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Kathie Lee and the Sweatshop Crusade

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They push for their great causes: saving the forests, rescuing the wildlife, begging help for people beset by the cruel pinch of want. And it is tough for them to get attention. Amid so many competing miseries, America is tired of adversity and resists any disturbance to the public slumbering.

But every so often there is a breakthrough. And, in a nation obsessed with celebrity, there is no finer way to achieve it than to catch a falling star. What better example: the coupling of the abusive drudgery of the sweatshop and that high priestess in the secular church of TV, Kathie Lee Gifford.

El Monte, Calif., catapulted sweatshops into the news, the story’s shelf life extended by the anachronism of slavery. But even that horror has not matched the prolonged melodrama of a wildly popular do-gooder suddenly made to seem an uncaring profiteer. See her weep. See her squirm. See her perform her acts of penance. Kathie Lee has been on exhibit in the fantastic keyhole of the American peep show.

And oh yes, at least for a time, people have begun to think about sweatshops and the clothes on their backs and where conscience may come into the fit.

“To get Americans to engage in a difficult subject there has to be some entertainment value, something that amuses us or holds our attention,” said cultural historian Neal Gabler. “Get yourself a star, get yourself a story. That’s the nature of social issues and politics these days.

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“In this case, the star is Kathie Lee. The story: Clothes under her label are being turned out in sweatshops. You have dramatic incidents: Her husband goes to the shop to hand out envelopes full of money. You have a twist: Kathie Lee picks up the cudgel and becomes the poster girl for sweatshops.”

That’s entertainment! And it is also good advocacy. Three crusaders--a gadfly zealot, a garment-makers union, the U.S. secretary of Labor--all have skillfully made Gifford a conscript in their anti-sweatshop campaigns.

This is how they put the falling star in their pocket.

*

The man who made Kathie Lee cry is Charles Kernaghan, 48, once a psychology student, once a photographer, for the past 10 years a pleader for workers’ rights. Tall with slicked-back hair, he talks in 100-mph gusts and has the manic air about him of a mad professor. He commonly works 16-hour days, skipping meals until he gorges himself at 10 p.m., finally relaxing by watching “Nightline” in his tiny apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The organization he runs is the National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America, which sounds deceptively mightier than a three-person staff with a $250,000 annual budget strenuously importuned from foundations and labor unions. When it goes in the hole, Kernaghan pitches in from his own pocket. This year, he is out $7,000.

Whatever its projects, the committee’s work would amount to little without magnification by the media. Kernaghan’s first big hit came in 1992. Posing as a businessman and trumpeting a bogus company, he showed how the federal government was subsidizing U.S. firms to flee offshore for cheap labor. The expose propelled him onto “60 Minutes” and Page One of the Los Angeles Times.

Last fall, during what became a successful campaign against the Gap’s use of sweatshop labor, Kernaghan visited Honduras. Human rights workers there told him about an especially dismal factory where child labor was rampant and young girls repeatedly were groped by the bosses. The sweatshop was producing for Wal-Mart, not the Gap, but Kernaghan set up a meeting anyhow.

On Oct. 29, a dozen or so workers huddled behind a roadside grocery stand, attempting secrecy. “The company had spies there; the girls pointed them out and said they wouldn’t be able to talk,” Kernaghan said. “But as they left, they were able to give us their pay stubs and some tags off the clothing.”

The tags were vivid with the florid curves of Kathie Lee’s signature. Below her photo was a statement promising that some proceeds from the garment would go to children’s charities. “I’m standing with exploited kids, and this label says it’s all to help kids,” Kernaghan said. “What hypocrisy. It was pure sham.”

Who was this Kathie Lee? he wanted to know. The face looked familiar but he could not place it. Friends had to inform him that she was a one-woman conglomerate with a TV show, commercials, books, records, an exercise video.

Then it hit him. He remembered where he’d seen her. She was singing about Carnival cruises during the station breaks for “Nightline.”

*

The Gap campaign had Kernaghan preoccupied, but he stayed in touch with the Honduran workers as best he could, relying on allies in a human rights group. They would ride a bus to Choloma, the town where the factory was, and talk to people during lunch breaks. Workers were scared. Only a handful went to Sunday meetings where Kernaghan could question them via speakerphone.

On March 15, finally confident of his information, he wrote to Gifford, describing the awful sweatshop conditions. The letter was hand-carried to a receptionist at the WABC studios here, as was another two weeks later.

There was some artifice to this. If Kernaghan truly wanted to reach Gifford, he could have gone through any number of her flunkies. He could have appealed directly to Wal-Mart, where executives made manufacturing decisions.

But his goal was a brouhaha. “You have to go public,” he said. “You have to focus on a single point, and Kathie Lee was a national celebrity.”

