Charlie Kernaghan, Keeper of the Fire

He made Kathie Lee Gifford cry and made the Gap treat its workers better. Now Charlie Kernaghan plans to put an end to sweatshop labor altogether.

Photo: Chris Buck

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He stands off to the right of the stage, all suit and tie, wire-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed beard. His body leans back, almost bends like a bow, his 6-foot frame taut, the blue eyes focused, the muscles of his face tight. He is about to launch. Charlie Kernaghan explains, “This isn’t a lecture. I have nothin’ to teach anyone.” He’s 55 years old, the hair largely gray now, all duded up like a college professor, and he’s backed by a huge American flag in this union hall in Ashland, Ohio. He looks out at a night meeting of 60 or 70 men and women who wear baseball caps blazing with American flags or shouting “UAW.” Kernaghan slips into the zone, this state where he is an instrument of some other power, and when he hits the zone, well, my God, he becomes in-your-face messages. Charlie’s voice half shouts with a strangled quality; the eyes shrink and become intense. The workers are attentive but at first cannot find a handle to grip in the barrage of words. Last year he made 68 speeches, flew 84,000 miles. He’s got the speech down pat. He’ll hold up a photograph of some Bangladeshi kid who’s sewn stuff for Disney and shout, “SHE MAKES 17 CENTS AN HOUR. DO THE MATH.”

Technically, he is a part of the National Labor Committee, a letterhead group of four or five in a small warren of rooms loaned by UNITE in New York City. But beneath this façade he is an independent, a man controlled by no backers, free of any union, immune to academic nuance. He is mildly famous in some circles as the man who made Kathie Lee Gifford cry on camera when he revealed that her clothing line, one peddled by Wal-Mart, was made by kids in Third World sweatshops. The kids made pennies an hour; Kathie Lee took home about $9 million a year for loaning out her name. When Kernaghan first saw her face on a label in Honduras he did not know who she was. Watching television is one of many things he’s skipped for about 15 years. But when she denounced him on national television for telling lies about her, he directed the media to a sweatshop making her togs about a mile from her ABC studio.

Tonight, in the union hall, he hits his riffs. Ashland is basic America, unions crashing, factories fleeing, jobs disappearing. About 83 percent of all garments sold in the United States are now made offshore, as are 80 percent of the toys, 90 percent of the sporting goods, 95 percent of the shoes. The people who make these items largely work in sweatshops for pennies an hour. The companies who commission the work, the famous brand names, buffer themselves from employing slaves and children by using brokers to contract out the work. Kernaghan wants to pull the mask off this practice and end it. Everything he does is simply a means to this end.

“We’ve lost more than 2 million manufacturing jobs in the last two years,” Kernaghan announces. “Last year China surpassed the U.S. as the destination of foreign investment, manufacturing is being dismantled, the consumer is being hurt, the economy is stagnant. In the last two years China has created 30 million jobs and the U.S. HAS LOST 2 MILLION.”

He starts pulling clothing out of a bag. He holds up a Wal-Mart item and says, “THERE IS BLOOD ON THIS GARMENT,” and then rattles on about the Vietnamese women, imported to an American Samoan factory, who made it, the way they were beaten and kept behind wire, fed gruel and sexually used, the wages they were paid. The facts slap the union members in the face; the bodies suddenly tighten and sit up alert on the hard seats. Enslaved women and kids? Making the clothes on my back? He rolls on with the Gap, Disney, Nike, label after label tied to tales of Third World horror. “If you listen to Nike,” he snorts, “you’d think they were a religious organization.” He holds up a Nike jersey that retails for $140 but is made by women in El Salvador for 29 cents each. Kernaghan presents a Nike memo he salvaged from the local dump, a favorite research site, that breaks the sewing of another garment into 22 steps, each step timed to a ten-thousandth of a second, all totaling 6.6 minutes. He rolls on that wages account for 10 percent of the retail price of a garment made in the U.S., but only one-third of 1 percent of the price of a garment made in the Third World.

“This,” he spits out, “is the true face of the global economy. Labor has been erased. Wal-Mart is larger than the economy of 161 countries … It was 104 degrees in the factory … housed in rat-infested dormitories.” Kernaghan’s hands wave; he is possessed. He holds up a huge photo of a 13-year-old girl in Bangladesh: “This is the real face of Wal-Mart. She only had two days off in the last four months. She’s never ridden a bicycle. Seven cents an hour.”

