The Man Who Made Kathie Lee Cry

Charles Kernaghan in 2000 with a handbag sold as part of Wal-Mart's Kathie Lee Gifford line, which he said was made in sweatshops.
Charles Kernaghan in 2000 with a handbag sold as part of Wal-Mart's Kathie Lee Gifford line, which he said was made in sweatshops. (By Michael Smith -- Newsmakers)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Really, it's inappropriate to be here, at a tony Capitol Hill restaurant for lunch. The guest, you see, doesn't eat lunch. Charles Kernaghan usually is too driven, too obsessed with his crusades to get bogged down with food (except a late-night dinner, his main meal of the day.) And this power-lunching thing has got him on the wrong side of the fence. Usually he's shouting at the powerful, not dining among them; usually he's shaming them, even secretly videotaping their factories for his various exposés.

He unveiled the results of the latest of his many investigations just this month. Outside the NBA Store on New York's Fifth Avenue, Kernaghan brandished a new report, "Sweating for the NBA and NFL," alleging unfair labor practices at a Honduran factory contracted by Reebok to make replica jerseys. Dozens of workers told of being locked inside the factory, forced to work up to 13 hours a day, even required to get permission to go to the bathroom. (Reebok said the charges were inaccurate but pledged an independent investigation.)

Reebok was only the latest target. For more than a decade, Kernaghan's National Labor Committee -- four staffers, including himself -- has launched a steady stream of highly publicized campaigns, taking on the labor practices at factories producing clothes for Liz Claiborne, Fruit of the Loom, the Gap, Disney, JCPenney, Kmart, Kohl's, Nike, Target, Levi Strauss and Sean Jean.

And who could forget Kathie Lee? Kernaghan will perhaps forever be known as the activist who made Kathie Lee Gifford cry when he revealed during congressional testimony in 1996 that child laborers in Honduras were making the Gifford clothing line sold at Wal-Mart.

In Washington on Thursday to meet with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to discuss possible anti-sweatshop legislation, Kernaghan said that episode was his sweetest victory.

"The Kathie Lee Gifford thing literally changed the way people do business," he says.

That's not just hyperbole. The president of the Arlington-based American Apparel and Footwear Association says virtually the same thing -- though he's careful not to appear to be giving credit to Kernaghan, who is, let's be frank, a thorn in the apparel industry's side.

"We remember that every day," Kevin M. Burke says of the Kathie Lee controversy, "and that's a lesson to us, the fact that we don't want that to happen again. And as a result of that, you had an industry begin to mobilize itself to make certain that, over time, they produce their products in the most responsible manner to make certain that employees are treated with dignity and respect."

There's something austere about Kernighan, 57-- the wire-rimmed glasses, the precision-clipped goatee, the slicked-back silver hair, the flat expression. He is coiled. He seems about to spring. He is incapable of schmoozing with his corporate targets, he admits, for he's always on-message, always ready to strike.

But loosen him up over a non-lunch lunch (he has only a cup of coffee) and he's quite the hoot, with that clipped, theatrical way of talking common to New Yorkers, especially deep Brooklynites. He grew up in the Williamsburg section to a Polish mom and a Scottish dad in a devoutly Catholic household where "The Grapes of Wrath" shaped the familial consciousness, this feeling that there was "great dignity among working people and there were struggles to be fought." His dad worked construction. His neighbors worked the Domino sugar factory. Kernaghan knew the struggle of the working class firsthand.

He once thought of entering the priesthood but changed his mind. Instead, he pursued psychology, earning a bachelor's degree from Loyola University, a master's from the New School of New York. He taught psych for a while at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he also was studying phenomenology, a strain of philosophy, until he dropped it.

He retired from his career as a "professional student" in his twenties and retreated to the solitude of a small town, Ohiopyle, Pa., where he sat beneath a grape arbor next to the Youghiogheny River, waved at the conductor of a train that passed daily and read Dostoevski, , Sartre, Kierkegaard and Kafka. The letters of van Gogh especially left an impression on him. He related to that maddening obsession of van Gogh's, that crushing quest for the perfect yellow.

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