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Defend our union rights
Justice for the Charleston Five!

November 9, 2001 | Page 12

LEE SUSTAR reports on the upcoming day of action in support of the Charleston Five.

PROSECUTORS IN Charleston, S.C., are taking aim at five union dockworkers. And organized labor and civil rights activists will protest this attack across the U.S. and around the world November 14.

Five members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Locals 1422 and 1771 are set to go to trial next week on felony riot charges. Their "crime?" Participating in a legal picket of a nonunion operation.

"The success of this campaign is vital," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote to union leaders last month. "What's at stake is not only the freedom of five unjustly accused union members in South Carolina, but the rights of workers to protest and organize anywhere in America."

The Charleston Five--Kenneth Jefferson, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton, Ricky Simmons and Elijah Ford--have already suffered outrageous punishment, even though they haven't been convicted of anything.

They spent 20 months under house arrest, confined to their homes from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. They weren't even allowed to attend a child's ball game or a church activity if it violated the curfew, and they were forced to wear humiliating electronic bracelets that tracked their movements.

Finally, thanks to a growing international defense campaign, a judge last month freed the five from house arrest.

Now, unions, civil rights organizations, religious groups and social justice organizations are gearing up for an International Day of Action on November 14 to demand that all charges be dropped. The rallies are the biggest step yet in a struggle that began after 600 riot cops attacked an ILA picket line on January 20, 2000.

The cops--backed by armored cars, helicopters, dogs and patrol boats--spewed racial slurs as they attacked the overwhelmingly African American union members with nightsticks, tear gas and plastic bullets. When ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley tried to calm the situation, an officer struck him across the head, leaving a permanent scar.

Several dockworkers were arrested, but local authorities only pursued misdemeanor trespassing charges. Then South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon weighed in.

A labor-hating conservative who is running for governor, Condon got a grand jury to indict the five. It was a calculated, anti-union, race-baiting move.

The ILA in Charleston is overwhelmingly Black--and Local 1422 played a leading role in the massive 47,000-strong march to take down the Confederate flag from the state capitol building in Columbia just three days before the cops' picket line attack.

Nordana Lines, the company that the ILA was picketing when police rioted, soon dropped its effort to use scab labor when dockworkers' unions in Spain and across Western Europe said they wouldn't touch any cargo from Charleston that wasn't loaded by the ILA.

Riley has met with union leaders across Europe to address the issue--and toured the U.S. nonstop to build solidarity and raise defense funds. Unions across the U.S. have responded with an inspiring show of solidarity.

The West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense funds--and will demonstrate their support November 14. More than 7,000 union members and supporters turned out for a rally June 9 in Columbia.

Under growing pressure, Condon last month withdrew from the case. That was an important victory. But defense committees across the U.S. have vowed to keep fighting until the Charleston Five have been cleared of all charges.

At a November 1 membership meeting of IBEW Local 134 in Chicago, the executive board proposed a solidarity resolution and a $1,000 contribution to the defense fund--and rank-and-file electricians amended the proposal to make a $10,000 donation in a unanimous vote. That's the kind of commitment that we need to defend our unions.

On November 14, let's turn out to show our solidarity--and send a message to the union busters that we won't let them send our five brothers to prison for standing up for their rights. Justice for the Charleston Five!

A high-stakes fight

THE FIGHT for the Charleston Five is about whether labor can overcome its historic failure to organize the South--and meet the new challenge of corporate globalization.

"I would say this issue is 65 percent global, and 35 percent about race," ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley told Socialist Worker. "When you look at the [UAW union election defeat] at Nissan in Tennessee, you see the importance of this issue for labor--for organizing the South."

Ever since the overthrow of slavery following the Civil War, employers in the South have used racism to keep unions weak and wages low. Today, barely 4 percent of South Carolina workers are in unions, the lowest in the U.S. aside from neighboring North Carolina. Wages are as much as 25 percent lower than the rest of the country.

It's no coincidence that the South is now the most industrialized region of the U.S. In the 1990s alone, the number of factories in South Carolina doubled, including new auto assembly plants owned by BMW and Honda. As a result, Charleston is the fourth-biggest port in the U.S.--and the fastest-growing one.

Charlie Condon may have used race-baiting tactics from the Old South, but this is a fight for labor's future--one we can't lose. "It's been a long 18 months of building up support," Riley said. "Now is the time to make our voice heard."

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