The Charleston Five

South Carolina declares war on unions

David Bacon

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 Dan­ish company,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.” 

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 mêlée 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. 

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 thein­ter­na­tion­al 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 relationship. 

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, SEIU, UNITE 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.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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