first."
"It’s nothing personal against him," Marcelle Grair, another organizer with the group, told The Verge. "We just do believe that he’s going down the wrong path by hanging out with a union-busting CEO. He can make two choices. Either continue down the path of social justice, or continue to damage his reputation by dressing up like a stereotypical Jewish person."
However, targeting one halfway-obnoxious rapper with good intentions is only a small part of the USAS' larger aims. "The overall campaign is for T-Mobile workers," Grair said. "The goal is to get contracts cut unless T-Mobile agrees to union neutrality."
MacklemoreSucks was built as part of the organization's "Justice for T-Mobile Workers" effort. Launched in the fall of 2013, the campaign was created in solidarity with MetroPCS call-center employees in Harlem, New York who, at the time, had just voted seven to one to join the Communication Workers of America, the largest media labor union in the US. Prior to that victory, workers allegedly endured long hours without overtime pay, and, during their attempts to organize, Legere himself reportedly traveled to the Harlem outlet to warn workers against unionizing.
A well-documented history of labor abuses
The incident in Harlem is only one such example; T-Mobile has a well-documented history of criticism for how it treats its employees. In a 2010 study, Human Rights Watch detailed the company’s "harsh opposition to workers' freedom of association." More recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) moved to consolidate unfair labor practices complaints leveled against the company and its managers, including alleged "overly broad and discriminatory" training materials that put stringent bans on organizing.
In an official statement sent to The Verge, however, T-Mobile states, "T-Mobile respects the rights of unions to exist and recognizes and respects employees’ rights to organize, or to refrain from organizing. We’re proud to be recognized year after year as a "Best Place to Work" and "Top Employer" by industry experts, and as one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute."
Union neutrality, or agreements that stipulate that an employer will support its workers' efforts to unionize, would, in the USAS’s view, effectively reverse this pattern. Still, much of the telecom industry leans against unionization, with AT&T being the only notable exception. In the meantime, though, the group is trying hard to convince colleges and universities that have commercial ties with T-Mobile to break their service contracts. According to Grair, while the group has yet to break a single contract, students at more than a dozen schools have begun to show support.
All of which Macklemore seems mostly clueless about.
The USAS needs a groundswell of support to get its message across, and at this point, it would rather have Macklemore as its spokesperson for workers' rights than as an internet punching bag. After all, he has sizable crossover appeal. In a letter sent to the rapper and Ryan Lewis, the group writes, "By communicating your concerns to T-Mobile regarding the company's abusive treatment of its workers, you could make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of T-Mobile workers across the country." Macklemore never responded. The hope now is that, for his reputation's sake, he gets the message.