Using Every Trick in Fighting Sweatshops

New York Times |  By Randy Kennedy | December, 09 1999 |  Share  | Source Article

You know you are in the presence of a certain kind of labor advocate when he begins to talk about the effective use of nuns as weapons.

"The companies really, really hate it when the nuns get involved and start writing letters," said Charles Kernaghan, smiling maliciously from behind round glasses that reflected the light of a solidarity desk lamp he had turned on in his darkened office last week.

                " I mean, what are they going to say against nuns right?"

                Mr. Kernaghan is the executive director of the National Labor Committee which, despite its name is not National at all, but a crowded, cluttered bunch of offices in the Garment District from which Mr. Kernaghan and five other people direct a militant, low budget, much-criticized campaign against the use of sweatshop labor by large companies.

                Mr. Kernaghan led a reporter through the offices, trying not to step on the high school student spread across the floor painting picket signs for an anti-sweatshop protest march planned for today along Fifth Avenue.

                He cleared tangled piles of brand-new sweat pants and blouses and baby clothes from his couch. (He lugs these clothes around the country to use as props during speeches, comparing the retail price to the wage paid to the foreign workers who assemble these clothes.)

He has just returned from Seattle, where he went as a guest of the United Steelworkers of America. But while he was there, he broke off from the labor march and locked arms with students who were blocking hotels to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization.

                For a gloomy sort of man -the kind who loves Kafka and Sartre and describes the empty feeling he gets even after he wins public relations wars with big companies - Seattle was a version of a world the way Charles Kernaghan would like it.

                Except for the violence, which he condemned and would have liked to stop - "But I was going to get killed defending Starbucks," he says - the protests were a kind that Mr. Kernaghan thought died out not long after he helped shut down Loyola University of Chicago as an undergraduate in the late 1960s.

                 "Issues that no one in the United States really knew about - except a tiny little minority of people - now it's out there all across the country because of Seattle," he says. "It's like the Kathie Lee thing: now people are thinking about this."

The "KathieLee thing" his unlikely connection with Kathie LeeGifford, the talk show host - is, in a way, the beginning of any story about Mr. Kernaghan, a 51-year old former psychology teacher and self-described perpetual graduate student who worked as among many things other things, a taxi driver, a carpenter, a truck unloader and a photographer before almost wandering into labor rights.

                But three years ago, when he told a Congressional committeethat 15-year old girls were earning 31 cents an hour and working 75 hour  weeks  in a Honduran factory that made Mrs. Gifford's sportswear, he set off  a makeshift publicity campaign that brought more attention to sweatshops than any other.

                Mr. Kernaghan who spent most of an interview this week talking non-stop while staring at a pen he was twisting with both hands, is the first to admit he was overzealous and even unfair and that his facts can sometimes be a little off.

                "I'm not a trained economist. I don't come from an organizing background. I don't speak Spanish. I don't use a computer. I don't really like talking on the phone. I can't raise money and I can't network."

                He adds "But I often think that the reason why the work is successful in some ways is because it was a mistake that I came into it."

                As he tells the briefversion of his life story, though, it becomes clear that it was not much of a mistake. He grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then Valley Stream, N. Y., the son of a construction supervisor who emigrated from Scotland  His parents were strong Catholics who took in  foster children and presented religion to him as a way to treat other people. "It made me a radical" he says "really from the time I was a child."

                He became interested in psychology early on, mostly to figure out "how society operates and why people get shafted." But after studying it for years and then helping to teach it asa graduate assistant at  Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, one day he looked out the window of a classroom and thought to himself "I just can't do this anymore."

               And so he quit and got in his car and drove until he stopped driving. He got out at a pretty town of about 50 people in Pennsylvania called Ohiopyle, where he rented a house and dragged a picnic table into the woods and began to read (mostly Sartre and Kafka).

               Later, he worked just enough to earn money to wander the world, and by that time he got to El Salvador in the mid-1980s, where he saw working conditions first-hand, he knew what he was going to do. (He now lives in an apartment in the East Village with Barbara Briggs who helps run the campaign).

               Where does Mr. Kernaghan go from here? He wants  to get better at raising money, so he can hire more peope and go after more companies.

                 The big foundations won't touch us with a 10-foot pole," he says "And I'll tell you, if we were doing whales or penguins, we would be funded up the gazoo."