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Lee Sustar

Defend the Charleston 5!

(June 2001)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 18, June–July 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AT FIRST glance, the state of South Carolina’s prosecution of five Black union longshoremen looks like a bizarre political throwback – something that could only happen in the cradle of the Confederacy, the state that has kept the old segregationist Strom Thurmond in the U.S. Senate for the last 47 years.

The facts are these: A virtually all African-American union local in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) leads a mass march against the flying of the Confederate flag over the statehouse on January 17, 2000. Three days later, the right-wing attorney general, gearing up for a run for the Republican nomination for governor, orchestrates an attack on a union picket line, complete with 600 riot cops, dogs, helicopters, and armored cars. When the dust settles, five longshoremen are hit with felony riot charges and placed under a 7 a.m. To 7 p.m. curfew. Another 27 face a $1.5 million lawsuit by employers.

“The dockworkers were exercising their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and the right to concerted activity,” Bill Fletcher, assistant to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and co-chair of the Black Radical Congress, wrote following the attack. “Nevertheless, they were Black and, therefore in the minds of many in law enforcement, a marginal grouping.”

But as Fletcher and a growing number of union officials and rank-and-file union activists point out, the attack on the Charleston Five isn’t mainly about settling old scores in a conservative backwater run by race-baiting politicians. It is a crucial fig›t for labor’s future – one that will test whether unions in the U.S. and around the world can build the international solidarity to defeat a highly organized political attack carried out on behalf of some of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations.

As the International Socialist Review went to press, thousands of union members and supporters were set to converge on South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, on June 9, to show support for the Charleston Five and to build for an international day of action when South Carolina attorney general Charlie Condon takes the case to court. Kenneth Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 and the first union member to be attacked by police, has toured the country building support for the struggle. The West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Charleston Five defense fund and pledged to close down ports when the trial begins. Dockworkers’ unions from Spain, Denmark, and other countries are pledging to join the action. Even the extremely conservative ILA national leadership has been pressured into supporting the Charleston Five.

“I think the struggle in Charleston has brought to the table a multitude of issues – racism, having a voice at work, and civil rights in general,” said Leonard Riley, a member of the ILA Local 1422 executive board, brother of Kenneth Riley, and one of the 27 targeted in the lawsuit.

“These issues are very compelling when people all over the world look at them and see that they are the same ones that they face,” Riley told the ISR. “There are certain constitutional rights, and there is an attempt in this state to turn back those rights. There is also privatization and other things that affect workers negatively. I think unions in other countries are saying, ‘Let’s fight this before it gets to our homeland.’”

AFL-CIO president Sweeney has given his official endorsement to the struggle. “This campaign brings to the fore basic constitutional issues regarding freedom of speech and association not to mention the statutory right of all workers to organize,” he wrote to union leaders in January. “The national AFL-CIO is assisting in this effort and I ask your help.”

One union activist in the Charleston Five defense committee in Atlanta compared the stakes in the Charleston fight to President Ronald Reagan’s smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. That is no exaggeration. Consider the numbers:

Charleston is the second-biggest port on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts after New York-New Jersey, based on cargo value. It is the fastest-growing port in the country as well. That expansion is a result of a massive capital investment in South Carolina, which led to the near doubling of manufacturing companies in the state in the four years between 1994 and 1998 to about 1,400. These aren’t the factories once typical of the Southeast – paper mills and textile plants – but state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities such as a BMW assembly plant and its suppliers. Indeed, foreign investment was responsible for nearly half of the $5.5 billion invested in South Carolina manufacturing plants in 1998. Alongside BMW is German auto parts giant Robert Bosch, France’s Michelin Tire, and Japan’s Hitachi Electronics. Some of Corporate America’s best-known names operate plants in South Carolina, including DuPont, Owens-Corning, General Electric, WR Grace, Timken, and Lockheed Martin.

It isn’t difficult to see what attracted U.S. and foreign multinationals to South Carolina. Because of U.S. unions’ historic failure to organize the South, the percentage of workers in unions there is less than 5 percent – second only to neighboring North Carolina and less than half of the already miserably low national average of 13.6 percent. As a result, the South now has the highest proportion of U.S. manufacturing jobs – 32 percent, compared to 27 percent in the Midwest and 19 percent in the Northeast. And in a low-wage region, South Carolina offers employers the best deal of all: average hourly earnings 20 percent below the national average. Another attraction is the presence of numerous “free-trade zones” that allow foreign manufacturers and importers to minimize duties. So despite the popular myth of globalization as a steady flow of manufacturing jobs out of the U.S., many foreign firms see South Carolina offering a low-wage foothold inside the NAFTA zone with advantages that Mexico cannot offer.

But there was a major obstacle to the multinationals’ plans: the International Longshoremen’s Association. The ILA had become virtually all Black in the years when dock work was a dirty, dangerous, and, all too often, lethal manual job. But in the last 30 years, containerization and automation transformed dock work into a decently paid skilled position. In the eyes of South Carolina’s new manufacturing bosses, it was bad enough that the ILA even existed. A well-organized, powerful, African American union was a dangerous example in a Southern state with a 30 percent Black population. But with the election of Kenneth Riley’s reform slate in 1996, the biggest ILA local, Local 1422, became involved in union organizing drives across the state and intervened in politics as well. Besides leading the fight to knock the Confederate flag off the top of the statehouse, ILA members helped to mobilize the vote that ousted the Republican governor from office.

In late 1999, GOP politicians trying to orchestrate a white backlash over the Confederate flag protests found their agenda coinciding with that of shipping operators determined to break union power. The Ports Authority quietly encouraged a Danish shipping company, Nordana Lines, to contract with a nonunion company, Winyah Stevedoring Inc., to unload its ships. When ILA members picketed in December and early January, Attorney General Condon set his trap. In a scene that looked more like South Korea than South Carolina, the riot cops savagely attacked the picket line with clubs, “beanbag” bullets, and tear gas. A few weeks later, Democratic Governor Jim Hodges withdrew his appointment of Kenneth Riley to the South Carolina State Ports Authority following a hysterical campaign by the employers against him.

Since then, Nordana has backed off and signed an agreement with the ILA. But the trumped-up riot charges and the lawsuit filed by Winyah Stevedoring remain a grave threat to unions everywhere. The tours by Kenneth and Leonard Riley and other ILA leaders have already led to the formation of grassroots defense committees in several U.S. cities. The International Transport Workers Federation, based in London, launched a solidarity campaign as well. But with $350,000 already spent on the defense of the Charleston Five, much more financial support is needed – as much as $2 million, estimated Leonard Riley.

But along with financial support, action is needed, he added. “We want the first day of trial to be a national and international day of solidarity,” he said. “It will be very effective. We will not have workers terrorized by the powers of the state government behind them.”

Lee Sustar is an editor of Socialist Worker and a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review.

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