Peace & Justice
Black Workers Threatened in Charleston Trial
by David Bacon
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA (7/20/00) - This September, five longshoremen will go on trial in South Carolina. Elijah Ford Jr., Ricky Simmons, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton and Kenneth Jefferson face felony riot charges, arising from a confrontation on the Charleston docks on January 20 of last year. They could go to prison for five years.
Meanwhile, the men, four Black and one white, languish under house arrest. They cannot leave their homes after 7pm, except to go to work. They wear electronic bracelets around their ankles, an ugly reminder of the shackles that bound southern Blacks in slavery and chain gangs.
And as their case continues its inexorable march toward trial, labor and African-American political activists are holding it up as a symbol of the third-world status facing Black workers in the south. Bill Fletcher, a fellow at the AFL-CIO's George Meany Center and national organizer of the Black Radical Congress compares the case to that of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. "The state of South Carolina has declared war on labor," he says, "and on Black workers in particular."
The port of Charleston, where the men work, is one of the largest in the country. And although South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union members nationally, all the longshore workers in the port, all but two of whom are Black, belong to Local 1422 of the International Longshoremens Association.
That union status came under attack last year, when a Danish company, Nordana, announced that it intended to load and unload ships using non-union workers. "This had never happened before," recalls Local 1422 president Ken Riley. "Those jobs are something we cherish, and this operation was going to tear down our industry standards. We've spent forty years of hard work fighting for wages high enough so that workers can send their kids to college, and afford at least a middle class standard of living. When we found out they were going non-union, we knew we simply could not tolerate it."
Local police cooperated with the longshoremen when they set up their picketlines to protest. But the state's attorney general, Charles Condon, decided to draw a much harder line. He assembled an army of 600 state troopers and highway patrolmen, and on the night of January 20, they escorted non-union workers into the port with helicopters and armored personnel vehicles. Riley went down to the picketline to try to prevent confrontation, and was beaten by a trooper and carried off to the hospital. A melee followed.
When a local judge dismissed charges against arrested unionists, Condon publicly condemned the decision, convened a grand jury, and brought indictments against the five. He unveiled "a plan for dealing with union dockworker violence .. jail, jail, and more jail," and added that he would call for maximum bail, no plea bargaining and no leniency for union dockworkers. "South Carolina is a strong right to work state and a citizen's right not to join a union is absolute and will be fully protected," Condon said.
Condon is a candidate for governor, chaired the Bush campaign in South Carolina, and was a member of the Bush presidential transition team. "He used our situation in his ads, announcing that South Carolina needed to elect Bush to stamp out unions," Riley charges. "And in the same speech when he announced his run for governor, he gave as a reason that South Carolina must rid itself of labor unions."
It's not an idle threat. The state's economic development authority advertises for investors around the world, boasting that workers' productivity ranks with the nation's highest, while wages hover 20% below. As a result, European companies have built new factories all along the I-85 corridor from North Carolina to Georgia. None have unions.
"That's where the industrial development in the South is taking place," Fletcher explains, "and therefore it's an area with great potential for organizing, if labor builds a real alliance with African-Americans. Local 1422 not only has solid roots in the Black community, but it's in the heart of the transport operation this development depends on. A strong union there is in a good position to help other workers get organized."
When cities across the country began passing living wage ordinances, requiring government contractors to pay wages capable of supporting families, South Carolina passed a law making it illegal for any community to establish a salary floor higher than the Federal minimum wage. And when the state's current Democratic governor proposed Riley for a post on the port commission, Condon and his allies not only shot the nomination down, but introduced a bill into the legislature (nicknamed "the Riley Act"), which would have made it illegal to appoint a union member to any public board or commission.
Legislative hostility has been a reaction to Local 1422's ability to bring Black and white workers together, and unions together with the African-American community. Those coalitions could change the political makeup of the South.
When Local 1422 picketed the Nordana ship, it was joined on the lines by the all-white union for port clerks, Local 1771. The Progressive Network, bringing together 38 Charleston community organizations, meets in Local 1422's hall. In reaction to the threat of the trial, the AFL-CIO called for a national campaign to free the longshoremen, putting Fletcher in charge. A march in early July in Charleston drew thousands of unionists from around the country.
Condon called criticism by the Progressive Network of the indictments "a propaganda ploy by labor union sympathizers," adding that "the disruptive efforts of the Progressive Network and its comrades are designed solely to divert attention from the very serious criminal charges of riot and conspiracy to riot filed against these five defendants."
Black labor activists like Fletcher and Riley believe the coming trial is a racially-motivated attempt to stop the unionization of Black workers in the south. "We have to look beyond the individuals and the local union," Fletcher says. "Just as the firings of air controllers 20 years ago started a wave of attacks on unions, a conviction could inspire new sentiment by authorities and employers here that this kind of repression is acceptable."
Riley helped lead the demonstrations to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol building, and warns that "racism is definitely alive and well here. There are those who believe the flag and what it represents are part of the heritage of South Carolina. That flag does has a rightful place, but it's in a museum."
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