Support Builds for the Charleston Five

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

Dianne Feeley

WHAT’S BLACK AND white and-in the words of South Carolina’s Attorney General Charles Condon – “a propaganda ploy by labor union sympathizers”?

That’s the June 9th demonstration — endorsed by unions, including the national AFL-CIO, and community organizations–of 4,000-5,000 who marched on the state capital in defense of five Charleston dockworkers. The struggle to defend the Charleston 5 actually combines labor rights with community issues.

In October 1999 Nordana Line, a Danish shipping company, announced it would end its nearly thirty-year recognition of International Longshore Association (ILA) Local 1422 — the dockworkers who load and unload the ships — and the affiliated checkers and clerks Local 1771, and would use non-union labor to unload its ships in the Port of Charleston.

Local 1422 attempted to negotiate with Nordana but the company moved to implement its new policy. Local 1422 asked the Charleston Port Authority to help, but they were ordered by state officials not to interfere.

On January 20, 2000 Local 1422 began picketing Nordana, who had hired Winyah Stevedoring, using workers making half of longshore wages, to unload the Skodsbord, a container ship. State Attorney General Charlie Condon sent in a force of 600 officers in riot gear to escort the non-union workers into the port with helicopters and armored personnel vehicles.

By midnight, as the situation grew more tense, Local 1422 President Ken Riley and other officers attempted to calm the situation. But an officer whacked Riley across the head with a baton. Riley was carried off to the hospital, where he received twelve stitches. Union officials and observers maintain that’s when a police riot broke out, with more than a dozen longshoremen injured.

Five ILA members — Jason Edgerton, Elijah Ford Jr., Kenneth Jefferson, Ricky Simmons and Peter Washington — were arrested and charged with inciting to riot while picketing. A local judge threw out the charges for lack of evidence but Condon, claiming he is protecting “the right to work,” publicly condemned the judge’s decision, convened a Grand Jury and secured felony indictments.

The men, four African Americans and one white, are under house arrest. They cannot leave home except to go to work and wear electronic bracelets around their ankles. They have missed their children’s graduations and their parents’ funerals. If convicted, they face five-year prison sentences.

Winyah Stevedoring is pursuing civil damages against Local 1422, its affiliate locals and twenty-seven named members, seeking $1.5 million.

The Port of Charleston is the sixth largest U.S. port, with sixteen out of twenty of the world’s top shipping lines using the port. While South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union members nationally (4.2%, but up from 3.8%), the port is unionized. Local 1422 represents the loaders — all but two of whom are African American — while Local 1771, representing clerks and checkers, is white.

The two unions are standing together, as they did when they were picketing the Nordana ship.

South Carolina boasts of being a state with high productivity but a wage level twenty percent below the average. It has an aggressive strategy of seeking to bring in multinational businesses, with the state Chamber of Commerce hosting seminars on how to defeat a union campaign as well as writing, and getting passed, anti-worker legislation.

An Activist Union

Fifty thousand people rallied in Columbia, South Carolina on January 17, 2000 to demand that the state government stop flying the Confederate flag, and place it where it belongs, in a museum. Although top officials claimed they were simply defending their “southern heritage,” in fact the Confederate flag was only raised above the statehouse in 1962.

Local 1422 pledged to provide forty men a day for the 125-mile march from Charleston to Columbia and mobilized for the rally. It was just three days later that Charles Condon, who is planning on running for governor, staged the January 2000 confrontation.

Ken Riley has noted that the attacks the Local is facing “are a direct result of our awakening to the fact that we do have responsibilities that extend beyond our membership.” Local 1422 consciously developed a strategy of supporting community organizations. They have opened their hall as a meeting place for a variety of organizations, including the Progressive Network, a coalition of about forty community organizations, the NAACP, the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment and student groups.

The Local seeks to help other workers unionize, and to present a united, working-class defense that draws together a multiethnic work force. In build<->ing this network of allies, the Local didn’t necessarily know how quickly it would need its allies to spring to its defense! But the Progressive Network and a variety of community-based organizations in the South immediately came to its defense.

So did the West-coast based International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), which has raised more than $100,000 to Local 1422’s defense fund. This past February the ILWU cosponsored, with the Black Radical Congress, tours and fundraisers for Local 1422 along the west coast.

Growing Solidarity

International support has been crucial in forcing Nordana Line to back off after Spanish dockworkers refused to unload ships that had been loaded by the Charleston scabs. The Havnearbejdernes Klub of 1980, a Danish local union of 135 Copenhagen Freeport dockers, has expressed its solidarity.

Local 1422 President Ken Riley meet with the International Dockers Council, a group of longshore unions around the world, in Spain. They have pledged to shut down the ports in Europe on the first day of the trial.

The International Transport Workers Federation has agreed to join and the ILWU unions have pledged to shut down the west coast ports. This International Day of Solidarity is putting pressure on the ILA to also call for shutting down the east coast and New Orleans ports.

Three years ago Riley and his brother Leonard Riley, along with dozens of other ILA members and officers founded the Workers Coalition, an internal caucus seeking greater militancy and union democracy. Workers Coalition members want to cut officials’ salaries (the ILA has a membership of less than 60,000; several of its top officers make over $300,000 a year) and spend more money on organizing.

The ILA leadership has attempted to harass and intimidate Workers Coalition activists and in some cases bring them up on charges. It took more than a year for ILA President John Bowers to issue a public statement in support of the Charleston 5. Finally, in response to Workers Coalition criticism, the ILA is taking at least some steps toward increased coordination with the ILWU and dockers’ unions internationally.

Donations to the ILA Local 1422’s defense fund should be made out to the Campaign for Workers’ Rights in South Carolina, PO Box 21717, Charleston, SC 29413. For more information, visit the ILWU website

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)