The Struggle of Black Dockworkers in the Deep South

Free the Charleston 5

Revolutionary Worker #1114, August 12, 2001, posted at

Downtown Charleston, South Carolina, is a carefully preserved shrine to the Old South. Slavery days are portrayed to tourists as a gracious "Southern Heritage" of hoopskirts and mansions. Meanwhile, the heart of Charleston’s economy lies down the coast--where the massive cranes of the city’s highly mechanized shipyards loads and unload ships from all over the world. Charleston is the fourth busiest container port in the country--handling everything from luxury cars to frozen chickens. Today, just as throughout Charleston’s 200-year history, it is the labor of African-American workers that moves the goods from the ships.

The ruling class forces of South Carolina intend to become even more of a "global player." And, in true capitalist fashion, their plan involves keeping white racist traditions strong and the cost of living labor cheap.

In January 2000, when Black dockworkers mobilized to defend themselves against a union-breaking move, the authorities responded with brutal police attack and outrageous criminal charges. Five workers in Charleston--Kenneth Jefferson, 42; Elijah Ford Jr., 40; Peter Washington Jr., 48; Rick Simmons, 38 and John Edgerton, 23--have lived for over a year and a half under virtual house arrest. They face massive trumped-up charges of felony riot, assault and conspiracy.

Face-off at the Docks

"These longshore jobs are the only jobs in South Carolina where a Black can really move up from below poverty to a middle class standard of living in a short time if he comes out and applies himself. It’s the only job where young Blacks who may have gotten themselves in serious trouble early on in life and paid their dues to society, can get a second chance. We have so many stories like that.... 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."

Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422

"At the 1422 hall, a longshoreman named Dwight Collins was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word ‘Endangered,’ over images of an eagle, an elephant and a black man. Racial profiling, police abuse, unpunished killings of blacks at the hands of police--‘We’re being shot down everywhere,’ Collins said. … Out of this suffocating atmosphere burst the dockworkers’ defiance."

Joann Wypijewsky, "Audacity on Trial,’
The Nation, August 6

Production workers in South Carolina make less than three-quarters the national U.S. average--about $5,000 less per worker--with wages especially low for Black workers in the state. The ruling class here sees such lower wages as a key draw for capitalist investment. The higher wages and benefits that the longshoremen have won for themselves are seen as a problem--as the wrong "role model" for workers in the area.

Their parent union, the East Coast’s International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), is notoriously corrupt, mafia-riddled, anti-communist and opposed to militant struggle. But workers in Charleston Local 1422, made up overwhelmingly of African Americans, have been increasingly active. They mobilized to help oppose the official use of the Confederate flag--in a wave of protests two years ago that called for an economic boycott of the state. When their local president, Riley, pulled political strings (within the state’s Democratic Party) to get nominated to the Charleston Port Authority board, the local Chamber of Commerce mobilized to squash the appointment and proposed a state law forbidding any unionized worker from sitting on that board.

A showdown came after October 1999, when the small Danish shipping line, Nordana, announced that after 23 years of union contract work, they were severing their relationship with the longshore union. They intended to use non-union workers from a contract firm, Winyah Stevedoring (WSI), to unload their ships at less than half the current wages of $16.50 to $25 an hour.

Trade unions have been under assault like this throughout the U.S. over the last two decades. The number of organized workers has dropped to a smaller and smaller percentage of the workforce. South Carolina, like much of the U.S. South, has particularly hostile anti-union laws called "Right to Work Laws." These laws deny organized workers any right to enforce a "closed shop" (where everyone in a workplace must be part of the union)--which makes it hard for the workers, even if a majority are organized into a union, to win improved wages and benefits from their employers. Less than 4 percent of South Carolina’s workers are unionized.

The workers of ILA Local 1422 knew that if one shipping line in the U.S. succeeded in switching to non-union contracting--the major shipping lines would follow. Three times Local 1422 set up large picket lines--and delayed the unloading of Nordana ships. (Picket lines are gatherings that organized workers use to publicly demonstrate their grievances, and at times physically stop non-organized workers from taking their jobs.) The authorities decided to create a showdown and break the workers.

On January 20, 2000, the Nordana ship, Skodsborg, arrived in Charleston, and 20 non-union workers were sent to unload its cargo. It was only two days after the historic march of 50,000 people against the Confederate flag in the state capitol--and political tensions were already high.

