Charleston - The Front Line for Labor Rights
Interview with Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Bill Fletcher, fellow at the George Meany Center and national organizer of the Black Radical Congress (7/15/01)
by David Bacon
Five South Carolina longshoremen - Elijah Ford Jr., Ricky Simmons, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton and Kenneth Jefferson - are currently facing felony riot charges, with a potential penalty of five years in prison. The charges arise from an incident last year when Charleston dock workers were attacked by police as they picketed in defense of their union jobs. Their case has become the focal point of a national campaign to defend workers' rights. It highlights the key role played by African American workers, especially in the South, in defending those rights, and the impact that organizing southern workers could have on the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement.
The trial is set for September.
David Bacon interviewed Ken Riley, the president of the Charleston dockworkers union, International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422, and Bill Fletcher, national coordinator for the AFL-CIO of the Charleston defense campaign.
Bacon: What's it like being a worker in South Carolina?
Riley: South Caroline is like a third world country for working people. That's actually the way we're being marketed. We have some of the most productive workers in the world, paid 20% less than the national average. There's a very hostile climate toward unions - South Carolina has the lowest union density in all 50 states, except North Carolina. So, workers are not treated fairly. The state does not recognize the federal minimum wage law. Legislation is being introduced right now that would forbid any living wage ordinance, by making it impossible to set a prevailing wage above the federal minimum.
Bacon: How did the conflict which resulted in the arrest of the Charleston Five come about?
Riley: We were faced with a situation where, for the first time in history, a non-union operator was going to lift containers aboard vessels at the port. This had never happened before. Container jobs are something we cherish - we know they're the wave of the future. That's where we'll experience our growth. So this operation was certainly going to tear down our industry standards. We've spent forty years of hard work building up those standards so that these jobs would be meaningful ones. We've fought for wages high enough so that workers can send their kids to college, and afford at least a middle class standard of living. So when we found out they were going non-union, we knew it was that time to put up informational pickets and try to get them to understand that we simply could not tolerate it.
We met with the company, and offered them concessions in order to help them understand we were sensitive to their needs. We told them we wanted to respond in a way that would be favorable to both of us. But they did not accept our proposal. They had already set the date when they would begin their non-union operation. We then set up informational pickets for the first three vessel calls. On the second and third vessel call we actually went down to the ship to make contact with the workers who were being bussed in. We tried to tell them, look, you are destroying families here. You are destroying years building up better wages and conditions. They saw it as a threat. The scab workers went aboard the ship they were unloading, and the operations stopped.
The local authorities were very cooperative. Actually the chief of police said, "Look, Kenny, you ought to stand out here. If you want to do some of the things that union people do, like blocking the street, let me know,." And when we did, they put the barricades around us to protect us from the traffic. It was a very peaceful, orderly, cooperative informational picket.
But Attorney General Charlie Conden got word of it and decided that he was going to take over. Condon is an extremist, a right wing Republican, who wants to be our next governor. Condon chaired the Bush campaign in South Carolina. He used our situation in his ads, announcing that states like South Carolina needed to elect Bush to stamp out unions. Once Bush got into office Condon was appointed to the transition team. And in the same speech when he announced his plan to run for governor he gave as a reason that we must rid South Carolina of labor unions.
Condon called the state highway patrol and South Carolina law enforcement divisions together, and amassed 600 riot-clad police officers to send to Charleston to put an end to our demonstrations. He sought to create a police state atmosphere to discourage workers from going to the picket line.
On the day of the confrontation, we witnessed a tremendous buildup, with prison buses coming down the street. We saw armored personnel vehicles, helicopters in the air, and police patrol boats in the water. They were on horseback and motorcycles, you name it - they were not going to let us get anywhere near that terminal.