Big corporations tended to shunt him off to some vice president for a tranquilizing schmooze. “Behind closed doors, they sweet-talk you and make you feel important, but most companies never change without pressure.”

Kernaghan’s ultimate goal was not the cleanup of a single Honduran factory, but a world war against sweatshops. Every year, things seemed to get worse.

The sweatshop was the final cog in a ruthless machinery. More and more, retailers were wrenching lower prices out of their manufacturers, who in turn often subcontracted the work to the only places where garments could be sewn ever-more cheaply, the tens of thousands of filthy, fly-by-night rag shops that paid paltry--and sometimes sub-minimum--wages.

The great beneficiary was the consumer, grown used to bargain shopping at national chains. Their savings could be indirectly traced to exploited workers in America and abroad.

In his Gap campaign, which eventually forced that chain to accept independent monitoring, Kernaghan liked to say that each $20 shirt earned a Salvadoran seamstress 18 cents. Workers put in 70-hour weeks only to go home to flimsy shelter and the physical rot of poverty.

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer. In just its first year, the chain’s private Kathie Lee collection of inexpensive dresses, shell tops and other garb rang up $300 million in sales. Gifford boasted that it was not unusual for the many stores to sell 100,000 of the same skirt in a week.

Though Kernaghan’s letters had yet to reach the chat-show star, her staff had passed them along to Wal-Mart. On April 5, Senior Vice President John Lupo called the National Labor Committee. All Wal-Mart vendors were contractually bound to obey the law, he explained. Their manufacturers made routine checks.

Indeed, Lupo said records showed that the Choloma plant had won OKs in six recent inspections, though, since receiving the letter, Wal-Mart had sent its own people down there--and regrettably they did find a child labor problem.

But this was no longer a Wal-Mart concern, Lupo said. Four months before, work had been shifted from the Honduran factory to one in Nicaragua because of “delivery problems.” Links to the sweatshop were a thing of the past.

Maybe, he suggested, Charlie Kernaghan ought to just forget about it.

*

On April 29, Kernaghan was in Washington to testify before a Democratic congressional task force looking into corporate behavior toward workers. He was stunned to find a cluster of reporters and photographers, though he soon learned they were not there for him. Hotter copy was Craig Kielburger, a 13-year-old Canadian on the cusp of fame as a champion against child labor.

Damn, it made him angry. Kernaghan read his statement about Gifford and Wal-Mart, but who cared? No congressman asked a question. He was just another kvetch from some puny, dime-a-dozen rights group. He did not even have a press release to hand out to the media swarm. He went home and sulked.

But his moping was premature. Some newspapers had indeed done stories. “Entertainment Tonight” was rushing together a segment. Not only were his best expectations about to be met, he would soon learn the phenomenal power of the name Kathie Lee, a megawatt of familiar syllables that pierced through the national static.

Gifford unintentionally juiced up the story herself. On May 1, she tearfully raised the subject on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” mixing her sobs with indignation. “You can say I’m ugly, you can say I’m not talented. But when you say I don’t care about children . . . mister, you better answer your phone because my attorney is calling you today. How dare you?”

Sweatshops, where they exist, are deplorable, she told her audience. But Wal-Mart had assured her that any problem in Honduras had been solved. Anyway, she preferred to spend her valuable time on her well-known work helping children with AIDS right here in New York. “I cannot save the world, Reege!”

Kernaghan would view the show on videotape. “Nightline” it wasn’t. “I found it surreal,” he said. “How out of touch she is. Then she makes the typical rich-person remark, ‘You’ll hear from my lawyers!’ ”

No attorneys phoned, but they’d have had trouble getting through had they tried. A weeping Kathie Lee apparently was a monumental story. One TV crew after another were in a scramble. Cameramen formed a line in the hall outside Kernaghan’s office.

“Charlie,” several of the eager TV producers said, “it would sure liven up our piece if we had some real footage of sweatshops.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” Charlie obliged.

*

As Kernaghan was finding out, he could not have glommed onto a star better than Gifford, a woman beloved and despised by millions. She was his magnet.

Kathie Lee Epstein, born in 1953, born again in Christ in 1965, grew up in a middle-class Maryland family and paid her show-biz dues singing gospel tunes, making short-lived TV commercials and never quite landing a good part as an actor.

Her future was in gabbing, not emoting. She had the funny, friendly, harmlessly sassy qualities of the girl next door. Hired as a segment producer on “Good Morning America,” she frequently subbed as a co-host.

In 1985, she teamed up with the prickly Regis Philbin on a morning show that featured unrehearsed banter between the two. The program has been an enormous hit, the audience adoring all that syrupy chatter about Kathie Lee’s glamorous life and the Eden she shares with her ex-football star husband, Frank.

