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 exposes.
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.
In those days, Kernaghan's yellow was photography. He felt he lived through the images he captured with his camera. He returned to New York and shot obsessively, driving cabs or working construction to pay the rent.
It was photography that took him to El Salvador that first time in the mid-1980s, when he went to photograph a peace march during that country's civil war. He met workers and labor leaders. He championed Salvadoran causes. Then, in the early 1990s, he became head of the National Labor Committee, a policy group that once had been affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
With the globalizing economy came more and more reports of cheap labor being exploited. To get at those suffering workers and their stories, Kernaghan has posed as a potential investor to gain entry into plants. He's brought workers to the United States to parade before TV cameras. He could strike anywhere; he once staged a protest at a Gap store in eastern Pennsylvania, in Pottsville.
Among his recent work: "Toys of Misery," a report last year about conditions in a Chinese factory that produces small toy cars for Disney, Wal-Mart and Hasbro. (Work shifts at the plant: 18 to 20 hours. Days off per year: 15.) This month he also produced "The Race to the Bottom," about conditions inside a Mexican plant that supplies parts for Ford, General Motors and Subaru.
For an NBC "Dateline" segment that aired in June, he wore a pair of eyeglasses with a hidden camera embedded in the bridge to document conditions inside some Bangladeshi plants that produce goods for U.S. companies.
He has been called an "economic terrorist."
But all he's doing, he protests, is trying to stop the corporate "race to the bottom," which is how he describes the search by U.S. companies for cheap labor around the globe.
There are people in this world with so little income that they aspire simply to move "from misery to poverty," Kernaghan says.
And he gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: "If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity." (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly.
"It just destroys me," he says.
The opposite view, expressed by the apparel industry's Burke, is that jobs in the underdeveloped world (especially for people who had no employment in the first place) are part of the engine of economic growth.
That is the ideal of globalization, and Kernaghan says he's not against it. He simply wants it to be equitable.
"A company can move its jobs to some remote corner of the world, hire kids and work them in almost any condition, and there's no prohibition with respect to the American marketplace," says Dorgan, who held hearings in 2003 on the accusations of labor abuses leveled at Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's fashion line. Over the past decade, companies that produce overseas have become far more vigilant about labor practices. Even Kernaghan concedes this. There is more oversight from non-government groups, for one thing. And there's always the threat of protest should an unfair labor practice be uncovered.
That is why Kernaghan's been called a "hammer," out to nail corporate offenders.
But really, he says, "I'm a soft pushover. I cry at movies."
Nonetheless, large donors don't gravitate to his group. It is a source of some bitterness for him, expressed when he says, "If we were doing penguins or whales, we'd probably be raising millions."
No matter. His group makes do on an annual budget of about $500,000.
He's old school. He's got no laptop or BlackBerry or any other PDA. He's a Luddite. Cell phones flummox him. He's got no e-mail address.
Barbara Briggs, his personal and professional partner of 15 years, handles technology for him. They are a hothouse of ideas and brainstorms and crusading zeal. They live and breathe the battle. They don't cook; they order out -- Chinese, Polish, pastrami. There are no children.
For them, the work is all. They are planning another campaign, to be unveiled next month. Kernaghan won't reveal its subject.