Charles Kernaghan, Scourge of Sweatshops, Is Dead at 74

 

Charles Kernaghan, who with a single-minded ardour and tireless power uncovered the prevalence of sweatshop-made items in America’s toy sections, department shops and movie star style strains, died on June 1 at his house in Manhattan. He was 74.

His sister, Maryellen Kernaghan, introduced the demise however didn’t present a trigger.

As the longtime director of a shoestring group referred to as the National Labor Committee, Mr. Kernaghan was among the many first activists to indicate that the seemingly magical drop in costs for a variety of client items within the Eighties and ’90s was the end result of American firms’ shift of manufacturing to creating international locations, the place employees usually toiled in harmful situations for pennies an hour.

He specialised within the high-profile takedown, going after manufacturers like Nike, Disney and Walmart. He focused Bratz dolls, Eddie Bauer outside put on and Microsoft wireless mice. In 2007 he confirmed that crucifixes bought at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan got here from a Chinese sweatshop.

A self-described introvert, Mr. Kernaghan grew to become a distinct individual in entrance of an viewers. He might communicate for hours, rattling off tales and information in a manner that gave a human face to the free-trade debate.

“He had a worldview, which is that behind all of the completely happy speak of the attire {industry} and company social duty was in reality a brutal, exploitative {industry} that was based mostly on a worldwide race to the underside, and he took it upon himself to show that hypocrisy,” Mark Levinson, the chief economist at Workers United and the Service Employees International (*74*), mentioned in a telephone interview. “And he did it brilliantly.”

Mr. Kernaghan’s first massive exposé got here in 1992, when he and his colleagues confirmed how American support sponsored the development of sweatshops within the creating world. Their report, which supplied the premise for a “60 Minutes” section, led to laws banning U.S. help for factories that don’t meet labor and security requirements.

In 1995, after spending months investigating El Salvadoran factories that provided the Gap, he launched a report exhibiting how a lot the attire firm relied on sweatshop labor. To ram his level house, he introduced one of the employees, a 15-year-old lady named Judith Viera, on a 14-city talking tour.

At first, the Gap denied his prices; then it blamed its suppliers. But after protests erupted towards the corporate, it agreed to permit unbiased displays into the crops.

While he was on a analysis journey to a Gap provider in Honduras, a employee slipped him a tag with a distinct title on it: that of the tv host Kathie Lee Gifford. She was incomes $9 million a 12 months licensing her title to a model bought at Walmart, and boasting that half of the proceeds went to charity.

Mr. Kernaghan did extra digging, and in April 1996 he advised Congress what he had discovered: To make Ms. Gifford’s clothes, women as younger as 15 labored for 31 cents an hour, 75 hours every week.

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

But she additionally finally agreed to permit displays, and Mr. Kernaghan — now referred to as “the person who made Kathie Lee cry” — grew to become a drive for the attire {industry} to reckon with. In 1997 he rented a aircraft to fly over the Academy Awards, trailing a banner that learn, “Disney Uses Sweatshops.”

“Charlie had a knack for publicity,” Jo-Ann Mort, a communications marketing consultant who labored with garment-industry unions, mentioned in a telephone interview. “He knew the way to get public consideration on the difficulty.”

When he wasn’t in Central America or Asia, he was touring the lecture circuit. He gave as much as 85 speeches a 12 months, usually with a sweatshop employee in tow, or with a bag from which he would pull a T-shirt or sweater and yell, “There is blood on this garment!”

He usually spoke on faculty campuses, and within the late Nineteen Nineties he helped encourage the coed anti-sweatshop motion, which in flip grew to become a big half of the anti-free-trade coalition of the 2000s.

“He was a dynamic orator who might debate anybody on these points,” mentioned Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights lawyer who helped lead the campus anti-sweatshop motion as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and who considers Mr. Kernaghan a mentor. “He was only one these guys, you possibly can really feel the fervour all the way down to his bones.”

Charles Patrick Kernaghan was born on April 2, 1948, in Brooklyn. His father, Andrew, was a Scottish immigrant who put in acoustic tiles, and his mom, Mary (Znojemsky) Kernaghan, was a volunteer social employee born in what was then Czechoslovakia.

His mother and father instilled in Charles a robust sense of social justice: They fostered greater than 20 kids, they usually pushed him, his sister and his brother towards community-focused careers. (His sister labored for a nonprofit, and his brother, John, who died in 1990, was a Jesuit priest).

His sister is his solely fast survivor.

Mr. Kernaghan acquired a level in psychology from Loyola University in Chicago in 1970, and a grasp’s in the identical topic from the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1975. He later taught at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, however he quickly deserted his educational aspirations.

For some time, he drifted. In America and through prolonged journeys via Europe and the Middle East, he labored as a carpenter, a steward and a stevedore; at one level he drove a cab late at evening in New York City, with a hatchet on his dashboard to dissuade robbers.

He additionally took up pictures, aspiring to make use of his digital camera to disclose social injustice. In 1985 he joined a peace march in El Salvador, organized to protest government-sanctioned violence towards clergymen and labor leaders. His introduced his gear, and a number of other of his pictures appeared in main newspapers, together with The New York Times.

It was throughout that journey that he first encountered members of the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, a tiny New York-based group that operated out of workplace area supplied by a garment employees union. Through it, he grew to become lively within the motion to show America’s position in supporting right-wing violence in Central America, and he finally joined the committee’s workers. He grew to become director in 1990.

As he deepened his involvement, Mr. Kernaghan started to obtain threatening telephone calls telling him to cease his activism. One evening in 1988, he was asleep in his Manhattan house when a person got here via the window, mentioned “I’m going to kill you,” and stabbed him within the chest with a bread knife.

Medics took Mr. Kernaghan to the hospital, however when docs advised him he didn’t have any life-threatening accidents, he slipped out, and he was again at work just a few days later. The assailant was by no means caught.

Mr. Kernaghan’s group moved in 2008 to Pittsburgh at the invitation of the United Steel Workers union. It additionally modified its title to the much less unwieldy Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights.

He introduced his retirement in 2017. But he insisted there was extra work to be performed.

“If our garments might speak,” he advised The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2012, “they’d be screaming.”


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