After an hour he takes a break, then resumes and goes for another hour. After that it takes Kernaghan a half-hour to get out of the hall as people keep buttonholing him. He owns them. And he needs a beer. He’s not cut out for this stuff, he contends. He had other dreams. Afterward, he heads for a downtown bar, Bullshooters, a den of boozy young people being assaulted by rust- belt karaoke singers. He is at ease there. He is back home. Kernaghan was born one of three children in Brooklyn to immigrant parents. His mother a Czech, his father a Scot in the trades. His older brother studied to become a priest; his sister was a manager. Charlie, after an education at a Marianist high school on Long Island and at Loyola University in Chicago, became a perpetual graduate student. His family was devoutly Catholic and his parents also raised 17 foster children. His father kept taking out bank loans to adopt the kids and kept being denied because of the age of himself and his wife.

Charlie tried psychology, then anthropology, at various schools. Inevitably, he’d be sitting in a class, wonder what in the hell he was doing, walk out and hit the road — for Europe, the Middle East. He still has powerful memories of things such as the feel of night by the Dead Sea when the jackals come out. In between bouts of wandering, he’d hole up in a cheap room and read endlessly. In the early ’80s, his father, in despair, got him a carpenters’ union card and Kernaghan showed up his first day with a hammer borrowed from his mom and totally incompetent. He worked on remodeling Steve Ross’ office at Warner Communications. There was one big room where Ross stored his personal stock certificates. There was a black glass-and-marble bathroom with a special magazine rack by the toilet. One day, Charlie had to install a phone in the bathroom, glued it in upside down, and the whole smoked glass wall had to be trashed. He made $47,000 in six months and quit.

For a spell, he drove a taxi. Sometimes he’d get rough passengers at night and see them pulling out their weapons as they prepared to rob him. He always calmed such fares the same way: He’d pull a hatchet out from under his seat and set it on the dashboard. But mainly, he looked for something he could not define.

He walks out of a class and takes a freighter to Casablanca. He walks out of a class, drives, and finds Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, a hamlet of less than 100. He rents a room and for six months sits in the waters of the creek reading books. He rents a shotgun apartment near Tompkins Square back when it was famous as Needle Park. At night, he walks with a club or a quart of Ballantine’s Ale to beat off muggers. He rigs up a darkroom, studies photography, and decides he wants to be like Lewis Hine, the photojournalist who burned child labor into the American mind. Charlie rides the subway searching for moments. In 1985, he stumbles upon Lewis Henry Morgan, an upstate lawyer who in the mid-19th century penned a classic on the League of the Iroquois and helped create American anthropology. Kernaghan is struck by the Onondaga, arbitrators among the other nations and known as the “Keepers of the Fire.” He wonders, Who is going to keep our fire? Who will save all the precious memories in life that mean nothing because you can’t make money off them? He figures that must be the role of the artist, to save these precious things.

He decides on a plan. He fixes up an old car, loads the backseat with cases of beer, and decides to drive to Duluth — a mysterious dot on the map where he could perhaps for once see, his eyes unhindered by the blinders of past experiences. When he gets there, he’s going to stand for three days and nights on a street corner with his camera and see if he can catch glimpses of the Keepers of the Fire, those souls who still have the spark.

Just before he leaves for Duluth, a priest calls asking Charlie to accompany him to El Salvador and Honduras for a peace march. Kernaghan hates Reagan’s little wars in Central America and so, temporarily, he postpones his jaunt to Duluth.

He can’t speak a foreign language, use a computer, or type. He constantly says he is frightened, terrified, and scared shitless. He’d never given a speech before he got into this thing, he’s disorganized (he got his first grant when the foundation, out of frustration, filled out Kernaghan’s application for him), he fucks up, he can’t keep track of things, he creates disorder. Charlie Kernaghan constantly ticks off a list of his failings and limits and terrors. He is almost unconscious of this recurring litany because he not only believes it — he feels it. He is the basic unit in how things get done: someone working past his level of confidence, making it up as he goes along, falling through space, spooked but enthralled as the air streams across his face. He can keep going only because of what he always refers to as “the work.” And the work can get done only so long as he never defines it or analyzes it or probes around its dark shadows where the cobwebs might brush his face.

The work is clarity and a mystery.

