Defend the Charleston Five
by LEE SUSTAR | June 8, 2001 | Page 1
COLUMBIA, S.C.--Thousands of union members and supporters are set to turn out for a protest in South Carolina's capital June 9 in a high-stakes battle for labor and civil rights. This will be the biggest action yet in the growing campaign to defend the "Charleston Five"--members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) who face felony charges after a police riot in January of last year.
ILA members were picketing a scab operation on the docks when 600 riot police attacked them, using helicopters, armored cars, rubber bullets, tear gas and nightsticks.
The crackdown was organized directly by state Attorney General Charlie Condon, an ambitious Republican who wants to be the next governor.
The assault--which began when a cop struck Kenneth Riley, the outspoken president of ILA Local 1422--was aimed at civil rights, too.
ILA members in Charleston are overwhelmingly Black, and the union had played a key role in a 40,000-strong march in Charleston--held just three days before the police riot--to demand that the Confederate flag be taken down from over the statehouse.
"I think the struggle in Charleston has brought to the table a multitude of issues--racism, having a voice at work and civil rights in general," Leonard Riley, a member of the ILA Local 1422 executive board and Kenneth's brother, told Socialist Worker. "These issues are very compelling when people all over the world look at them and see that they're the same ones that they face."
The June 9 protest will be an important step in the struggle.
Members of the UNITE garment workers' union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters were organizing 10 buses from Atlanta alone as Socialist Worker went to press. Rank-and-file activists from the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were set to fly in for the protest. ILWU President James Spinosa is scheduled to speak, along with AFL-CIO Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson.
ILWU locals and members have already contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the defense campaign--and pledged to shut down the docks from San Diego to Seattle if the case against the Five goes to trial. Representatives from dockworkers' unions in Spain, Britain, Denmark and several other countries were also expected to be on hand.
That international solidarity has already helped to pressure the shipping company involved in the scab operation, Denmark-based Nordana Lines, to sign a contract with the ILA.
The Rileys and other ILA members have been speaking out at support meetings in cities across the U.S., including New York, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But the Ports Authority and big business are still determined to break the union. The Charleston Five--Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford Jr., Peter Washington Jr., Ricky Simmons and Jason Edgerton--remain under house arrest. They are forbidden to leave their homes between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. for any reason other than to go to work or attend union meetings.
"If they travel outside the state, they have to get permission to do so," Leonard Riley said. "This affects their daily lives. They have children graduating from college."
Another 27 workers--including Leonard--face a $1.5 million lawsuit filed by the nonunion company, WSI, that ran the scab operation.
The dockworkers were targeted because of the ILA's central involvement in labor struggles across the state. "ILA Local 1422 is an example of what the labor movement is about," Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, told Socialist Worker. "I've seen [the ILA] load up a bus, travel for three-and-a-half hours to support workers, cook them meals and encourage them to stand their ground. They've paid out of their own pocket for low-paid women and minorities to attend union training."
But this fight isn't only about a vengeful politician like Condon trying to ride a racist backlash into the governor's mansion. He's acting on behalf of the giant multinational corporations that have poured investments into South Carolina in recent years.
The number of factories in the state--including a BMW assembly plant and its suppliers--doubled in the 1990s. These companies were attracted by wages that are 20 percent below the national average--and the lowest percentage of workers in unions besides neighboring North Carolina.
But the fighting example of a virtually all-Black union of well-paid workers is a dangerous one in a low-wage state with a population that is nearly 30 percent African American.
State Republican politicians figure that if they can break a powerful union like ILA Local 1422, they can send a message that unions everywhere will be smashed if they step out of line.
Crucially, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is backing the Charleston Five. "This campaign brings to the fore basic constitutional issues regarding freedom of speech and association, not to mention the statutory right of all workers to organize," Sweeney wrote to union leaders in January. "The national AFL-CIO is assisting in this effort, and I ask your help."
Sweeney's special assistant, Bill Fletcher, who is also co-chair of the Black Radical Congress, has played a key role in building support for the Five. The growing momentum pressured the ILA's conservative International president, John Bowers, into giving official backing to the campaign after a long delay. The struggle also has the support of the International Transport Workers Federation, which links dockworkers' unions around the world.
That's because the showdown in Charleston directly pits corporate globalization against international workers' solidarity. "June 9 isn't the end of this struggle, but the beginning," said DeWitt. She's calling on union members and supporters to build defense committees--and prepare for an international day of action that could come as early as July.
As Leonard Riley put it, "If you believe in justice, you should support these five men in Charleston."
Victory to the Charleston Five!
For further information, call the South Carolina AFL-CIO at 803-798-8300 or e-mail [email protected] Send contributions to: Dockworkers' Defense Fund, 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403, Attn: Robert J. Ford.