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 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.
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.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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