This September, five longshoremen will go on trial in South Carolina.
Elijah Ford Jr., Ricky Simmons, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton
and Kenneth Jefferson face felony riot charges arising from a confrontation
on the Charleston docks on January 20, 2000. They could go to prison
for five years.
The port of Charleston, where the men work, is the fourth-largest
in the country. And although South Carolina has the second-lowest
percentage of union members of any state, all the longshore workers
in the port, almost all of whom are black, belong to Local 1422
of the International
Longshoremens Association (ILA).
That union status came under attack last year, when Nordana, a
announced that it intended to load and unload ships using nonunion
workers. "This had never happened before," recalls Local 1422 President
Ken Riley. "Those jobs are something we cherish, and this operation
was going to tear down our industry standards. We've spent 40 years
of hard work fighting for wages high enough that workers can send
their kids to college and afford at least a middle-class standard
of living. When we found out they were going nonunion, we simply could
not tolerate it."
"South Carolina is like
a Third World
country for working people."-- Ken Riley
Local police cooperated with the longshoremen when they set up
their picketlines to protest. But the state's attorney general,
Charles Condon, decided to draw a much harder line. He assembled
an army of 600 state troopers and highway patrolmen, and on the
night of January 20, they escorted nonunion workers into the port
with helicopters and armored personnel vehicles. Trying to prevent
confrontation, Riley went down to the picketline, where he was beaten
by a trooper and carried off to the hospital. A melee followed.
When a local judge dismissed charges against five arrested unionists,
Condon publicly condemned the decision, convened a grand jury, and
brought indictments against the five. He unveiled "a plan for dealing
with union dockworker violence ... jail, jail and more jail," adding
that he would call for maximum bail, no plea bargaining and no leniency
for union dockworkers. "South Carolina is a strong right-to-work
state and a citizen's right not to join a union is absolute and
will be fully protected," Condon said.
Meanwhile, the men, four black and one white, languish under house
arrest. They cannot leave their homes after 7 p.m., except to go
to work. They wear electronic bracelets around their ankles. As
their case moves to trial, African-American and labor activists
are holding it up as a symbol of the unjust treatment of black workers
in the South. "When we look at the case of the
Charleston Five, we have to look beyond the individuals and
the local union," says Bill Fletcher, national coordinator of the
Charleston defense campaign for the AFL-CIO.
"Just as the PATCO
firings 20 years ago signified the start of a wave of attacks by
domestic capital on unions, the conviction of the Charleston Five
could inspire a wave of sentiment on the part of government authorities
and employers that this kind of massive repression is acceptable,
and more importantly, that they can get away with it."
David Bacon recently interviewed Riley and Fletcher.
What's it like being a worker in South Carolina?
Ken Riley: South Carolina is like a Third World country
for working people. That's actually the way we're being marketed.
We have some of the most productive workers in the world, paid 20
percent less than the national average. There's a very hostile climate
toward unions: South Carolina has the lowest union density in all
50 states, except North Carolina.
Why has Charleston and its port become such a focus of the effort
to erode the union rights of southern workers?
Bill Fletcher: Charleston is one of the most important seaports
in the United States.
The growth of industry in the South, particularly the transplants
coming from Europe to the United States for cheap labor, depends on
this port. These companies are settling in the Carolinas, and particularly
along the I-85 corridor. We have to think about the strategic importance
of the I-85 corridor, which extends from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
down into Georgia. That's where the industrial development in the
South is taking place, and therefore an area with great potential
for organizing. But to do it successfully will require a real community-labor
alliance, especially with African-Americans.
"We have to make this
the kind of issue the
Scottsboro boys were in the '30s"--Bill Fletcher
Was the attack in the port also a reaction to the political
role played by Local 1422?
Riley: The Republicans, for the first time since Reconstruction,
have captured both houses of the legislature in South Carolina.
They've introduced legislation affecting all workers in the public
sector, who have been more willing to join unions because of the
pressure they're facing. A bill was introduced to make it illegal
to launch any living wage campaign in South Carolina. Further, for
public sector workers like firefighters, sanitation and other workers,
you can't bargain for any wage above the federal minimum wage. That's
why there's so much European investment in the state--because of
our low-paid workers. This fact is advertised over the Internet
in an effort to attract corporate investment.
When I took office four years ago, we decided to do something to
try to change this abusive political climate. The only way we could
see to do that was to form coalitions with those in the community
who were also affected, and to get politically involved. We opened
our doors and brought the community into the labor movement. We
touched base with the NAACP.
The Progressive Network,
a coalition of 38 grassroots community organizations, meets in our
union hall every month. The Democratic Party of South Carolina looked
around and realized we were the only friends they had, and they
held their convention and precinct meetings in our hall. Even though
we only have 900 members in our local, we started to have a real
political impact on our community.
We supported a candidate for governor [James D. Hodges] who was
able to defeat a Republican for the first time in 12 years. As a
result, I was appointed to the South Carolina Port Authority. Then
the South Carolina Manufacturers Association and the Chamber of
Commerce issued a grassroots alert, saying they had to stop the
appointment. They said that if it went through, it would send a
message to the whole world that South Carolina was now open to labor
unions, and they couldn't let that happen. And their pressure was
so great that even though we had the votes in the legislature, the
governor pulled back the appointment.
