Charles Kernaghan, scourge of sweatshops, has died at 74

Charles Kernaghan, who with single-minded passion and tireless energy exposed the prevalence of sweatshop-made products in America’s toy aisles, department stores and celebrity fashion lines, died June 1 at his home in Manhattan. . He was 74 years old.

His sister, Maryellen Kernaghan, announced the death but did not provide a cause.

As the long-time director of a very narrow organization called the National Labor Committee, Mr. Kernaghan was one of the first activists to demonstrate that the seemingly magical fall in prices for a wide range of consumer goods in the 1980s and 1990 was the result of American companies’ shifting production to developing countries, where workers often worked in dangerous conditions for pennies an hour.

He specialized in high-profile takedowns, going after brands like Nike, Disney and Walmart. He took aim at Bratz dolls, Eddie Bauer outerwear and Microsoft wireless mice. In 2007 he showed that the crucifixes sold at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan came from a Chinese workshop.

Kernaghan, a self-described introvert, became a different person in front of an audience. He could talk for hours, reciting stories and facts in a way that put a human face on the free trade debate.

“I had a world view, which is that behind all the happy talk of the garment industry and corporate social responsibility there was, in fact, a brutal and exploitative industry that was based on a global race to the bottom, and it was commissioned to expose that. hypocrisy,” Mark Levinson, chief economist for Workers United and the Service Employees International Union, said in a phone interview. “And he did it brilliantly.”

Kernaghan’s first big revelation came in 1992, when he and his colleagues showed how US aid subsidized the construction of sweatshops in the developing world. His report, which provided the basis for a “60 Minutes” segment, led to legislation banning US support for factories that fail to meet safety and labor standards.

In 1995, after spending months investigating the Salvadoran factories that supplied Gap, he published a report showing how much the clothing company relied on exploited labor. To underscore his point of view, he brought one of the workers, a 15-year-old girl named Judith Viera, on a 14-city speaking tour.

At first, Gap denied his charges; then he blamed his suppliers. But after protests against the company broke out, it agreed to allow independent monitors into the plants.

While on a research trip to a Gap supplier in Honduras, a worker handed him a tag with a different name: that of television host Kathie Lee Gifford. She was making $9 million a year licensing her name to a brand sold at Walmart, and she bragged that some of her profits went to charity.

Mr. Kernaghan investigated further and in April 1996 told Congress what he had found: to make Ms. Gifford’s clothes, girls as young as 15 worked for 31 cents an hour, 75 hours a week.

Two days later, Ms. Gifford, on her show “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee”, fought back tears as she tried to defend herself, calling Mr. Kernaghan’s testimony “a vicious attack”.

But eventually he also agreed to allow monitors, and Kernaghan, now known as “the man who made Kathie Lee cry,” became a force to be reckoned with in the garment industry. In 1997, he chartered a plane to fly over the Academy Awards, carrying a banner that read “Disney uses sweatshops.”

“Charlie had a knack for publicity,” Jo-Ann Mort, a communications consultant who has worked with unions in the garment industry, said in a phone interview. “She knew how to bring the public’s attention to the subject.”

When he wasn’t in Central America or Asia, he was touring the lecture circuit. He gave as many as 85 speeches a year, often with a sweatshop worker in tow, or with a bag from which he would pull a T-shirt or sweater and yell, “There’s blood on this garment!”

He often spoke on college campuses and, in the late 1990s, helped inspire the student anti-sweatshop movement, which in turn became an important part of the anti-free trade coalition of the 1990s. 2000.

“He was a dynamic speaker who could debate these issues with anyone,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights attorney who helped lead the movement against campus sweatshops as a University of Michigan student, and who considers Mr. Kernaghan a mentor. “He was just one of these guys, you could feel the passion to the bone.”

Charles Patrick Kernaghan was born on April 2, 1948, in Brooklyn. His father, Andrew, was a Scottish immigrant who installed acoustical panels, and his mother, Mary (Znojemsky) Kernaghan, was a volunteer social worker born in what was then Czechoslovakia.

His parents instilled in Charles a strong sense of social justice, raising more than 20 children and pushing him, his sister, and brother toward community-focused careers. (His sister worked for a nonprofit organization and his brother John, who died in 1990, was a Jesuit priest.)

His sister is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Kernaghan received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loyola University Chicago in 1970 and a master’s degree in the same subject from the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1975. He later taught at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, but soon abandoned his academic aspirations.

For a while, he drifted. In America and during extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, he worked as a carpenter, butler, and longshoreman; at one point he drove a taxi late at night in New York City, with an ax on the dashboard to deter thieves.

He also took up photography, aspiring to use his camera to reveal social injustice. In 1985 she joined a peace march in El Salvador, organized to protest government-sanctioned violence against priests and union leaders. He brought his equipment and several of his photographs appeared in major newspapers, including The New York Times.

It was during that trip that he first encountered members of the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, a small New York-based organization that operated out of office space provided by a labor union. of the confection. Through it, he became active in the movement to expose the US role in supporting right-wing violence in Central America, eventually joining the staff of the committee. He became a director in 1990.

As his involvement deepened, Mr. Kernaghan began receiving threatening phone calls telling him to stop his activism. One night in 1988, he was sleeping in his Manhattan apartment when a man came through the window, said, “I’m going to kill you,” and stabbed him in the chest with a bread knife.

Doctors took Mr. Kernaghan to the hospital, but when doctors told him he had no life-threatening injuries, he ran away and returned to work a few days later. The assailant was never caught.

Mr. Kernaghan’s group moved to Pittsburgh in 2008 at the invitation of the United Steel Workers union. It also changed its name to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, which is less unwieldy.

He announced his retirement in 2017. But he insisted there was more work to be done.

“If our clothes could talk,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2012, “they would be screaming.”

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