The National Labor Committee is a ramshackle little organization with little money and a miniature staff that’s been hobbling from one set of borrowed offices to another in New York City.
Still, somehow, in recent weeks, the committee has managed to reduce Kathie Lee Gifford to tears on national television. It has managed to soil Michael Jordan’s championship season by asking him about child labor in Indonesia, and it has gotten the world’s largest entertainment company to virtually go into hiding.
Suddenly, everybody is talking about what the National Labor Committee has wanted to talk about for years: sweatshops. The committee has been on a crusade to expose what it views as deplorable living and working conditions of textile workers in places such as Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti.
And these days, things are going spectacularly well.
“I think the real reason we are succeeding is that we are not playing by the rules,” said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the committee.
“These companies want us to alert them first that there is a worker-rights violation, and then…trade letters back and forth, and back and forth.”
But the group has opted for public shame and celebrity guilt instead.
The strategy has been simple: The same prestigious, lucrative names and faces used to attract business and customers can be used to embarrass them.
Before Gifford, before Jordan, the committee had so hassled The Gap with letters and protests about the working conditions in factories making Gap-brand clothing that the giant retailer signed an unprecedented agreement with the committee allowing independent inspections of factories.
Formed in 1980, the committee has its roots in the activist movements in the early 1980s that opposed Reagan administration policy in Latin America.
Its purpose was to be a human rights lobby during the Central American wars, and the committee opposed U.S. support for the contra rebels in Nicaragua and the military government in El Salvador.
When the guns fell silent, the committee was left with a vast network of activists at home and in Latin America. It had a mailing list, phone number and letterhead, but no war to fight.
So, from human rights abuse, it turned its attention and resources to worker rights.
“It just seemed a shame to put this letterhead in the trash can,” said Barbara Briggs, a senior associate.
Although many of the celebrities and companies feeling the most heat are sometimes far removed, through layers of contractors and subcontractors, from the actual conditions, the committee has come to understand the value of name recognition and high media profile.
It has used Michael Jordan to chastise Nike for using cheap labor in Indonesia. It used Gifford to attack Wal-Mart for factory conditions in New York and Honduras.
“It is clear now that the companies have really exposed themselves, in that there is a point person out there that everybody knows,” Kernaghan said. “If you have a fight with Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer in the world, it’s hard to get your arm around it, but when they have somebody that everybody knows like a Kathie Lee Gifford, right away it focuses everybody.”
Now, the committee, likened by some to a terrorist organization, has turned on Mickey Mouse.
Everybody knows Mickey and Snow White and the Lion King. And soon they will know the all about the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
And so the committee has picked Walt Disney Co. as the next likely target in its campaign to bring the plight of low-paid workers to the attention of the American people.
The committee intends to harangue Disney about the working conditions of garment workers in Haiti, where much of the company’s merchandising apparel is made. The committee first accused Disney of paying workers less than the 28-cent-an-hour minimum wage to produce its products, then broadened the attack to challenge the minimum wage itself.
“At this particular moment, we know of four factories in Haiti that are producing Disney products, including T-shirts for the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas,” Kernaghan said.
Gifford, who sold her name to Wal-Mart for a line of clothes, apologized on her nationally syndicated television show when the committee revealed that the clothes bearing her name and sold at Wal-Mart were made by underage children in Honduras and in sweatshops in New York.
Newspapers and television shows across the country featured the story, and the issue of the sweatshop was suddenly back in the news. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich enlisted Gifford as one partner in a new crusade to drive out sweatshops.
Kernaghan said the Gifford episode has taught him something about the value of celebrity.
“Disney is in the same place,” Kernaghan said. “It is identified with children and family values…. You’ve got a company that has everything - the image, the wealth, the executive salaries…and then to have them in a place like Haiti paying a starvation wage is criminal.”