Charles Kernaghan, who fought against sweatshops, dies at 74

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Charles Kernaghan, a labor activist who helped revitalize the anti-sweatshop movement in the late 20th century, targeting American companies such as Disney – as well as a clothing line backed by Kathie Lee Gifford – while campaigning hard to speak out against mistreatment in overseas factories, died June 1 at his Manhattan home. He was 74 years old.

His sister, Maryellen Kernaghan, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

For two decades, Mr. Kernaghan led a series of high-profile campaigns against child labor, corporate greed and sweatshop conditions, taking on companies including Nike, Target and Walmart. Using video footage and worker testimonies, he revealed dire conditions at factories in Central America, China, Bangladesh and Jordan, where workers were subjected to physical abuse and often worked for few cents per hour.

Apparel industry executives questioned his facts and called him a relentless self-promoter. But his work has been credited with spurring workplace reforms, including improved wages, ventilation and access to factory toilets, and has been supported in some cases by independent observers of human rights which sought to guarantee conditions of security.

With his wire-rimmed glasses, neatly trimmed beard and slicked-back silver hair, Mr Kernaghan could have passed for an academic – indeed, he had already pursued a doctorate in psychology and anthropology. But he was also a gifted athlete, former boxer and high school football star who exuded restless energy while speaking nonstop to the public in union halls, college auditoriums and houses of worship.

Reaching for a bag of clothes during a speech, he showed a Walmart shirt made by Vietnamese women who were allegedly beaten in a factory in American Samoa, or held up a Nike jersey that sold for $140 in the United States but was made for 29 cents in El Salvador. “There is blood on this garment,” he cried, with an almost religious intensity.

“Charles Kernaghan is the mouse of the labor movement that roared,” wrote New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse. In a 2003 profile in Mother Jones, journalist Charles Bowden said the activist seemed “born to suddenly blast the back pages of the global economy onto the front pages.”

Mr. Kernaghan spent most of his activist career as director of a small New York City organization called the National Labor Committee, later known as the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. . Their investigations were cited by publications such as the Washington Post and featured on TV shows like NBC’s ‘Dateline’, which used footage Mr Kernaghan had taken inside a Bangladeshi factory via a hidden camera integrated into his glasses.

He and his group rose to national prominence in 1996, after Mr Kernaghan embarrassed Gifford, the cheery co-host of ‘Live With Regis and Kathie Lee’, by revealing to a Congressional hearing that his clothing line was made in part by 13-year-olds in Honduras, who worked 13 hours a day for 31 cents an hour.

Mr Kernaghan said he found clothes of his brand in a sweatshop, even though he had no idea who she was: for years he had shunned television and despised modern technology, refusing to using a computer and relying on colleagues to type memos.

During a tearful appearance on her syndicated talk show, Gifford denied any wrongdoing and said she knew nothing of the labor practices behind her clothing line, which was made by subcontractors for Walmart. . “I started my clothing line to help children,” she said, condemning what she described as “a vicious attack” by Mr Kernaghan.

Mr Kernaghan has become known as ‘the man who brought Kathie Lee to tears’, as The Post put it in one headline. Continuing to push for labor reforms, he brought one of the factory’s former employees to the United States so she could share her story. Walmart canceled its contract with the factory – Mr Kernaghan wasn’t exactly happy, having instead tried to improve wages and working conditions – and Gifford became something of an ally, denouncing sweatshops and swearing that independent auditors would inspect the factories of his clothing line.

The episode drew attention to a cause that was increasingly embraced by students and President Bill Clinton, who announced an anti-sweatshop plan with Gifford on his side. Noam Chomsky and other activists have credited Mr Kernaghan as the main catalyst for the movement, as have publications like Women’s Wear Daily, which wrote that he was “shaking up the issue of workplace abuse in the garment industry like never since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. ”

“The Kathie Lee Gifford case literally changed the way people do business,” Mr. Kernaghan told the Post in 2005. Kevin Burke, the head of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, seemed to agree. , saying the episode spurred judgment in the industry. . “We remember that every day,” he told the Post, “and that’s a lesson for us, that we don’t want that to happen again.”

Even as he scouted high-profile targets for his campaigns, Mr Kernaghan said he was often uncomfortable in the spotlight. He had spent years bouncing between jobs before turning to advocacy and had struggled with shyness while trying to network on behalf of his cause. “It was torture at first,” he told Mother Jones. “I had to get dressed; I had no clothes. A friend in my building had a suit I was borrowing, a size 42. I would look like a clown. I was sitting up fine but when I got up it was like I was in a bag.

“I feel better around working people,” he continued. “I don’t feel comfortable with professionals – I don’t have a chat.”

The second of three children, Charles Patrick Kernaghan was born in Brooklyn on April 2, 1948, and grew up in the Williamsburg section of the borough and the Long Island community of Valley Stream. His Scottish-born father worked in construction, specializing in acoustic tiles; his mother was a homemaker to a Czech-Austrian family and later volunteered for the New York Foundling, a child welfare agency.

Mr Kernaghan attributed his interest in social justice to his parents, who helped raise more than 20 foster children. He had their support when he went against their parish priest’s wishes, by starting a petition to oppose the installation of a church air conditioner. How could the church justify the cost, he said, when the sick and poor needed help?

Mr. Kernaghan considered joining the priesthood but instead studied psychology, earning a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago and a master’s degree in 1975 from the New School for Social Research in New York. He taught at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh before leaving school to read and wander around, traveling across Europe and the Middle East in between stints as a taxi driver, furniture mover, shop steward and Carpenter.

Photography has become a lifelong interest. He took pictures of street scenes in Manhattan and landscapes in Maine, and brought his camera when he was invited to join a religious peace march through Central America in 1985. marchers rallied behind area union leaders who had been threatened, murdered or disappeared.

Mr Kernaghan spent three days with poor workers occupying a cathedral in El Salvador and, although he spoke no Spanish, began to inquire about the plight of workers in the region. The experience “opened her eyes,” her sister said in a phone interview, “and they could never close again.”

When he returned home to Manhattan, he began organizing an individual labor campaign funded by his parents’ social security checks. He linked up with the National Labor Committee and became a protege of one of the group’s early leaders, the Reverend David Dyson, who helped shape its early campaigns.

These efforts included a 1995 protest targeting Gap, which agreed to independent monitoring at its contractors’ Central American factories. Labor Secretary Robert Reich later described the deal as a “watershed moment”.

Mr. Kernaghan became director of the committee in 1990 and led the organization with the help of Barbara Briggs, who for many years was his personal and professional partner. To promote their campaigns, they often used guerrilla tactics: at the Oscars in 1997, the group rented a plane to fly a banner reading “Disney uses sweatshops”.

They also turned to schoolchildren and church groups for help. “Companies really, really hate it when nuns get involved and start writing letters,” Mr Kernaghan told The Times. “I mean, what are they going to say about nuns, right?”

Mr. Kernaghan eventually moved the organization to Pittsburgh. The group disbanded after retiring in his mid-60s and returned to New York, where he took long walks through Manhattan with his Tibetan terrier. He also frequented the opera and the symphony, which his sister described as “the only indulgence he allowed himself” during his militant years.

She is his only immediate survivor.

“Not to sound Pollyannish, but I do believe there’s a basic decency in the American people that these companies don’t understand,” Mr. Kernaghan told The Times in 1996, looking back on his early campaigns. “We have to try to exploit that decency. When we do that, we get a terrific response.

Luz W. German