Race, Politics and the Charleston 5  

Crossposted on Dailykos

Race and unions have been intertwined since the beginning of the labor movement.

Over the years, owners and bosses have used race and immigration to divide workers and keep them down. And this practice is a live and well today. Which is why when it happens, unionists combat it everywhere it happens, even on the docks in Charleston, South Carolina.

So, for this installment of my labor history series, we're going to talk about the Charleston 5.

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So, let's set the scene. It's late Spring, early Summer 2000 and the Nation is reporting...

This past June 9 the flag of the Confederacy hung lifeless in the afternoon heat in front of the state Capitol in Columbia. A year ago it was demoted from its place atop the Statehouse dome, and on this day the air around it vibrated with the shouts of people demonstrating in support of a labor union, International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422, that had been instrumental in organizing the protests that brought the flag down. At the height of the antiflag campaign last year, 46,000 people had marched on Columbia. This was a smaller crowd, about 5,000, but an old-timer told me he had never in seventy-five years seen so many people turn out for a union in South Carolina. They came because the state is gunning for this union of black dockworkers from Charleston who weren't polite about the flag and weren't docile when a shipping company whose vessels they'd worked for twenty-three years decided to use scab labor.


Ken Riley, the president of Local 1422, remembers driving along East Bay Street toward the union hall on the afternoon of January 19 and being awed by the gathering army. Outside the Ports Authority's office next to 1422's hall, riot police were practicing maneuvers, lunging in formation with shields raised, batons up. "My Lord," Riley thought, "what are they preparing for?" After conferring with the presidents of Locals 1771 and 1422-A (port mechanics), he outlined the unions' strategy to workers assembled in the hall: They would do nothing. But because the grand strategy was to drive up the costs of working nonunion, they wouldn't go home either. They'd keep the police out there all night, costing the city, the state, the port and Nordana so much money that those forces would be hard-pressed to claim victory.

Throughout the evening members of all three unions--the blacks who load the ships and have since slave times, the whites who do the paperwork and have since slave times, and the blacks and whites who work as mechanics--passed through 1422's doors. At about 11:30 pm, guys coming into the hall were saying police at roadblocks had harassed them. A discussion followed. The show of force was meant to provoke but also to intimidate; the workers didn't want to fall into the trap, but they didn't want to be bullied either. These days, some union supporters say this is a case about democracy, but the talk that night was about respect, about not being ground down. "I Am a Man" read the famous sign carried by striking garbage workers in Memphis, 1968, and it was that statement the dockers wanted to make by going out to face the police line in Charleston. Riley watched as they funneled out of the hall. He says there were 130 to 140 workers; rank-and-file participants say there were no more than 200; the media's count has swung wildly, from 600 to 400 to 300.

The shipping company in question was Nordana, a Danish company. Nordana made a "business decision" to subcontract the dock work to a company that would use scab labor.

On January 20, 2000?, as one of Nordana's ships was docking, 600 riot-clad local and state police officers were on hand. When about 130 workers began marching toward the dock to exercise their right to picket, police initiated a clash by pushing the picketers back and shouting racist slurs, Kenneth Riley says. When that happened, he and other officers of Local 1422 "created a buffer between the police and the pickets," according to the Campaign for Workers' Rights in South Carolina. At that point, the Campaign reported, one police officer "ran out of formation and clubbed Kenneth Riley in the head. A fight ensued." The police attacked the workers with rubber bullets, tear gas, smoke grenades, and nightsticks.

After Police attacked the workers, 12 men were arrested and 5 were charged with felony counts of conspiracy to riot. These charges meant that

All five workers faced felony charges for rioting, which if convicted carried a maximum of five years in prison, and individual fines of between $1,000 and $5,000.

These were 5 rank and file members of ILA's Local 1422. But this was largely the problem, not the peaceful protests on the docks against Nordana, but it was the union's local, #1422. You see, local 1422 is a progressive and predominantly African-American union in deeply red and extremely anti-union South Carolina.

You see, this local chose to support progressive candidates and causes and to also provide additional assistance to these candidates and causes through use of their facilities and mobilization of their membership.

Well, all this activism (read that as being "uppity blacks/workers/etc") didn't sit well with the predominantly Republican establishment, especially after the ILA (local 1422) organized rallies to have the Confederate Flag removed from the state capitol. They need to do something, bring them back in line. This was their shining moment of opportunity and the Attorney General wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip through his fingers.

Originally, State Attorney General Charlie Condon sought the indictments of nine union men for rioting. But a trial judge who watched the videotape of the conflict dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, Condon, a right-wing Republican, successfully obtained indictments for five men. At that time Condon said his plan for the workers was “jail, jail, and more jail.” Condon also refused to negotiate plea bargains with the union.

So, Condon had his moment, he had his show of force:

The assault was aimed not only at labor rights but at civil rights too. ILA members in Charleston are overwhelmingly black, and Local 1422 played a key role in a 40,000-strong march on the statehouse in Charleston—held just three days before the police riot—to demand that the Confederate flag be taken down. Condon's[Attorney General at the time] vengeful actions suggest that he was hoping to ride a racist backlash into the governor's mansion.

Condon just equated unions to the worst possible topic of our times; yep, it’s true, he did it:

The demagogic South Carolina District Attorney Charlie Condon, with aspirations for governor, had been threatening “jail, jail and more jail” for the longshoremen. He overplayed his hand and was removed from the case after comparing the union picketers to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center.

But jailing, referring to union activists as terrorists or even fining these workers wasn't enough, Condon wanted to make sure that these workers suffered.

For nearly 20 months, the Charleston Five—Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford, Jr., Peter Washington, Jr., Ricky Simmons, and Jason Edgerton—remained under house arrest. They were forbidden to leave their homes between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. except to go to work or attend union meetings.

Another 27 workers faced a $1.5 million lawsuit filed by WSI, the company that ran the scab operation for Nordana. WSI sued to recover "lost profits" that it claimed the ILA picketers had caused.

The goal here is clear, destroy the union; bankrupt the locals and bring the earning power of these men - who clearly didn't know their place - back in line with the rest of the state, a strongly anti-union rate of pay, about half of their salary. But the locals had a weapon to use in this epic battle, they had solidarity.

Unions from around the country sent help to the ILA locals including unionists to picket and money for the legal defense fund. In Sweden, the president of the dock workers called for a day of International solidarity and in Spain, dock workers REFUSED to unload ANY Nordana unless they used skilled labor. But even with this, the locals weren’t done, with a contract in hand with Nordana, they turned to the WSI scab employees and unionized them. This is pretty much equivalent to kicking ass and taking names in my book. You see, this is what solidarity means. More than ever,

...in today's climate of racism and repression, the Charleston Five victory is nothing short of remarkable. If it inspires other workers to organize—especially in the South—that will be cause for celebration too. Most important, it shows that joining together to stand up for our beliefs is the best way to defend our rights to speak, assemble, and express dissent. Today, these rights are seriously threatened. The only way to keep them is to use them.

It's still up to us. Together we have power and we can bring even the most anti-union state to its knees, remove a racist flag from a State Capitol and celebrate working men and women everywhere. We can only do it if we stick together.

There is a plethora of information on the web about the Charleston 5, including a few ominous pictures of the Police the night of the attack.

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