He can’t be calm — Kernaghan must run each day in an effort to sedate himself. In El Salvador in 1985, he spent three days with peasants in the San Salvador cathedral they occupied, got a crash course in lack of rights for working people, and decided to do something about it. While down there, Kernaghan hooked up with the National Labor Committee (NLC), a group created by the Reverend David Dyson, a Presbyterian minister who’d come out of the labor movement. As the Central American wars wound down and interest in the NLC declined, Kernaghan, now living in New York, kept it afloat.

“You don’t just throw away connections like that,” he reasoned.

He met Barbara Briggs in 1986 when she dropped by the NLC office in New York. She’d just graduated from University of Massachusetts at Amherst and wanted to go to Central America, learn Spanish, and help unions. “One of those goofy college things,” Charlie told her. He explained that nobody down there needed more radical tourists — they needed support from people living in the United States. She went anyway, and he’d bump into her on trips he’d make to Central America and they’d go on dates. At the end of 1988, she agreed to come to New York and help him run the NLC. It became functionally a committee of two.

He kept the NLC going with “smoke and mirrors,” loans from his folks, and guerrilla theater. He improvised, like the time he and a film crew put on suits and walked into a Honduran factory with cameras rolling. He donned his best disguise, that of an American academic. That way no one fusses over him, since they figure he must be ineffectual. The management ignored Kernaghan and the film crew for 15 or 20 minutes. Then they came to confiscate the film but balked because the soundman looked huge and surly.

Charlie Kernaghan opted for a simple tactic: shaming brand-name companies. He learned that if he took the shirt off your back and showed you the blood of children in the fabric, people would snap alert. He lived without a telephone or television in an apartment eventually condemned by the city.

“I’m shy,” he says softly. “It is hard for me to network. I had to learn to overcome a lot of stuff. It was torture in the beginning. I had to dress up; I had no clothes. A friend in my building had a suit I’d borrow, a size 42. I’d look like a clown. I was all right sitting down but when I stood up, it was like I was in a bag. I feel better around working people. I don’t feel comfortable around professional people — I have no small talk.”

In 1988, he talks his parents into renting an apartment next to his dump on 6th Street by arguing, Hey, this way you can learn Manhattan. December 30 is the day they move in. That weekend Barbara is coming up from Central America to help run the NLC office.

That night Charlie is lying cold and naked in his bed when he hears a sound. He grabs for a small baseball bat he keeps handy. But he’s half-asleep and the bat slides under the bed. That’s when this huge guy comes dancing across the floor making karate moves, hits him, and says, “I’m here to kill you.” Charlie tumbles with him, breaks free, runs to the door, but can’t get all his locks undone. He’s scared but he thinks, Well, the guy isn’t hitting me that hard. Suddenly he feels something warm in the middle of his chest, looks down, and sees a knife sticking out.

The intruder pulls the knife out of Charlie’s chest and blood spurts everywhere. Charlie’s naked and screaming, fending off knife moves, rolling around with the guy, and gets stabbed in the foot. His parents awaken to their son screaming through the thin tenement walls, call 911, and realize they don’t really know where they are, don’t even know their new address. Meanwhile, the guy breaks off the attack, figures out how to undo the locks, and flees. Charlie’s parents find him naked and bleeding and beaten. They give him a phone and he deals with 911. “It was scary,” Charlie recalls. “The ambulance was freezing cold, and then we hit the ER, and the guys are screamin’, ‘Stab victim! Stab victim!'”

Charlie is put in Intensive Care. After two hours he is “fuckin’ bored” and kind of depressed because all the other people in IC are in real bad shape. So he leaves, gets a cab, and goes home. Meanwhile, Barbara has arrived in New York and is puzzled that she can’t get Charlie on the phone. A day or two later he is back at work because he realized he was “perfectly healthy, except for this hole in my chest.”

After a spell, he and Barbara are living together and find their rhythm of working from about 8 a.m. until about 10 p.m. every day of the week. He handles the stump speaking; she feels more comfortable sitting on the academic panels that make Charlie uneasy. They are both tireless and seem at ease with their division of labor in the grand project called “the work.” His photography ends; he stops reading anything but documents. He falls into what looks like a hole but feels like a life.

The morning after the union talk, Kernaghan addresses a leadership meeting in Ashland, a room full of business types. He is relentless as he flings his facts: Huffy Bicycle Co., Celina, Ohio, $11 an hour plus $6 an hour in benefits, 750 workers, moved to China, now the workers are paid 25 to 35 cents an hour, 66-hour workweek. “Have we ever heard from any of these workers, just once?”

