United Steelworkers Local 9460

Remembering Charles Kernaghan

 by Sue Pierce

He stands off beside the stage, wearing a suit and tie, neatly trimmed beard, mostly gray hair, and wire rimmed glasses. The muscles of his face are tight and he is about to pounce--launch into his speech. He is Charlie Kernaghan the executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Charlie Kernaghan starts to explain: "This is a picture of a kid from Bangladesh who's sewn stuff for Disney" and then he shouts---"SHE MAKES 17 CENTS AN HOUR. DO THE MATH!" The audience is now alert, awake, he HAS their attention. He continues to show photograghs and tell stories of the sweatshops, appalling living and working conditions of the impoverished workers around the world. That is what Charles Kenaghan is all about.

Charles was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York, one of three children. His mother was Czech and his father Scottish. He obtained a B.A. degree in 1970 from Lemoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Charlie worked as a carpenter (got a carpenters' union card, one day installed a phone in a black glass-and-marble bathroom that had a special magazine rack by the toilet. He installed the phone upside down and the whole smoked glass wall had to be trashed, made $47,000 in six months and quit). He once drove a taxi ( sometimes he'd get rough passengers at night, see them pull a gun to rob him, but he remained calm, he'd pull a hatchet out from under his seat and set it on the dashboard). These various jobs was not what Charlie was all about--he didn't know it then, but he was destind to help the workers of the world. He hated the greedy and corrupt world of big business who took advantage of workers all over the world. He dedicated his life to fight for these workers in Bangladesh, Honduras, El Salvador, Viet Nam, and New York City, to name a few.

In 1996 Charlie gave testimony at a congressional hearing that child laborers in Honduras and New York City were making clothing lines under the names of Kathie Lee Gifford and other celebrities. He became mildly famous as the man who made Gifford cry on national TV when he called her out that her clothing line was made by Third World kids for pennies an hour and she took home about $9 million a year for loaning out her name. Gifford responded that she was a celebrity endorser and had nothing to do with the management of the manufacturing plants. Again he called her out when he directed the media to a sweatshop making her clothing line about a mile from her ABC studio. The coverage of these investigations was so widespread that media referred it as "the summer of the sweatshop". Many companies were targeted and conditions improved in some areas.

Charlie Kernaghan has given testimonies not only to the U.S. Congress but to the United Nations as well. He has travelled to Central America, India, Jordan, Bangladesh, China and other developing countries. He has spoken to thousands of workers and put himself in grave danger in these countries, posing as prospective businessmen, seeking to build or start plants or factories. In the hopes of exposing the truth regarding the living and working conditions of these workers.

I first heard Charlie Kernaghan speak at a union conference in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago. I was upset, angry, sad. I could not believe the stories, the photos, and the conditions of the workers in these countries. I was proud that the Steelworkers were standing up and helping Charlie in his efforts to stop the multinational companies including Walmart, Nike, Disney, GAP, Alcoa, Victoria's Secret, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, Target, Kmart, and many others from taking advantage of the workers in these countries. Our local has made donations to the Labour Institute over the last several years. This April, at the International Convention in Las Vegas our delegation was invited to a farewell---a farewell to Charlie Kernaghan and his companion Barbara Briggs (whom he met in 1986 and they became partners in his efforts to help workers). Charlie is retiring. The Institute will be dissolved but we were assured that Charlie and Barb's work and efforts to improve these workers will continue. Surely not with the determination, passion and devotion that Charles Kernaghan had---because no one can equal that---but these workers will not be forgotten. The Steelworkers will not let that happen---we are a Union full of compassion, hope and UNITY!!!!

Thank you Charles Kernaghan and Barbara Briggs for all that you have done!

 

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