Prior to that, we had never had any more than 50 to 60 longshoremen on the picket line. We decided originally not to go down there, and went to the floor of the union hall and told our members. We wanted to avoid any confrontation, and to make the authorities look like fools, spending all this taxpayer‚s money. But all along they had informants in the union hall and they were getting everything we said. On our way back to the hall at midnight, some of our members were barred from coming down certain streets. They felt they just couldn't take it all. "We need to go down there," they said, "stand our ground in the same place we've always picketed, and say these are our jobs." And when that happened, they were engaged by the officers, who initiated the action by pushing them when they were within their legal right to be standing there. Confrontation broke out, and within 20 minutes we got a report in the hall that the first man was laying on the ground with his head split open. And that's when everything went wild.
I left the union hall running, which is only about 150 to 200 yards away. It sounded like a real war zone as I approached, because tear gas was flying and rubber bullets were being fired all over the place. We began to try push everyone back, and just when we were about to re-establish calm, one of the police officers ran out of formation and clubbed me on the head. I was clearly visible, I didn't have a thing in my hand, and my back was turned. I was taken away, and received 12 stitches to my head.
Afterwards, when they went to court, and the prosecutors put what they thought was an impressive case before the judge, he simply dropped all the charges. This infuriated Attorney General Conden, who then went to the grand jury. He sought indictments on all nine who were arrested that night, but only got them against four, and later added a fifth. Therefore we have the Charleston five.
Bacon: Why has Charleston and its port become such a focus of the effort to erode the union rights of southern workers?
Fletcher: Charleston is one of the most important seaports in the U.S. The growth of industry in the south, particularly the transplants coming from Europe to the U.S. for cheap labor, depend on this port. These companies are settling in the Carolinas, and particularly along the I-85 corridor. We have to think about the strategic importance of the I-85 corridor, which extends from Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina down into Georgia. That's where the industrial development in the South is taking place, and therefore an area with great potential for organizing. But to do it successfully will require a real community/labor alliance, especially with the African-American movement. Local 1422 has solid roots in the Black community, and 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.
Bacon: Was the attack in the port also a reaction to the political role played by Local 1422?
Riley: The Republicans have, for the first time since Reconstruction, captured both houses of the legislature in South Carolina. They've introduced legislation affecting all workers in the public sector, who have been more willing to join unions because of the pressure they're facing. A bill was introduced this week to make it illegal to launch any living wage campaign in South Carolina. Further, for public sector workers like firefighters, sanitation and other workers, you can't bargain for any wage above the federal minimum wage. That's why there's so much European investment in the state - because of our low-paid workers. This fact is advertised over the internet in an effort to attract corporate investment. They boast that we're the most productive workers in the world, and that we earn 20% less than the national average.
When I took office four years ago, we decided to do something to try to change this abusive political climate. The only way we could see to do that was to form coalitions with those in the community who were also affected, and get politically involved. We opened our doors and brought the community into the labor movement. We touched bases with the NAACP. The Progressive Network, a coalition of 38 grassroots community organizations, meets in our union hall every month. The Democratic Party of South Carolina looked around and realized we were the only friends they had, and they held their convention and precinct meetings in our hall. Even though we only have 900 members of our local, we started to have a real political impact on our community.
We supported a candidate who was the first to seek to be associated with labor for decades, and who was able to defeat a Republican for governor for the first time in 12 years. As a result, I was appointed to the South Carolina Port Authority. Then the South Carolina Manufacturers Association and the Chamber of Commerce issued a grassroots alert, saying they had to stop the appointment. They said that if it went through it would send a message to the whole world, that South Carolina was now open to labor unions, and they couldn't let that happen. And their pressure was so great that even though we had the votes in the legislature, the governor pulled back the appointment.
But because we had come so close, the Republican Party in South Carolina decided that they could not afford to let it happen again. They introduced legislation to make it illegal for any card-carrying union member to serve on any state board, agency or commission. It passed the house, but we had enough votes to stop it in the senate.
Fletcher: It's not just the Ken Riley bill, which seeks to restrict the right of union members to hold office. They're seeking at the same time to tighten up right-to-work laws. There's a whole series of steps being taken in South Carolina right now to weaken the rights of workers. And the spearhead is the attack on ILA Local 1422.
