Revisiting the ‘Charleston 5’ Struggle, A Decade Later

Kari Lydersen

It has been a decade since 600 state police were bused in to confront longshoremen in Charleston, S.C., picketing Danish shipping company Nordana’s use of non-union labor. The action kicked off one of the most high-profile and symbolic labor victories in recent history.

Members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 and their supporters are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the struggle – which sparked an international solidarity movement, with workers in Spanish ports refusing to unload Nordana ships and. After a year of house arrest, the Charleston 5” were cleared of trumped up felony charges.

Union longshoremen around the country continue to mark the Charleston 5 anniversary year in the context of ongoing struggles to protect jobs from automation and shifts in global industry. (The Longshore Workers Coalition will hold its 10th anniversary convention in June, as I mentioned in my post on Friday.) In this light, I talked with Suzan Erem, author (along with E. Paul Durrenberger) of On the Global Waterfront, a gripping chronicle of the Charleston 5 struggle published in 2007.

Q: What ripple effects have you seen in the decade since the struggle? 

A: It wasn’t until the year after the case was settled that the Port of Charleston showed (statistics proving that) its container traffic had dropped during the year of the fight. After many years of increased port traffic, that was the only year that it dropped, so it was clear the whole Charleston 5 effort had paid off. The Port of Charleston knew that long before anyone else did.

Q: Is this story still relevant to longshoremen and other workers today?

A: I think the reason 10 years later the story can still be inspirational is it was about more than just one place and a few people in a struggle- it was about a union workforce that actually has the potential to shut down global commerce. It actually does – we’re not making this up. It’s one thing if you strike a Ford plant, it’s another if you shut down the movement of these containers, you don’t just shut down the product made at the Ford plant but all the products that go into that product and everything else. What the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the west coast) is doing is working very hard to find those weak spots, the points of leverage in the global logistics system.

And the Charleston 5 was not just about the union, not just about dockworkers. In the book we tie together the vested interests of a community along with the vested interests of dockworkers. Sometimes it’s a real stretch to say what’s good for union workers is good for the community. In this case, global commerce has ravished thousands of communities around the world. Pick a place where Wal-Mart has a contractor – South Korea, Guatemala…Charleston was just another example of what the Wal-Marts of the world want to do – they would rather ravish an economy than pay decent wages and benefits.

It wasn’t Nordana’s fault – they were simply trying to compete with the big boys – they are a little shop. It was like a downtown business dropping its wages to minimum wage because they can’t keep up with the Wal-Mart across town.

We did an unassailable, factually speaking, description of the processes that happened at the time, and we overlaid that with the history of race and economics in South Carolina. We also had the layer of anthropological interpretation of how this fits into a worldwide economic network. It’s not just the story of some guys who won. It helps people interpret how would this apply to my community?

The struggle was a tipping point, a good point of leverage for longshoremen to hold their ground. If (ILA Local 1422 president) Ken Riley hadn’t done that, they could have simply watched the last of their (job) security – container ships – just erode out from under them.

Q: Have you seen specific changes or new struggles inspired by the Charleston 5, with longshoremen or otherwise?

A: I think it has inspired other dockworkers, but I fear it has not inspired enough other workers because they don’t know about it – that whole gag rule in mass media about things like this – that it’s just radical workers out there doing their thing. It is being translated into Spanish, hopefully it will reach South American dockworkers.

The fact is the Charleston 5 were inspired by Liverpool (the international movement to fight Britain’s privatization and union-busting of longshore work starting in 1995; including the firing of 500 workers for refusing to cross a picket line).

The most radical union in the whole country went out on a worldwide campaign. They managed to keep docks from accepting the ships from the company that fired them. They lost that fight, but that is the whole reason there is an International Dockworkers Council. It was done mostly on email, it went under the radar of all the bureaucracy involved in unionism and international federations, from docker to docker. They lost that struggle, but because of that the network was in place for Charleston. If it weren’t for the lost Liverpool fight, Charleston would never have been won. So even if you lose a battle, you are doing something others can build on.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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