Charles Kernaghan, who with single-minded passion and tireless energy exposed the prevalence of sweatshop-made goods on American toy shelves, department stores and celebrity fashion lines, died June 1 at his Manhattan home. He was 74 years old.
His sister, Maryellen Kernaghan, announced the death but did not provide a cause.
As a longtime director of a restricted organization called the National Labor Committee, Mr Kernaghan was among the first campaigners to show that the seemingly magical fall in prices of a wide range of consumer goods in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of American companies. ‘ moving production to developing countries, where workers often worked in dangerous conditions for pennies an hour.
He specialized in high profile takedowns, targeting brands like Nike, Disney and Walmart. He targeted 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 sweatshop.
A self-proclaimed introvert, Mr. Kernaghan has become a different person in front of an audience. He could talk for hours, telling stories and data in a way that put a human face on the free trade debate.
“He had a worldview that behind all the good talk about the garment industry and corporate social responsibility was actually a brutal and exploitative industry based on a global race to the bottom, and he took on him to expose this. hypocrisy,” said Mark Levinson, chief economist of Workers United and the Service Employees International Union, in a telephone interview. “And he did it brilliantly.”
Mr. Kernaghan’s first major exposure came in 1992, when he and his colleagues showed how US aid subsidized sweatshop construction in the developing world. Their report, which served as the basis for a “60 Minutes” segment, led to legislation banning U.S. support for factories that fail to meet labor and safety standards.
In 1995, after spending months investigating the Salvadoran factories that supplied the Gap, he published a report showing how heavily the clothing company relied on sweatshop labor. To drive home the point, he took one of the workers, a 15-year-old girl named Judith Viera, on a 14-city speaking tour.
At first, the Gap denied his accusations; then he blamed his suppliers. But after protests erupted against the company, it agreed to allow independent monitors into factories.
While on a research trip to a Gap supplier in Honduras, a worker slipped him a tag with a different name on it: that of television host Kathie Lee Gifford. She earned $9 million a year licensing her name to a brand sold at Walmart, and boasted that part of the profits went to charity.
Mr. Kernaghan dug deeper, and in April 1996 he told Congress what he had discovered: To make Mrs. Gifford’s clothes, girls as young as 15 worked for 31 cents an hour, 75 hours per 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 she also eventually agreed to allow the monitors, and Mr Kernaghan – now known as ‘the man who made Kathie Lee cry’ – has become a force for the clothing industry to reckon with. In 1997, he rented a plane to fly over the Oscars, trailing a banner that read “Disney uses sweatshops.”
“Charlie had a knack for publicity,” Jo-Ann Mort, a communications consultant who has worked with garment industry unions, said in a phone interview. “He knew how to bring the issue to the public’s attention.”
When he wasn’t in Central America or Asia, he toured the lecture circuit. He gave up to 85 speeches a year, often accompanied by a sweatshop worker, or with a bag from which he pulled out a t-shirt or sweater and shouted, “There’s blood on that garment!”
He spoke often on college campuses, and in the late 1990s he 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 anyone on these issues,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights attorney who helped lead the campus anti-sweatshop movement as a college student. undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and who considers Mr. Kernaghan a mentor. “He was just one of those guys, you could feel the passion in his bones.”
Charles Patrick Kernaghan was born on April 2, 1948 in Brooklyn. Her father, Andrew, was a Scottish immigrant who installed acoustic tiles, and her mother, Mary (Znojemsky) Kernaghan, was a voluntary social worker born in what was then Czechoslovakia.
His parents instilled in Charles a strong sense of social justice: they fostered more than 20 children and nudged him, his sister, and his brother into community-oriented careers. (His sister worked for a non-profit organization and his brother, John, who died in 1990, was a Jesuit priest).
His sister is his only immediate survivor.
Mr. Kernaghan received a degree in psychology from Loyola University Chicago in 1970 and a master’s degree in the same field from the New School for Social Research in New York in 1975. He then taught at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh , but he soon abandoned his academic aspirations.
For a moment he drifted. In America and on long voyages through Europe and the Middle East, he worked as a carpenter, steward, and stevedore; at one point he drove a taxi late at night in New York, with a hatchet on his dashboard to deter thieves.
He also took up photography, aspiring to use his camera to expose social injustice. In 1985, he joined a peace march in El Salvador, organized to protest against government-sanctioned violence against priests and labor leaders. He brought his equipment and many of his photographs appeared in major newspapers, including the New York Times.
It was during this trip that he first met members of the National Committee of Work for Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, a small New York-based organization that operated out of office space provided by a union of garment workers. Through this, he became active in the movement to expose America’s role in supporting right-wing violence in Central America, and he eventually joined the staff of the committee. He became its director in 1990.
As he deepened his involvement, Mr Kernaghan began receiving threatening phone calls telling him to stop his activism. One night in 1988, while he was sleeping in his Manhattan apartment, a man came in 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 hospital, but when doctors told him he had no life-threatening injuries, he escaped and returned to work a few days later. The attacker was never arrested.
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 less weighty Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights.
He announced his retirement in 2017. But he insisted there was still work to be done.
“If our clothes could talk,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2012, “they would scream.”