Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 29, 1996

This Day in Labor History: April 29, 1996

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On April 29, 1996, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee testified before House Democrats on Labor Committee that he had discovered sweatshop labor on Kathie Lee Gifford branded clothing in Honduras. This brought the anti-sweatshop movement into public eye and was a key moment in the only major pro-labor movement of the 1990s.

The textile industry has remained among the most exploitative industries in the history of capitalism. From the time the industry developed with the Industrial Revolution, it has aggressively looked for the cheapest and most easily exploited labor possible. It started by employing small children, moved to Irish and then Jewish and Italian immigrants when the Irish got too expensive. The response to these workers unionizing and bringing public attention to the industries horrific sweatshops was to beat the workers on the streets of New York. Then the Triangle Fire happened in 1911. 146 workers died and Americans were disgusted to find out that workers died making their clothing. The problem in this for the apparel industry was not that workers died. It’s that such things got attention. So by the 1920s, it fled wholescale to the South, where it chose very specific sites–mostly white, evangelical towns with little to no immigration and strong traditions of paternalistic employment–to ensure that its workers would not unionize. Mostly that worked, but there were moments when workers did rise up. When that happened in the 1920s and 1930s, the states would use the military to murder workers and bust the strikes. In the 1970s and early 80s, some of these factories did unionize. The response of the companies was to shut down the southern factories and move them to Mexico. The maquiladoras that started in the Border Industrialization Program were perfect for the apparel industry, which required low capital investment and preferred an unskilled workforce. Apparel manufacturers sprinted to Mexico. Then other nations realized they could attract low-wage jobs and thus foreign capital as well. A global race to the bottom began.

The rise of the global sweatshop did not get that much attention until the 1990s. With the decline of American unions, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of neoliberal capitalism, a greater attention began to be paid to globalization. The ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement over union opposition and then its rapid expansion with the Central American Free Trade Agreement brought a new international focus to progressive forces for workers’ rights.

Charles Kernaghan was one of these people. He headed the National Labor Committee, which sounds fancy and well-funded, but was in fact a tiny little operation focused on Latin America. It was founded in 1980 by American union leaders to help Central American unionists who were victims of American supported right-wing political violence. It provided labor something of a voice in the peace agreements of the early 90s in Central America that ended the official wars. After that, the NLC became Kernaghan’s baby. He had joined the organization in 1986 and became executive director in 1990.

Kernaghan was obsessed with the horrors of global capitalism. He understood that behind all the fancy nice happy Republican and centrist Democratic talk about the glories of free trade was intensive exploitation. He determined to investigate that and do something about it. He started visiting factories in Central America, taking secret video, talking to workers, and compiling reports. He had some early success. In 1992, he wrote a report on how American aid subsidized the growth of sweatshops. 60 Minutes picked up on this and did a report, which led to a very weak American law limiting the importation of goods from these factories. Not much changed though. Then in 1995, he brought a young Salvadoran sweatshop worker who made clothing for Gap on an American tour to provide eyewitness testimony to the hell of these people’s lives. Gap was furious and denied everything but then admitted it was lying and allowed independent monitors into its suppliers.

Then Kernaghan went to Honduras. While there, a worker gave him a piece of clothing with a name he did not recognize–Kathie Lee Gifford. Kernaghan had no idea who that was. He did not watch TV and he especially did not watch crappy daytime talk. But he soon found out what he had–a major celebrity pushing her own brand of clothing through Walmart based on the rank exploitation of child labor. And since Gifford constantly talked about her own children on the show (my own mother was a religious viewer of Regis & Kathie Lee, as well as its descendants so I heard all of this stuff), the angle was gold. He did more investigating. The girls, many of whom were 15 and 16 years old, made 31 cents an hour for 75 hour weeks.

In April 1996, Kernaghan testified about all of this before Congress. For the first time, the American media paid attention to this issue. Two days later, Kathie Lee went on her television show to talk about and started crying. She probably had no idea what the conditions were. She might not have known that the clothes were even made in Honduras. Could she find Honduras on a map? Had she heard of the place? But this was the dark evil at the heart of globalization. She didn’t have to know any of this, at least not until Charles Kernaghan made it a public thing.

With Americans now paying attention to sweatshops for once, Kernaghan and his allies looked to take advantage. A master publicist, he would pull stunts like hiring an airplane to fly over the Academy Awards with a banner reading “Disney Uses Sweatshops.” He organized tours of workers. He was a great speaker. He found a home on college campuses. United Students Against Sweatshops arose to fight the issue, forcing colleges and universities to adhere to ethical standards and independent monitoring of school branded apparel. Conditions for some workers did improve. International solidarity grew and even the American labor movement got involved, both with financial support and realizing that a new generation of organizers could be hired out of the anti-sweatshop movement. So a lot of kids in that era went through the Union Summer program started under John Sweeney to find and train new organizers and a lot of them ended up working in the labor movement or doing other things. That includes myself, who did the three-day Union Summer training after getting started on some of these anti-sweatshop actions, was recruited into the full Union Summer program, but after a shitty job with a horrible SEIU local, I went the academia/labor history route instead. Still, it was all key to my development.

In an era when the political establishment had turned its back on the American working class, the anti-sweatshop was critically important in moving attention to the newly globalized exploitation. Unfortunately, 9/11 and fighting against the human rights violations and pointless wars of the Bush regime took much of the energy away from the focus on the global working class. In 2013, the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh and 1,138 workers died. Basically no one cared and almost nothing changed. It does not have to be that way.

This is the 479th post in this series. Previous posts in are archived here.

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