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The Charleston Five speak out about their fight
"We need to keep the union strong"

May 17, 2002 | Page 5

THE CHARLESTON Five took to the road this month to speak out about their struggle during 18 months of house arrest--and to thank all those who supported their victorious international defense campaign.

The five--members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in South Carolina--were arrested following an attack by 600 riot police on their picket line on January 20, 2000. The picket came just days after ILA Local 1422--whose membership is overwhelmingly African American--led a march of 40,000 against the flying of the Confederate flag over the state house.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, a Republican candidate for governor, charged the five with felonies that carried a penalty of up to five years in prison. Condon had orchestrated the crackdown to support the use of nonunion labor by the Danish shipping line Nordana. But when dockworkers in Spain refused to load Nordana ships, the company signed a union contract weeks later.

To build support for the campaign to free the five, ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley toured the U.S. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called on the labor movement to support the five--and union activists built grassroots support committees in several cities. Dockworkers worldwide promised to take action if the five went to trial.

Under mounting pressure, Condon finally threw in the towel--and the charges were reduced to misdemeanors. A $1.5 million lawsuit filed by the nonunion company against 27 ILA members remains unresolved.

But the Charleston Five--PETER WASHINGTON, KENNETH JEFFERSON, ELIJAH FORD and RICKY SIMMONS of ILA Local 1422 and JASON EDGERTON of ILA Local 1771--are free. After their recent Chicago victory rally, the Charleston Five spoke to WAYNE HEIMBACH of Chicago's Labor Express radio program. Here, we reprint excerpts of their discussion.

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Peter Washington Jr.

WE DIDN'T expect to see all the police in riot gear. They had armored tanks, dogs and everything. The way I looked at it, they had it planned. They looked at us as being hoodlums, and they were going to handle us any kind of way they wanted. They just wanted to lock us up, get us off our jobs and get it all away from us.

[House arrest] was difficult because I had kids in high school, had sons in college. Any time I had to go out and take my son back to school or take him to visit a campus or anything, I had to get permission from the lawyer and the attorney general and all of them.

I feel as though I'm past that stage--I'm a grown man. I'm not a child. I don't feel as though we needed to do all that. But Charlie Condon--he felt as though we should go back to our childhood days and report to him.

I told [my children], "We've got a job to do, and if we didn't stand on the picket line and didn't go and fight for our jobs, we wouldn't.

Jason Edgerton

[HOUSE ARREST] was kind of up and down. You heard different things every day. You heard one day that the charges were dropped, and we celebrated for three or four days. Then, we come to find out it was just dropped on three individuals, not us.

You didn't know one day to the next whether we were actually going to be set free inside a year, or if we were going to spend five years in jail.

Our cause was just. South Carolina and the nation did take some kind of learning experience from this. That's why I think what we did was right. It not only protected us, it protected the workingman around the country and around the world. And I hope and pray that this will never happen again to anybody. I hope nobody's life is in limbo as mine was.

But the reason I was there that night? My father's been out there for 25 years. Growing up, he supplied us with food, clothing, shelter, whatever we needed, because of the union. It was a struggle, but it was a struggle that I believed in.

Kenneth Jefferson

THEY WERE trying to bust up the picket line and really bust up the union. They threatened that we would go to jail. They threatened to take our jobs.

I know about the [solidarity] campaign. It helped to pull working people together to fight for our jobs. [We need] to keep unions alive--to keep unions strong. For working people to stick together in any struggle.

It's a fight that you have to do keep your job, your family, keep the kids going to school, pay the bills, everything.

Elijah Ford Jr.

I LEARNED a lot from this. I sat down and studied sometimes. Me and the kids.

The way I feel about it is when I went to become a longshoreman, it seemed like that was my second wife. My dad used to work out there. And I always used to ask my dad, "When are you going to get me up there? When I get older, I want to go up there."

That night, I was not looking to go jail. I was there to try to keep my job.

Union workers need to stay strong. The support we got--that night, we went up there on the picket line, and we had other people who weren't in the union who came out to support us. We stayed strong.

I feel that if it came up again with the same problem, we would do it again. Also, I want a lot of people in the union--come on and join, and keep the union strong.

If they keep work on one line [away from the union], they're going to be keeping work on another line, and another line, and another line, until they're through with us. So we had to step up and do what we had to do. You can't just let a nonunion company come in and take over.

Ricky Simmons

I FEEL that the nonunion taking over the Nordana [lines] and the threat to the ILA--I feel that's something we had to fight. We had to protect our union, protect our brothers.

Some guys had been out there 40 or 50 years. And all that hard work could go down the drain. We couldn't let it happen just like that.

As of now, they're still trying to break up the union. But if we stick together and stand as a union, and as one, we will overcome.

Being under house arrest for 18 months, my daughters--I've got five daughters--needed extra attention. For one of them, her grades were beginning to drop because she thought that her father was going to prison. My wife had to resign from her job as a result of it, to keep an eye on [her]. And after this was all over with, she picked back up in her grades.

I sat down and explained [to her] what the ILA and the longshoremen are all about, and how long it takes to build the movement that we have now.

AUDIO FROM the full interview with the Charleston Five can be downloaded at www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=4691.

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