Candor comes along with the sweetness. Little of her personal life seems out of bounds, including her two kids’ bathroom habits, her underarm hair, the stretch marks left by her pregnancies. What has escaped the show can be found in the autobiography. Chapter One reveals the sexual failure of her first husband on their wedding night, Chapter Two her mom’s reluctant abortion.

This openness seems refreshing to Gifford fans and guileful to critics who think her a self-righteous self-promoter. The sweatshop scandal was sure to make America take sides. The questions were not just what did she know and when did she know it, but should she have known and what should she do about it now.

Kathie Lee’s 1995 Wal-Mart income was widely estimated at $9 million until she angrily insisted her cut was only $5 million, of which half went to taxes and another $1 million to charity--"so that’s hardly money-grubbing greed.”

Still, wasn’t that easy money accompanied by reckless naivete? “Pleading heartbreak and ignorance does not cut it morally,” one editorial said. “Just where did she think those $9.96 blouses came from, elves in a hollow tree?”

It was a question shoppers might have tried to answer right along with Kathie Lee.

*

For a while, Gifford’s instinct was to go on lashing back, and her TV show provided the luxury of rebuttal time. “This is the only fair forum I have,” she lamented. Then, she cryptically, and inaccurately, claimed that Kernaghan was “a paid lobbyist.”

It was a horrible time for her. Like so many people, she thought sweatshops were from another era, the image of them dull in her mind like a mildewed photograph in an attic. “I felt I had been ambushed. . . ,” she told The Times this week. “Equally hurtful was to have my personal integrity questioned.”

To her credit, as she defended herself in public, she educated herself in private. The prevalence of sweatshops “was numbing.” Gradually, her position changed to one of agnosticism: She did not know for sure if sweatshops made Kathie Lee clothes, but if so, she intended to find out and put a stop to it.

Events would follow a timetable all their own, however. Unbeknownst to Gifford, officers of UNITE--the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees--were plotting a new angle for her learning curve. Some information had come their way that was far too delicious to keep to themselves.

UNITE has a “justice center” in Manhattan’s garment district, serving the mostly non-union workers who toil in the gloomy sweatshops nearby. In mid-May, an angry group had come by from Seo Fashions, a grimy slapped-together factory in a 17-story building full of sweatshops. They had not been paid in weeks. Some were owed as much as $700. They were fed up with the owner’s excuses.

The people at UNITE knew the setup at Seo. As sweatshops go, it was far from the worst. Windows were uncovered and light came in. Tangles of wires dropped from holes in the low ceilings, but the factory was not an out-and-out firetrap. Most of the 30 workers actually earned the minimum wage.

As for the grievance about back pay, it was the most common of problems and would have received only routine attention except for the tags on the Seo clothes. Once again, there was Kathie Lee’s contented face.

UNITE had tried many things to blast away at the expanding galaxy of sweatshops, but this was that rarity, a sure-fire bombshell. Think of it! Seo Fashions was only a few subway stops from the studio where Kathie Lee did her show.

Going public presented some problems, however. The workers had to be convinced. Most were illegal immigrants from Mexico and Ecuador. Media attention was certainly no prize for them. Besides, they still had hopes of getting paid.

It would take a week of persuasion. Videos were played. News stories were translated. The worldwide plight of sweatshop workers was sadly recounted.

When the workers finally agreed, the big question then was where to explode the device. The New York Times was one option, UNITE insiders said. But things often got lost in the Gray Lady’s many-tiered bureaucracy. The story would get a better ride from Jim Dwyer, a popular columnist in the New York Daily News.

The tabloid newspaper favored giant, incendiary headlines. Outrage was its specialty.

*

The Giffords were expecting a recuperative night on May 22. Kathie Lee no longer felt her reputation had been expressed to a dump site. On a taped segment of “Prime Time Live,” she would announce that she was financing regular, third-party inspections of every factory that made her clothing line.

But suddenly, the phone rang. It was a reporter, and what he told them stung like a slap. Really? Here in New York? The workers haven’t been paid? “We will pay them,” Kathie Lee proclaimed to her husband.

This led to a mesmerizing event. The next day Frank Gifford waded through a hostile crowd in the filthy streets, raising his voice above chants of “Kath-ee, where’s our mon-ee!” and entered the decrepit Seo sweatshop with three $100 bills for each worker in a stack of white envelopes.

“We’re not trying to pay anyone’s wages,” he said, nary a tremble in that square jaw. “We’re just trying to help these people. We’re sick about what’s been done.” He apologized for himself, his wife, the entire country.