The state authorities massed 600 police and state troopers in full paramilitary gear along the Charleston docks, including horse-mounted police, armored vehicles, snarling dogs, helicopters and patrol boats. (One worker quipped that they apparently expected "possible union invasion-by-sea.") Some police units were provocatively gathered right in front of the nearby union hall. After discussing all day what to do, 150 workers boldly marched from the union hall toward the terminal close to midnight to take their stand.

The cops moved to confront the workers, beating their shields with clubs. One cop shouted, "We’ll beat the hell out of you n*ggers." A phalanx of cops charged, and one of them clubbed the workers’ leader Ken Riley, opening a head gash that took 12 stitches.

All hell broke loose. The workers defended themselves fiercely. Cops shot beanbags and dragged workers off to jail. It was shocking to people of this area that it had come to this.

Cranking up the Stakes

Local police only charged the arrested workers with misdemeanor trespassing, and even that was later dropped for lack of evidence. But high in the local ruling class, a decision was made to go for the throat.

States Attorney General Charlie Condon took over the case and raised the charges on five workers to felony riot, conspiracy to riot, assault, and resisting arrest--charges that can bring five to ten years in prison.

Cordon placed the Charleston 5 under house arrest--forbidding them to leave the house for anything but work and a few pre-approved activities. This imposed the heavy symbolism of slave-like status on these workers--four of whom are Black.

The local union-busting outfit WSI sued the two Charleston locals involved--ILA Local 1422 and Local 1771 (a smaller, largely white local of port office workers)--for $1.5 million for illegally disrupting WSI "business" operations with picket lines.

In an ad endorsing Bush for president, Cordon demanded "jail, jail and more jail" for the accused workers. And meanwhile, soon-to-be president George W. Bush publicly argued that "states’ rights" gave South Carolina the right to uphold slavery’s flag.

The Spanish affiliate of the International Dockworkers Council (which grew out of the recent Liverpool dock struggle and unites longshore unions of many countries) organized a campaign of boarding Nordana ships throughout Spain and delivering letters that said their cargo would be picketed if it was loaded in Charleston with non-union labor. Under that pressure, Nordana and the ILA union leadership reached an agreement five months after the Charleston port confrontation,.

During all this, the national ILA leadership refused to extend any support to the Charleston local. Other ILA locals continued to work Nordana ships while Charleston’s workers were picketing. After the police attack the national ILA first refused to help raise funds for the legal defense, and the union’s president hasn’t even visited the local members in Charleston. In their negotiations with Nordana, the ILA agreed to give concessions like smaller work crews and an end to the guarantee of a full day’s pay for workers--in exchange for the company’s agreement to stop hiring non-union workers.

In court hearings, WSI lawyers showed witnesses pictures of the picket lines. The city of Charleston ran newspaper ads asking for people to identify workers involved. When individual workers were fingered, WSI added over 25 of their names to those charged in the court suit. This suit too was eventually dropped.

Now after over a year and a half, the trial is approaching for the Charleston 5. State authorities are demanding prison-for-picketing--as a lesson to workers of this whole region.

Free the Charleston 5!

"We live in a new century yet the earnest and hard-fought conflict between labor and capital continues unabated. ILA’s picket line was a righteous response to the violation of a labor contract that assured that shippers at the port at Charleston would use union labor. For daring to protect their just bargaining rights and the right of working people to a living wage, ILA’s leaders are beaten, its members imprisoned on trumped-up charges and a proud historic union is maligned in the corporate press. I support the Charleston longshoremen’s fight for freedom, to protest free from state violation and judicial repression."

Message from political prisoner
Mumia Abu-Jamal to the Charleston 5

On June 9, 5,000 workers and supporters rallied in Columbia, South Carolina to demand freedom for the Charleston 5. Under the sponsorship of the national AFL-CIO, bus convoys came from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and New York. ILA President Bowers finally felt forced to come make a lukewarm statement of support.

Meanwhile, police guarded the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds as the march moved by, and they confiscated the distinctive "cargo hooks" that the Local 10 Drill Team of the West Coast longshore union (ILWU) carry in demonstrations.

A leader of the Swedish dockworkers called for an International Day of Action for the first day of the trial. And, because the Charleston 5 are under house arrest, members of their families spoke on their behalf. Meanwhile Attorney General Condon arrogantly announced that South Carolina’s government is not going to be pressured by "comrades" coming into their state.

The trial of the Charleston 5 is coming soon--the date has not yet been announced. This struggle is shaping up as a significant struggle over the right of working people to organize and defend themselves against their capitalist employers.

Support statements for the Charleston 5 can be sent to ILA Local 1422, 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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