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From the February/March issue of UDR, #140

Charleston longshore unions win major victory

by Matt Noyes

By now, UDR readers should be familiar with the story of the "Charleston Five." In January 2000, South Carolina state police attacked a picket line on the Charleston docks. Longshore workers were gassed, beaten, and showered with racial epithets. Among others, local 1422 president Ken Riley (see profile on page 6), was clubbed to the ground. Their crime? Resisting a major shipping company’s attempt to operate non-union. A day later, five longshore workers, members of ILA locals 1422, 1422A and 1771, were charged with felony riot and placed under house arrest. Charles Condon, South Carolina attorney general, pledged to make an example of the Five and give them "jail, jail, and more jail." (The Charleston local has also played a prominent role in state politics, including in the struggle to remove the confederate battle flag from the state capital building.)

Led by the Charleston locals, and the Longshore Workers Coalition -- a large reform group in the ILA that includes several locals and thousands of members -- ILA members organized a major solidarity campaign that made the struggle on the Charleston docks, and the plight of the "Charleston Five" a common cause for dockworkers and union activists throughout the United States and around the world. Just days before the trial -- and a planned global day of job actions in the ports -- the state reduced the charges and the cases were settled with the workers paying fines of $100.

The story is remarkable in two ways: first, the Charleston workers defeated the employer and beat back the government in the face of extraordinary obstacles, and second, this struggle was conducted by a local that is also leading a reform movement in its parent union. In UFCW Local P-9, in Decatur, Illinois, at Domino Sugar (another ILA local), and too many other cases, a local group has stood its ground only to be battered by large corporations, tied-up with injunctions and fines, and, most tragically, abandoned, trusteed, or just neglected by their own union. Where a local is not strong enough to win its own battle, and attract solidarity and support on that basis, it must pin its hopes on the solidarity of its parent union and fellow workers. As we have seen again and again, few unions, let alone the AFL-CIO, will step in to support workers whose international has refused to support them.

In Charleston, workers faced all the typical obstacles to union solidarity -- an aggressive multinational employer, a hostile state government, and an unsupportive (at best) international union. Add to these the fact that the has a record of corruption and mob ties, violence against critics. Now the International obviously desires to suppress the Longshore Workers Coalition.

And yet, the Charleston Five won the active support of the entire union movement, and its supporters, even the belated and reluctant support of its own international. Unions which would normally keep reformers at arm’s length, particularly reformers in a different union, welcomed Ken Riley and other representatives of the Charleston Five with open arms. The South Carolina AFL-CIO raised funds and set up a Charleston Five website (see the link on our AUDLinks page). The Charleston Five were covered in many local union papers, like CWA-IUE Local 201 in Massachusetts. The AFL-CIO passed resolutions, contributed funds, and covered the struggle in its glossy "America @ Work." The story received national and international press, from The Nation, The Progressive, and the Multinational Monitor to the New York Times and other mainstream papers.

After announcing support for the Five, ILA President Bowers set up his own separate solidarity fund. (The fate of the funds raised by the International is not clear, some longshore workers claim the money was never used to support the campaign.) Thousands of unionists attended meetings and events including a major support rally in Charleston, and dockworkers around the world prepared for a global day of job actions, authorized and unauthorized.

The victory of the Charleston Five is a proof of the value of union democracy. Here we have an organized reform movement that has won power in several locals and is engaged in an effort to democratize the international union. The reformers have not only challenged the union hierarchy, they have taken on the employer, building strong locals that take action to defend workers on the job, and supported progressive causes in their city and state. (Local 1422 has just built a new union hall in the port area which they designed to be both union hall and community center.) That this struggle is based in the mostly non-union South, and led by African-American workers adds to its significance for the labor movement. The victory of the Charleston Five shows what democratic unionism has to offer to a local and to our labor movement.

Other articles on the ILA:
Reform movement spreads in ILA (12/04-1/05)
Longshore workers nearly reject master contract (9/04-10/04)
Question and Answer: RICO monitorship in ILA? (9/04-10/04)
Who will police the Longshoremen's ethics code? (1/04-3/04)
ILA Baltimore local threatened with trusteeship (5/03-6/03)
Nine years without a contract in ILA Lake Charles Local (3/03-4/03)
Reformers win majority in harbor workers local 333, ILA (8/9 2002)
AUD at Charleston ILA meeting (News 4/02)
Charleston Longshore unions win major victory
2/3 2002
"Charleston Longshore workers lead battle for reform." 8/9 2001
Links to Longshore worker websites

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