There's also a global context. Despite the rhetoric of the end of the cold war, there's been a decline in democracy and civil liberties worldwide, beyond simply the rise of rightwing and fascist groups. The ability of individuals to exercise their freedom has been limited a time when there's an unprecedented polarization of wealth on this planet. In this country, the top 1% control 30-40% of the wealth, and the top 10% control 75% of the wealth. On a planetary scale, 225 people control more wealth than the bottom 47% of the world's people.
A lot of what we're seeing now is what Nixon called a preventive reaction strike. Global capital is trying to move before we really get organized. So when we look at the case of the Charleston Five, we have to look beyond the individuals and the local union. Just as the PATCO firings 20 years ago signified the start of a wave of attacks by domestic capital on unions, the conviction of the Charleston Five could inspire a wave of sentiment on the part of government authorities and employers that this kind of massive repression is acceptable, and more importantly, that they can get away with it.
Bacon: What is the general climate for Black workers?
Riley: There's discrimination in employment and promotions, and unequal pay for the same jobs. You don't see evidence of open, outright hatred, but racism is definitely alive and well. We participated in the movement to take down the Confederate flag, which flew over our state capitol, because it is a symbol of hate. There are those who believe that it's part of the heritage of South Carolina, and I recognize and respect that. That flag has a rightful place and it's in a museum, in an archives somewhere. But it has no business flying over the capitol in 2001. Since we started our movement, it's been taken down from the building, but it's still flying on a flag poll, with protected lighting, on the lawn in front, right in our face. And we are offended by that. The NAACP still has in place its economic boycott on the state of South Carolina and we support that.
We have a membership of about 900, and right now there are only two whites in our local. But our doors have always been open for those who can cut the mustard and do the type of work that we do. We do not have discriminatory practices. Every now and then some whites come down to try to get work. But on the waterfront, the local operates in some ways like a temp agency. The employers call you when they need you - if they don‚t need you, you don't go to work. You may get a job today, but three weeks could pass before you get another one, especially until you're pretty well known or the work volume increases. That can make it hard to earn a living you can depend on, to support your family. Many of the whites could not get used to that type of arrangement. They had to have steady work and the early stages of trying to become a longshoremen can be pretty rough. I think Black workers were more used to the insecurity.
This goes way back in the history of the locals on the Charleston waterfront. I have an old newspaper from 1947, and in it there's an ad that says, "Colored Longshoremen Wanted, 71 cents an hour, $1.40, for overtime." And it tells you to go, down to a certain pier to be hired. So there was active recruitment for a specific race of workers - colored, or Black. My local as a result was 100% Black. And the first two whites came to the waterfront during my worklife. One was in my seniority category and the other was a category behind me. They were willing to tough it out - they worked right along side us. I think if we were to interview either one of those men they would say we have a good relationship. They face no discrimination because we treat all workers fairly.
Bacon: What makes this more than a local problem for workers in South Carolina? What implications does it have for working people in the U.S. generally?
Fletcher: I started in the labor movement twenty years ago, in a shipyard near Boston working for General Dynamics. The company had a practice that for workers on third shift, when they finished work they could go to sleep. No one ever said anything. At one point, General Dynamics decided they wanted to end the practice. And the way they did it was to fire Black and Puerto Rican workers for sleeping on the job. If the company had come down on everybody, they would have had a big problem. But they knew that by playing the race card, the same tripwire we see in all politics in the United States, they might be able to get the change they wanted. They guessed that if they went after Blacks and Puerto Ricans, that whites would say that it wasn't their problem.
This is something we see in the U.S. time and time again. When capital wants to implement certain changes, they often go after people of color first. They hope they'll frame the issue in such a way that whites will decide that the issue is irrelevant to them. ILA 1422 is a largely African-American local. Moving against them is a way of introducing a very definite change for the worse for the whole community, for labor/capital relations in general in South Carolina. This is a direct attack on freedom of association. It's a direct attack on the right of workers to peacefully protest. It's a direct attack on the right to organize.
The five workers, four African-Americans and one white, have been put under house arrest, and can't leave their homes after seven PM unless it's to go to work. They have to wear ankle bracelets. And in addition to the five charged with felonies, another 27 are being sued by the non-union stevedoring company, who are charging that their protest interfered with their right to gain a profit.