But because we had come so close, the Republican Party in South
Carolina decided that they could not afford to let it happen again.
They introduced legislation to make it illegal for any card-carrying
union member to serve on any state board, agency or commission.
It passed the House, but we had enough votes to stop it in the Senate.
What makes this more than a local problem for workers in South
Carolina? What implications does it have for working people generally?
Fletcher: I started in the labor movement 20 years ago,
in a shipyard near Boston working for General Dynamics. The company
had a practice that for workers on third shift, when they finished
work they could go to sleep. No one ever said anything. At one point,
General Dynamics decided they wanted to end the practice. And the
way they did it was to fire black and Puerto Rican workers for sleeping
on the job. If the company had come down on everybody, they would
have had a big problem. But they knew that by playing the race card,
the same tripwire we see in all politics in the United States, they
might be able to get the change they wanted. They guessed that if
they went after blacks and Puerto Ricans, that whites would say
that it wasn't their problem.
This is something we see in United States, time and time again.
When capital wants to implement certain changes, they often go after
people of color first. They hope they'll frame the issue in such
a way that whites will decide that the issue is irrelevant to them.
ILA 1422 is a largely African-American local. Moving against them
is a way of introducing a very definite change for the worse for
the whole community, for labor-capital relations in general in South
Carolina.This is a direct attack on freedom of association. It's
a direct attack on the right of workers to peacefully protest. It's
a direct attack on the right to organize. And in addition to the
five charged with felonies, another 27 are being sued by the nonunion
stevedoring company, who are charging that their protest interfered
with their right to gain a profit.
Despite all the pressure, was the union able to regain control
of the work?
Riley: Yes, we were able to regain a contract. We didn't
have much success until the
international community got involved. But the ships that dock in Charleston
have destinations on the other side of the pond, as we like to say.
And European dockers, who heard about the struggle, actually went
aboard the ships and handed letters to the captains of the vessels
warning them that if they load in Charleston using workers other than
the ILA, they wouldn't get unloaded. After that began to happen, we
did not have to contact Nordana. They contacted us and wanted to sit
down and talk. After three days we came to an agreement, and we were
back aboard the Nordana vessels. And now we have a pretty good working
Portraits of the Charleston
Five weere displayed
at a June 9 rally. From left to right: Kenneth
Jefferson, Ricky Simmons, Peter Washington,
Elijah ford Jr. and Jason Edgerton.
BECCI ROBBINS/SOUTH CAROLINA
In June, the AFL-CIO helped turn out thousands of people for
a demonstration in Charleston, and President John Sweeney assigned
you, Bill, as national coordinator for a defense campaign. This
is a new level of commitment by the federation to defend unionists
under attack, especially in the South. How did the Charleston case
get the attention of the national AFL-CIO?
Fletcher: South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt,
a very strong advocate for organizing the South, brought this case
to the attention of the national federation. Several of us started
meeting to figure out how to build a movement around this case,
and out of it came the Campaign for Workers Rights in South Carolina.
We won over AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who became a fervent
advocate of the Charleston Five. And we've been helped enormously
by the West Coast longshore union, the ILWU,
which was the first union to respond to the call for their defense,
not the ILA. They've contributed money, organized publicity and
given immense support to these workers. They have a standing defense
committee based in Local 10 in San Francisco.
What impact is this case going to have on the ability of unions
to organize in states like South Carolina?
Fletcher: The Charleston Five case calls attention to what's
happening in the South, especially to what happens to workers who
are willing to organize and fight. Whether there's a major drive
to organize the South depends on what the affiliates do, that is
individual unions, because organizing is driven by them, not the
federation. The AFL-CIO can and does support organizing efforts,
but the real organizing has to be driven by the UAW,
and other unions. And the problem with too many unions is that they've
been cowardly, to be blunt, when it comes to organizing the South.
Many have said it can't be done, that it's not possible to organize
when you have right-to-work laws. There are exceptions--UNITE has
remained committed to the South, and so have others.
Business in South Carolina and the politicians who support it are
even proposing to give people the ability to file harassment charges
against union organizers. Think about the chilling effect this will
have, not just on paid union organizers, but on volunteers and rank-and-file
members participating in union organizing drives. Workers will have
to stop and think, "Am I going to be sued by someone if I go to
someone's door to talk to them about the union, and I come across
someone manipulated by the company into making these charges?"
If the ILA in Charleston is defeated, it will be even more difficult
both to get rank-and-file workers to participate actively, and to
get international unions to come forward with the necessary support.
What's going to happen when the trial finally begins?
Riley: Ports will shut down on both coasts. Ports abroad
also will be shutting down, through the efforts of the International
Dock Workers Council. A request was sent to the International Transportation
Federation to support an international day of solidarity. Other
unions are planning actions to show solidarity. And we're planning
a massive rally in South Carolina, on that first day of the trial.
What will it take to succeed?
Fletcher: We have to make this the kind of issue the Scottsboro
Boys were in the '30s, or that Huey Newton and Angela Davis were
in the '60s. They have to be on the lips of every progressive activist.
The state of South Carolina has declared war on labor, and on black
workers in particular.