The growing fight for the Charleston Five
August 31, 2001 | Page 5
THE CAMPAIGN to defend the Charleston Five is gathering momentum throughout the labor movement.
The five--Kenneth Jefferson, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton, Elijah Ford and Ricky Simmons--are members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Locals 1422 and 1771 in South Carolina.
They have been under house arrest for 19 months and face trial on felony riot charges that carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Their "crime"? Participating in a picket line in January 2000 against nonunion labor used by the Nordana Lines shipping company.
After more than 600 riot police viciously attacked the picketing workers, South Carolina State Attorney General Charlie Condon obtained indictments against the five.
But a solidarity movement is building against this outrageous anti-labor attack. The AFL-CIO Executive Council has backed the struggle. And the International Dockworkers Council, meeting in Los Angeles in July, pledged to shut down ports around the world as part of an International Day of Action on the first day of the trial.
ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley has been touring the U.S. to build support. On August 17, some 250 people turned out for a Charleston Five solidarity rally in Chicago at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 705 hall, where more than $5,000 was raised for the defense.
Chaired by Kat McClellan of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), the rally included speeches by Dolores Withers, president of AFT Local 1708; Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME Council 31; Peter Hanrahan, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 1; and UIC history professor Leon Fink.
Teamsters Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Zero presented a check for $2,500 from his union and pledged to build the defense campaign. "I hope that everyone talks up this fight, because I would love to see about 20 buses leaving from Chicago full of activists going down to South Carolina and showing Mr. Condon whose rights he's trying to take," Zero said.
Lee Sustar, of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Charleston Five and a Socialist Worker journalist, made an appeal for defense funds. "As for the people we're fighting down in South Carolina, you don't have to go too far to find them," he said.
"Because it's not just a race-baiting, right-wing Republican politician. He's acting on behalf of certain interests--some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world, including BMW, Robert Bosch, Michelin Tire, General Electric."
Tim Leahy, an official with the Chicago Federation of Labor, compared the attack on the Charleston Five to the prosecution of the Haymarket Martyrs, labor activists who were executed on trumped-up charges for fighting for the eight-hour day more than a century ago.
"I say the labor movement will not grow and justice will not be served by building more monuments," Leahy said. "Let's not wait until these brothers are in jail, are convicted unjustly or worse. The time is now to fight for the Charleston Five!"
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"We're going to turn the tide in South Carolina"
Socialist Worker prints excerpts of KEN RILEY'S speech at the Chicago rally.
WE BELIEVE in unionism. We believe that we must press forward. If we're going to turn the tide in South Carolina, it's going to come from the working class. It's going to come from organizing.
Workers in South Carolina earn some 26 percent less than the national average. In South Carolina, workers are oppressed.
There aren't many labor organizations in South Carolina that can afford to do the things that Local 1422 can do. So we saw it is as our responsibility to get involved in the social ills that plague our state.
I myself was educated as the result of my father working the docks before me. I didn't have to go to the docks, but I went there because that was my choice.
What we've done is to start getting involved with politicians and start affecting the outcome of certain [election] races. Therefore, we became a target.
And another reason we became a target is that they've increased their efforts to stamp out unions in the state of South Carolina.
DURING EVERY single labor struggle that's going on in South Carolina, the ILA has been there. During the UPS strike, we were there on the line with our brothers and sisters every day. We set up a tent [for strikers] down at our union hall.
When there was a decertification vote in Orangeburg, we sent buses of longshoremen there. We got to those workers, and they weren't successful in decertifying that union.
At a battery producing plant in Sumter, they were trying to decertify that union. We sent buses of people there and got that situation turned around.
When the UAW was in trouble at the Mack Truck plant, we sent thousands of dollars to support those workers.
They were there, on the picket line, feeling defeated and making no noise. The security forces that were sent down to guard them were asleep in their bus because they thought nothing was going to happen. When our bus rolled in, they woke up.
The employers who come to our state know that if they're able to stamp out the ILA--if they can get rid of that predominately African American local down there--so the labor movement would go in South Carolina. It would be gone. Finished.
So that's why when we were met with a challenge [by nonunion labor unloading Nordana Lines] back in 1999, at the dawn of the new millennium, the state of South Carolina saw this as an opportunity to finally get back at Local 1422.
That's when the state attorney general convened several law enforcement summits. They were conspiring about how to send these cops to crush that demonstration.
It was like a war zone on the night when that ship came into port. The ship was supposed to have come into Charleston the same day that we had the massive rally in Columbia, South Carolina, to take down that dumb Confederate flag.
But they couldn't guard such a massive rally of almost 50,000 individuals in Columbia--and also send 600 cops down to Charleston at the same time. So they ordered that ship to stay out in the ocean for an extra couple of days until after the rally was over.
And we were glad they did, too, because guess where we were? In Columbia, right in the midst of that rally.
I have 800 members in my local. Only two whites. The clerks and checkers local, with 175 members, is 100 percent white. But because there were so many Black workers at the front of that march going down to the picket lines, the officers were beating against their shields and yelling racial epithets at them to try to incite them: "Bring it on, niggers! We're going to bash your head tonight."
SOMETIMES, I have to ask myself, what makes this particular labor dispute so different from all others? It's because of everything that it represents.
It represents globalization. You heard about the foreign and domestic capital that's being pumped into our region. The agenda of the state Chamber of Commerce is the agenda of the multinationals that are now affiliated with it.
The effort is to keep South Carolina a very attractive Third World alternative to other countries. Thankfully enough, [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney, along with many others, now see the need to focus on the South again--to start putting resources into the South, sending organizers down there.
We solicit your continued support and your prayers, and we also solicit your help when this International Day of Action occurs.
Dockworkers around the world are going to respond. They've pledged that it will not go unnoticed in the ports. And I can tell you that if you have any stocks in the market, you better watch out that day because Wall Street is going to shake.
So we welcome you in South Carolina to join us in a massive rally on the first day of the trial. Even though it's in the midst of the struggle, we are known for our hospitality in the South, and we'll make you all you very glad you came.