The scene was pure adrenaline in New York, for this was no longer a Frank Gifford tamed by the years and caged in a broadcast booth. This was No. 16 again, son of a California oil roughneck, All-American at USC, the most dependable of go-to guys. The Giants drafted him No. 1 in ’52, and he repaid their $250 signing bonus with the banners of five conference titles.

This time, Steve Owen or Allie Sherman were not there to coach him.

At his side was Howard Rubenstein, PR man extraordinaire. With other clients--Donald Trump or Leona Helmsley--this could have looked like a grandstand play. But with No. 16 it seemed natural as air. He had come to make things right and defend his wife’s honor, earnest and bold as a sheriff parting his way through a lynch mob.

Seo employees Luis, Marcos and Jose (no last names, please) first saw the spectacle on TV that night. Unluckily for them, the factory had ceased to operate days before Gifford’s visit. Fewer than half of the workers were even bothering to hang around the building. “If we had only known he was coming,” the three grumbled. That $300 would really have put some food on the table.

*

Sweatshops were hotter than ever, and Kernaghan wanted to feed the fire. He arranged to bring one of the Honduran workers to the United States.

On May 29, Wendy Diaz, 15, was presented to the Washington press and she was effortlessly pitiable. An orphan who helps support three younger brothers, she has a weary but hopeful face that seems ennobled by poverty. “At my aunt’s, seven of us sleep in one room,” she said through a translator.

Her weekly pay was $21, and she described her boss’ cruelty. “They are meanest to pregnant women. They want them to resign, so they send them to the pressing room, where it is hot and they must stand all day.”

And how did she feel about Kathie Lee? “Maybe her heart is black,” she said. “I wish I could talk to her. If she’s good, she will help us.”

*

Someone else wanted to meet Kathie Lee. Robert Reich, the U.S. secretary of Labor, had used his office as a bully pulpit against sweatshops, but his sermons were sparsely attended. Now, suddenly, the public was listening. The Kathie Lee scandal, he observed, had “combined a moral outrage about sweatshops with a voyeuristic fascination with the plight of a celebrity.”

He phoned the Giffords, and they met for dinner in New York on May 30. Reich was impressed by their questions. How big is the problem? What can be done? He thought his listeners were “genuinely appalled” by all they heard.

The Labor Department, he explained, has only 800 wage and hour inspectors to cover 6 million work sites. In the garment industry alone, there are 22,000 registered contractors. He estimated that 50% pay under the minimum wage, two-thirds refuse to pay overtime, a third have serious health and safety violations.

Sweatshops exist across America, though the two apparel meccas, Los Angeles and New York, are probably home to more than half. Many of these places employ only a few dozen workers at a time and open and close in a heartbeat.

While it is true, Reich added, that retailers make their manufacturers pledge not to use sweatshops, these giants then expect these very same suppliers to alone monitor all the subcontractors down the line. This way, the retailers themselves could hear and see no evil. Instead, he wanted them to assume more responsibility.

To get the retailers to come around, he has tried the carrot and the stick, going so far as to name some good guys: the post-Kernaghan Gap, the Limited, Levi Strauss, Patagonia. And some bad: Talbots, Macy’s East.

As they finished their meal, Reich told the Giffords that a great opportunity was now at hand to awaken a wrathful public. Will you help us?

By all means, they replied.

*

As Kathie Lee has warmed to a new crusade, the old crusaders have warmed to Kathie Lee. Kernaghan said last week, “She hadn’t a clue about how this industry operated, but now I’ll bet she’ll make Wal-Mart clean up its act. It confirms what I’ve always said: When people hear these stories face to face, there is no other response than decency and concern.”

He had met her on June 5. In a gathering arranged with all the delicate care of a treaty signing, Kernaghan and his people, including sweatshop worker Wendy Diaz, sat down with Gifford and her people, including a lawyer and a publicist, at the elegant Manhattan residence of Cardinal John O’Connor.

They emerged with a joint statement, endorsing third-party inspections of garment factories and calling upon corporations throughout the world to protect minors and pay “a living wage that ensures work with dignity.”

“It has been a real education for me,” Kathie Lee said a few days later. “I hope not just for me, but for every American who goes shopping.”

Robert Reich certainly is counting on the new ally. On July 16, he will host a “Fashion Industry Forum,” calling together retailers, manufacturers, even high-fashion models. He needs star power; the Giffords have agreed to round up more big names who have endorsed clothing lines.

Others soon may have some high-profile squirming to do. Among those frequently mentioned are Michael Jordan, Jaclyn Smith and Kathy Ireland--which brings the subject back to Neal Gabler, the cultural historian:

If the sweatshop issue can now feed on even more celebrities, “then you can have, ‘Sweatshop: the Sequels.’ It can go on quite awhile.”

“Extras” for crowd scenes are cheerlessly waiting, breathing the rancid factory air, hunched over their sewing machines.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.


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