Hire Rosa? R.I.P. Charlie Kernaghan

Time Tough (Time Tough)
Everything is out of sight (so hard)…
Everything is going higher and higher (higher and higher)

– Toots and the Maytals

I went to a planning board meeting last night. Since we shed the reeking regional incinerator that occupied downtown for nearly 30 years, the city’s political class has been giddy over the wave of gentrification and sprawl that’s ensued. Concerns about working farm and forest land are easily swept aside in pursuit of “development.” The policy is often justified by a lack of housing that’s “affordable.”

Ronald Reagan unceremoniously ditched the federal government’s New Deal-era role in housing the population. The new game was simply providing subsidies or “incentives” to The Market. Consequently, we have an ever-growing population of the unhoused with all the early death and misery that attends such a barbaric regime. A July 2021 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition revealed that in only 7% of all US counties could a minimum waged worker afford a 1 bedroom apartment. It’s long been reported that just under half of the population is so close to impoverishment these days that an unexpected $400 car repair bill could sink them. CNBC reported in January that 56% of the population couldn’t cover a $1,000 emergency expense.

Yeah, as Toots and the Maytals once sang prophetically, “Time Tough.”

We didn’t get here overnight. Earlier this week the local daily reported that Charlie Kernaghan had died. With Maine-native Barbara Briggs, Kernaghan ran the NYC-based National Labor Committee. Their work, often utilizing guerrilla video shot inside off-shore sweat shops was occasionally too tempting for corporate media to ignore.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” was the first to feature Charlie in a segment called “Hire Rosa Martinez.” The Reagan and the Bush I regimes’ USAID (Agency for International Development) had been funding efforts to get US manufacturers to relocate their plants through a “proactive, direct and systematic sales effort involving direct contact with targeted US firms to convince them to explore opportunities in El Salvador.” They announced that, “The industry focus will largely be apparel but could also include electronic/electrical activities assembly and other labor-intensive activities.”

USAID bankrolled ads in domestic textile trade publications like Bobbin featuring “…a Salvadoran woman in a bright print dress bent over a sewing machine.” The ad confided that Rosa Martinez  “is not only colorful…. “ but that she “produces apparel for US markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador…. You can hire her for 33 cents an hour.” (Los Angeles Times, 9/28/92)

Of course at the same time Reagan/Bush were also funding Salvadoran death squads to keep pesky Salvadoran union activists silent or shot dead behind the factories. It was all very effective.

Kernaghan, posing as president of fictitious New Age Textiles “met with AID officials in  Miami, El Salvador and Honduras.” He gave the story to 60 Minutes and The Times. (LAT, 9/28/92)

Slick Willy Clinton raised the AID program and Rosa as a campaign issue—— defeating Bush before cynically enacting Reagan’s NAFTA treaty himself and destroying the traditional Democratic Party in the last decade of the 20th century. The rest is history.


As the domestic manufacturing base was hollowed out and exported (with US governmental assistance) Kernaghan and the National Labor Committee continued to connect the dots. Their “Press Advisory” accompanying June 1993’s report “Haiti After the Coup; Still in the Hands of Thugs,” notes, “Report implicates U.S. Agency for International Development in organizing opposition to the Aristide Government. U.S. companies in Haiti are paying wages of 14 cents an hour.”

Back then I was writing a weekly column for the local weekly . After reading the Kernaghan/Briggs report I submitted a short poem. It went like this:

So Aristide’s in exile
And the thugs are in control.
He would have raised folks’ wages
But that’s not the corporate goal.
So Aristide’s in exile.”

Since the Reagan Revolution federal policy has been to put American workers in direct competition with low wage workers in devastated peasant societies ruled by vicious U.S. client governments we arm and support.

The result has been predictable for workers at home and abroad. Lately there’ve been organizing efforts to restore some economic power to workers here, especially among those wage-slaves whose jobs aren’t as easy to move off-shore. I suppose it’s possible to train boutique coffee-consumers to put money in a machine and watch the gizmo dispense a latte as programmed by some lost soul in Pakistan or Bangladesh. But we’re apparently not (quite) there yet.

Charlie Kernaghan isn’t around anymore. But he and the National Labor Committee researched and produced many reports detailing the economic assault on an atomized working class . Generally, except for the Rosa story and (famously) “making Kathy Lee cry” the media and elected officials looked away.

American oligarch Warren Buffett called it bluntly in 2006: “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war. And we’re winning.”

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com