Riley: The two ILA locals, the clerks' Local 1771, and my local 1422, and our two presidents are being sued for one and a half million dollars by the non-union company after we successfully recaptured the work.. They also named 27 men, which has put us in a very precarious position. We have to provide their legal defense, in addition to defending the local and myself. That's very expensive, but we must do it because we cannot allow their personal assets to be at risk, or see them go to jail. No other worker would ever come to the picket line if we didn't defend them. We must demonstrate to all union members that if you are charged or sued because you stood up for workers' rights, labor and the community will be behind you.
Bacon: Despite all the pressure, was the union able to regain control of the work?
Riley: Yes, we were able to regain a contract. We didn't have much success until the international community got involved. But the ships which dock in Charleston have destinations on the other side of the pond as we like to say. And European dockers, who heard about the struggle, actually went aboard the ships and handed letters to the captains of the vessels warning them that if they load in Charleston using workers other than the ILA, they wouldn't get unloaded. After that began to happen, we did not have to contact Nordana. They contacted us, and wanted to sit down and talk. After 3 days we came to an agreement, and we were back aboard the Nordana vessels. And now we have a pretty good working relationship.
Bacon: The AFL-CIO in June helped turn out thousands of people for a demonstration in Charleston protesting the case, and President Sweeney assigned you, Bill, as national coordinator for a defense campaign. This is a new level of commitment by the federation to defend unionists under attack, especially in the South. How did the Charleston case get the attention of the national AFL-CIO?
Fletcher: The South Carolina AFL-CIO has a progressive president, Donna DeWitt. She brought this case to the attention of the national federation. She has been a very strong advocate for organizing the south in the federation. Several of us started meeting to figure out how to build a movement around this case, and out of it came the Campaign for Workers Rights in South Carolina, a national defense effort. In order to get the involvement of the AFL-CIO, we had to win over President John Sweeney, and we did. Sweeney became a fervent advocate of the Charleston Five. Every time he meets with the ILA he asks what the union is doing to defend them.
And we've been helped enormously by the role played by the west coast longshore union, the ILWU, which was the first union to respond to the call for their defense, not the ILA. They've contributed money, organized publicity, and given immense support to these workers. They have a standing defense committee based in Local 10 in San Francisco.
Bacon: What impact is this case going to have on the ability of unions to organize in states like South Carolina?
Fletcher: The Charleston Five case calls attention to what's happening in the South, especially to what happens to workers who are willing to organize and fight. Whether there's a major drive to organize the south depends on what the affilates do, that is, individual unions, because organizing is driven by them, not the federation. The AFL-CIO can and does support organizing efforts, but the real organizing has to be driven by the UAW, SEIU, UNITE and other unions. And the problem with too many unions is that they've been cowardly, to be blunt, when it comes to organizing the South. Many have said it can't be done, that it's not possible to organize when you have right-to-work laws. There are exceptions -- UNITE has remained committed to the South, and so have others.
Business in South Carolina and the politicians who support it are even proposing to give people the ability to file harassment charges against union organizers. Think about the chilling effect this will have, not just on paid union organizers, but on volunteers and rank-and-file members participating in union organizing drives. Workers will have to stop and think, "am I going to be sued by someone if I go to someone's door to talk to them about the union, and I come across someone manipulated by company into making these charges?"
If the ILA in Charleston is defeated, it will be even more difficult both to get rank-and-file workers to participate actively, and to get international unions to come forward with the necessary support.
Bacon: What's going to happen when the trial finally begins?
Riley: Ports will shut down on both coasts. Ports abroad that will be shutting down also, through the efforts of the International Dock Workers Council. A request was sent to the International Transportation Federation to support an international day of solidarity as well. Other unions are planning actions as well, affecting the industries in which they are working, to show solidarity. And we're planning a massive rally in South Carolina, on that first day of the trial.
Fletcher: We have to make this the kind of issue the Scottsboro Boys were in the 30s, or that Huey Newton and Angela Davis were in the 60s. They have to be on the lips of every progressive activist. The state of South Carolina has declared war on labor, and on Black workers in particular.
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