Then comes the drive across Ohio, a corner of Pennsylvania, and east across New York. He keeps spotting deer in the snow, revels in the woods and hills. His family has a broken-down cabin in the Adirondacks that his folks bought decades ago but he hardly ever has time to go there. Kernaghan is constantly on his cell phone with Barbara thrashing out plans, and the man of professed disorder seems very orderly and exact.

In between calls and wildlife sightings, he wanders back through past campaigns, a history of intuitive moves underscored by an almost tactical genius. Kernaghan seems born to make the back pages of the global economy suddenly leap onto front pages.

“I found a way to sublimate a lot of things,” he allows. “I’m not very smart, but I focus and the more focused you are the freer you are. I never get tired. It seems incredible that you can have an impact on these big companies. I don’t do anything else. You get an incredible amount done.”

He remembers his campaign against the Gap, and how they buckled and consented to independent inspections of their contracted offshore plants. “We beat the Gap,” he marvels. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d walk past the stores here in New York, look at all that plate glass — how in the hell do you beat something like that?”

Back in 1991, he decides to penetrate a meeting in Miami of offshore assembly plants, an annual jamboree where manufacturers and Third World nations hobnob.

He invents a company that makes reusable shopping bags (the symbol is a tree, the slogan “Save the Trees”) from recycled material. He gets a letterhead and a big, official-looking checkbook; he and Barbara go to Miami, check into a cheap hotel, and walk over to the palatial lodgings taken up by corporations. Suddenly he is the hit of the conference, having big dinners with Rotterdam officials, being wooed by countries to plop his factory in their midst. He is, true to form, “scared shitless.” He and Barbara cadge food at the free buffets and take it back to their Best Western digs; he swills free drinks at the cocktail parties and gets loaded. He learns bucket-loads of information, including the brazenly anti-union pitches made by the various nations. He discovers that if “you move fast, [the companies] are going to make mistakes.”

In 1994, he supplies some film taken in an offshore factory to Senator Howard Metzenbaum. Somehow the Clinton White House gets a whiff of the footage in the midst of the vote on the GATT bill and Clinton kills a $160 million subsidy for factories moving offshore. Kernaghan knew nothing about the subsidy and had simply supplied the footage to Metzenbaum when his staff requested it. Nor did Metzenbaum use the footage to publicly attack the bill. But the administration got spooked. Move fast, frighten them.

And he learns from PR masters. During one Academy Awards ceremony, he rents an airplane to fly overhead, trailing a banner that reads “Disney Uses Sweatshops.” The People vs. Larry Flynt is up that year and because Flynt was not invited to attend, the old pornographer rents a plane trailing a banner that reads “Columbia Studios Sucks!” The television cameras catch both planes at once.

And then in 1996, Charlie Kernaghan holds up some Kathie Lee pants peddled by Wal-Mart at $19.96 and announces in a congressional hearing that the britches were made by a factory with 100 children earning 25 cents a pair and enjoying a 74-hour workweek. Kathie Lee cries on television. (“I started my clothing line to benefit children,” she explains to viewers. “Millions of dollars have gone to help children, and I truly resent this man impugning my integrity.”) Suddenly, Charlie Kernaghan, and his army of two, plus occasional helpers, is a national figure. When Wal-Mart and Kathie Lee want a meeting, Kernaghan insists on it being in a church. Not for religious reasons but out of fear that if they see the office, they will realize what a tiny band they are fighting. He shotguns Kathie Lee with the 4-foot-9, 15-year-old Wendy Diaz, a loyal sewer of Kathie Lee garments who lives in a shack with 10 other people. Kernaghan’s allies in Honduras have shipped Diaz north as a living rebuttal. She tells the press of Kathie Lee: “Maybe her heart is black. I wish I could talk to her. If she’s good, she will help us.” When Diaz finally meets with Kathie Lee, Gifford promises she will fix things so that there will be no more physical and verbal abuse from foremen, no more restriction on bathroom breaks to one in the morning and one in the afternoon, no more slave wages. The next day at the Wal-Mart shareholders annual meeting, Gifford says, “We didn’t do anything wrong. That’s the important thing.

We live in a weird world. This country will forgive you rape, will forgive you murder, will forgive you anything but success.”

Kernaghan is suddenly a made man, part of the Rolodex of the press. And he does not rest: China, American Samoa, Central America, Bangladesh. He is everywhere, accompanied by donated film crews. He puts out tapes with titles like Zoned for Slavery and they circulate in the tens of thousands, especially on college campuses.

