You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Ken Riley on the fight for the Charleston Five
"We won't rest until they're vindicated"

July 20, 2001 | Page 10

FIVE MEMBERS of International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., are facing up to five years in prison for defending their union and their rights.

They were indicted after a police attack on Local 1422's picket of a Nordana Lines ship being unloaded with nonunion labor in January 2000. For the past 18 months, the Charleston Five have been under house arrest from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., unless they're going to work or attending union meetings.

Their struggle is not only for union rights, but for racial justice, too. Local 1422 members are overwhelmingly African American and played a key role in mobilizing for last year's massive march against the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

ILA Local 1422 President KEN RILEY has been touring the country to build support for the Charleston Five, who could go on trial as soon as September. These are excerpts from Riley's speech on July 4 in Madison, Wis., before the South Central Federation of Labor and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I THOUGHT it was tough being Black in South Carolina, but it's much tougher being union. South Carolina has a lot going for itself as far as the beauty of the state--the mountains, the ocean. But when it comes down to real-life issues, there's a lot to be desired.

South Carolina is dead last in every category you want to be first in, and first in every category you want to be last in. Just recently, we were successful in taking down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome. But many of us are still not satisfied, because it's still flying in a place of sovereignty right there in front of the statehouse.

The flag is just symbolic of some of the things that are going on in our state with regards to working people, poor people, Black people and other minorities.

We had [Gary McClain], who about a year ago was arrested for speaking up and requesting union representation at his plant. He was coming into work one morning, and his truck was surrounded by police cars. He was dragged out at gunpoint, thrown up against the truck, searched and arrested. He was injected with drugs against his will and then transported to a mental institution, where he stayed for two weeks.

We have a plant in South Carolina where workers are becoming sterile because of the amount of lead contamination in their bodies. We had one worker who died as a result.

Because the union was becoming active in that campaign to fight lead contamination, [management] had a decertification vote scheduled. Our local as well as some other locals went down and rallied around that little local down there, and we were able to save the union.

Four years ago, when I took office, we started to take a look at these sorts of issues, and we wanted to make a difference in our state.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHEN YOU decide to do the kind of things that really start to make a difference and get people listening to you, and you have an impact, it starts to make some people a little bit nervous. And you find yourself starting to become a target.

When the now-governor decided that he wanted to seek our union's endorsement back in 1998, we gave him that endorsement. We got a Democratic governor in South Carolina for the first time in 12 years.

And when that governor tried to reward labor for its efforts by nominating me to the State Ports Authority Board, that was a serious mistake on his part, according to the right-wingers.

They launched a grassroots alert to every single business in the state of South Carolina, asking them to defeat this nomination because "we cannot afford to send the wrong message to the world that South Carolina was open to labor unions."

South Carolina was marketing its workers as Third World--productive workers who earn 26 percent less than the national average. They were saying, "Don't take your corporations and businesses to South America or Mexico or the Philippines. Bring them to South Carolina–we've got Third World conditions right here."

Plants are closing down in union states, and guess where they're coming? South Carolina and North Carolina.

There's no better-paying blue-collar job in South Carolina than the longshoreman. Then [Nordana] brought in a workforce that took that standard back 30 years. They offered $8 an hour with no benefits whatsoever.

We put up informational pickets to tell people what was going on. We were starting to have a real impact. So about two weeks before a Nordana vessel came to port, I got a call from the state law enforcement division. They were expecting 600 cops to crush that demonstration, which they did. And it looked like a war zone leading up to that night.

The police officers started it. They started beating on their shields and making racial slurs to our workers. We got out there and had reestablished calm when, for no apparent reason, I got struck in the head with a [police officer's] baton. I received 12 stitches that night. Nine men were arrested, thrown into jail and charged with trespassing.

We got them out of jail about 3 p.m. the next day and went on with our business–with the sole pleasure that we were going to be out there the next time the ship came.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THEN THE state attorney general [Charlie Condon] came in. He overstepped the solicitor's office and local authorities and instituted felony charges that carry up to five years in prison.

To make matters worse, he placed these guys under house arrest–the usual restrictions for a hardened criminal.

Now we've got to provide the defense for 27 men who have been named in a [$1.5 million] civil lawsuit. Here again, if we don't raise the money to defend them, they'll have to go on their own personal resources. Then, who's going to go on the picket line, knowing that they're putting their families' resources in jeopardy?

We've just become too vocal and outspoken in a state where you're supposed to stay in your place.

As far as the work is concerned, the Port of Charleston is pretty much back to normal, because after five months, we had gotten our work back. When we signed a contract [with Nordana], they dropped all interest in any lawsuit that they had previously filed.

And that was due to the help of our brothers in the International Dockworkers Council. They went aboard [Nordana] vessels and handed them letters to let them know that if those ships come back to their ports and the ship wasn't loaded with our labor, they wouldn't work in the port of Valencia, in the port of Barcelona and the port of Tenerife.

That's what happens when you have that kind of international solidarity. They got the message real quick. They intended to destroy the movement, but what this is doing is inspiring the movement.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE RALLY in South Carolina [on June 9] was just out of this world. It got the attention of some of the right people in the state. Our state attorney general has said that he isn't going to be dictated to by union "comrades" coming into our state. But some of the business people are getting the message.

Think about an International Day of Action [on the first day of the trial], and the impact that it could have on our state economy and the economy of the world on just one day.

We're living in a time of just-in-time delivery to our factories. So you're not only talking about ships being out, but trucking being idled, warehouses being idled, plants maybe becoming idled.

The [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] on the West Coast says that they're going out, and European ports are going to participate in this International Day of Action. Right now, the [shipping] lines are becoming very nervous.

We won't rest, we won't stop until every one of these guys has been vindicated and exonerated. And that's why we're out here toiling night and day, traveling around the country--around the world sometimes--to try to build support.

We appreciate all you're doing for us. And we're standing by ready to reciprocate whenever you may need us.

What you can do to help the Five

--Pass a resultion of support in your union or organization.

--Gather signatures of support on petitions.

--Organize a defense committee in your city or on your campus.

--Raise money for a legal defense through fundraising meetings and events.

--Build for the International Day of Action, scheduled for the first day of the trial.

For further information on the solidarity campaign with the Charleston Five, contact Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, at 803.798.8300, or click here to send an e-mail. Send contributions to: Dockworkers Defense Fund, 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403, Attn: Robert J. Ford.

Home page | Back to the top