He is against boycotts since they put people out of work who are barely hanging on as it is. He accepts the global economy as a reality, not an option. At first, Kernaghan sought to get companies to agree to codes of conduct that would be monitored by independent human-rights groups. But as time went on, he realized the scale of the labor migration offshore made such a tactic hopeless. Wal-Mart, for example, contracts with 4,400 plants in just one province of China. Then he sensed a window of opportunity for passing federal legislation that would outlaw the import of items made by children or in sweatshops, a kind of federal consumer guarantee that the goods in U.S. stores are pure and clean. He figured the biggest market in the world could impose such a demand if it wished.

And so now, as he drives across New York state and fields phone calls, he is all about building a coalition of lawyers, church people, unions, and students to demand such legislation. He notes bitterly that trademarks such as Mickey Mouse are rigorously protected in the global economy but workers’ rights are considered irrelevant. He is determined to change that.

He is relaxed and yet always coiled. Once, in an airport, his cell phone failed to function even as he stood surrounded by others cheerfully talking on their cell phones. So he smashed his phone to pieces on the floor. About 90 students show up at the auditorium of a state college in Oneonta, New York, most gang-pressed by teachers to attend. Kernaghan begins by saying, “This is gonna be relatively painless. I’m not goin’ to lecture, I’m just gonna tell some stories.” He roars the speech — 90 percent of the imported sporting goods, and 80 percent of the toys, and so forth. “All over the world the people making products for us are young people like yourself,” he explains. “When your life is taking off, the lives of young people who make things for you are over — they’re thrown out on the street about age 30. Nike’s game plan is to put the swoosh on your forehead. The greatest nightmare the corporations have is that you wake up. You have the ability to free your brothers and sisters.” Then he picks up a Wal-Mart shirt made in American Samoa. (“There’s blood on this shirt.…”)

About seven minutes into his talk, the bodies tighten, the eyes suddenly focus, the fidgeting stops. He owns them.

He tends to use both hands. He’ll explain corporate greed by holding up his right hand, spreading thumb and forefinger all the way apart like a big pipe wrench, and saying, “Profits.” Then he’ll hold his left hand, the thumb and forefinger only millimeters apart, and say, “Labor costs.” Or he pours an invisible pitcher from his right to his left hand, showing how companies drain the lives out of the workers. He seems totally unaware of these movements; they have no theatrical ease but seem the inescapable expression of the tension rising off his body.

Later, he winds down at an Italian restaurant. On the wall is an autographed photo of James Gandolfini, star of The Sopranos, with the owner. Kernaghan does not know who he is. He digs into his ravioli and pronounces it “delicious.” He drinks a German beer and finds it also “delicious.” He is asked just what the hell he means by his constant expression, “the work,” and he falls into a pool of silence for a minute or two.

Then he says with almost strangled passion, “It’s very much like a fantasy. My family was all-inclusive love. I was set loose like a cannon. That, combined with religion, blew the whole thing to shreds — every day life was flat, zero, meaningless. My parents were disturbed by me, worried about me finding a career. But they sent me off in a direction where I could live for meaning. Life is precious. I fuckin’ hate injustice. No one should interpret our lives — we should speak for ourselves.”

The next day he’s back in New York, plotting a demonstration at an upcoming Disney shareholder meeting. He’s got three Mickey Mouse suits lined up and, of course, will keep one eye cocked for the Keepers of the Fire.

And he’ll have running through his mind a calculation he once made: At the time, Phil Knight of Nike had a personal fortune of $5 billion. If Knight flew around the world first class, Charlie figured, that would consume only $11,027. If he stayed in a good room at the Waldorf, that would run $400 and even the best breakfast could swallow only $153. If he bought a new Lincoln Continental, that would get rid of $39,660. If he ratcheted up his consumption and flew around the world every day, stayed at the Waldorf and had three fine meals a day, and bought a new Lincoln every week, he’d still be okay for the next 781 years.

“Why does anyone need that kind of money?” Kernaghan asks.

And when he asks this question, he looks absolutely baffled.


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That means we're going to have upwards of $350,000, maybe more, to raise in online donations between now and June 30, when our fiscal year ends and we have to get to break-even. And even though there's zero cushion to miss the mark, we won't be all that in your face about our fundraising again until June.

So we urgently need this specific ask, what you're reading right now, to start bringing in more donations than it ever has. The reality, for these next few months and next few years, is that we have to start finding ways to grow our online supporter base in a big way—and we're optimistic we can keep making real headway by being real with you about this.

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