The Charleston Longshore Victory Celebration. . . and Beyond

Jack Heyman
26 Mar 2002

After nearly two years of struggle, the organized labor movement in the U.S. got a hard-won, limited, but clear-cut victory to celebrate. Felony rioting charges against the Charleston 5 had been dropped as the November 14, 2001 trial date approached and longshore unions were threatening to shut down ports around the world in protest. The Charleston longshore workers had been picketing to defend their jobs against a non-union stevedore operation in the port when they were attacked by 600 riot police on January 19, 2000. 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.

Changing of the Guards

On March 1, the day before the actual victory celebration, ILA Local 1422 proudly dedicated its new union headquarters. Built upriver from the old hall, it was designed by African American architect Harvey Gant, the former Charlotte mayor. It reflects a maritime motif and is reminiscent of the German anti-Nazi Bauhaus architectural school with its utilitarian features for a hiring hall, a large social events room and administrative union offices.

A somber aura was cast over the day’s celebration when participants were informed that funeral services had been held that morning for Isaiah Bennett, a leading figure of Charleston’s labor and civil rights struggles for the last fifty years. Bennett had been an organizer of the militant tobacco workers’ strike of 1946. Armand Derfner, an attorney for the longshore union, viewed this as a symbolic “changing of the guard”, as ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley and his supporters take the helm. Dating back to the aftermath of the Civil War, black longshoremen in Charleston have been in the vanguard of militant labor struggles. In the best tradition of Isaiah Bennett they’ve figured prominently in the continuing battle to bring down the Confederate flag of slavery from the state capitol. And today’s victory of the Charleston 5 is a first step in organizing the unorganized workers, black and white, throughout the “right-to-work” South.

Victory Celebration

On the following day exuberant supporters of the Charleston 5 filled the hall to standing room only. Beaming with the pride of victory were trade unionists from throughout the South and members of ILA longshore locals from the East and Gulf Coasts, including many supporters of their growing rank-and-file opposition, the Longshore Workers Coalition. Riley is one of the leaders of the Longshore Workers Coalition which had just concluded a successful conference. Also participating in the victory celebration were ILWU longshoremen from the West Coast and representatives of dockworkers unions from around the world who had pledged solidarity actions for the Charleston longshoremen and were there for a General Assembly of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) which followed the victory celebration.

The crowning moment of the day’s celebration was a presentation by Julian García, head of the Spanish dockworkers union and General Co-Ordinator of the IDC, of a “solidarity plaque” to Ken Riley. It contained a copy of the letter dated 14 March, 2000, that he had handed to the Captain of a Nordana ship in Valencia, demanding that his ships be loaded by skilled union stevedores if they were to be unloaded in Spanish ports. Shortly after that the Charleston longshore union signed a contract with Nordana, which had initially provoked the dispute by replacing ILA longshoremen with a scab stevedore company, WSI.

John Bowers, ILA President, and Benny Holland, ILA Vice President, both praised the Charleston longshoremen. For his part Bowers promised to release funds he has collected in New York for the legal defense of the Charleston ILA locals. The Charleston victory stands in sharp contrast to the port of Baltimore in Bowers’ Atlantic Coast District, the only port where ILA longshoremen are without a contract with Nordana. Shamefully, its ships are worked by scabs.

ILWU President Jim Spinosa along with ILWU’s International Officers gave Riley a check for the unions’ legal expenses for $167,000 and pledged support until the suit by the scab outfit is over. Riley has consistently acknowledged the ILWU’s exemplary role, especially San Francisco Local 10’s immediate support, in coming to the defense of the Charleston longshore unions on the picket line.

Another high point was the presentation of plaques to Ken Riley and Vice President Robert Ford by the membership of Local 1422, commending them for their leadership of the struggle. The Southern California Charleston 5 Defense Committee presented portraits of Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, the United Farm Workers leaders. Defense committees and the AFL-CIO were recognized for their dedicated efforts in the nationwide campaign. Following the celebration were toasts, handshakes, high fives and embraces of all who contributed to the victory of the Charleston 5. Longshoremen and friends posed for cameras with big grins and clenched fists. It was a fitting tribute to the new union hall.

Labor’s Struggle Against Racist Repression

The next day, Sunday March 3, while many were taking a day of rest, not so the irrepressible union activists. That evening the first labor forum was held in the new building. Appropriately, it was entitled,“Labor’s Fight Against Racism and the Struggle to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal”. Riley introduced the speakers who included his brother Leonard, Royce Adams of the Philadelphia ILA local and Jack Heyman of the San Francisco longshore union. The fight against racism, to break down racial barriers and unite workers, is inextricably linked to the struggle to organize unions, especially in the South, as the speakers explained. And the struggle to free black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal unjustly imprisoned on death row in Pennsylvania exposes the racist criminal justice system of this oppressive capitalist society, North and South. Chaired by Steve Zeltzer of the Labor Video Project, the forum will be streamed on the web next month.

Strengthening International Solidarity: The Ties That Bind

Finishing off the week of dedications and celebrations was the first General Assembly of the International Dockworkers Council. Clearly, the highlight of the conference was the affiliation of the ILWU, achieved through the international solidarity demonstrated in the victorious Charleston 5 struggle. The genesis of this new, militant international dockworkers organization emerged from the defeat of the bold Liverpool dockers struggle, some six years earlier. Two common themes emerged from the reports of dockworkers unions represented. First, the continued, aggressive capitalist attacks on workers under the guise of privatization and “free trade”, i. e. free from “restraints” like trade unions and environmental laws. These attacks have been codified in the European Directive, NAFTA and the WTO. And second, the bloody government repression unleashed to protect the interests of capital as seen in Seattle, Gothenburg, Quebec City, and Genoa. Moreover, draconian legislation like the Port and Maritime Security Act is a blatant dictatorial move toward militarization of the docks.

A few weeks ago, Joe Miniace, head of the Pacific Maritime Association, was threatening to lock out ILWU longshore workers on July 1, if we didn’t accept his union-busting contract demands. It sounded like a gruff Mafia hitman making us “an offer we couldn’t refuse”. If that’s his collective bargaining conception of thinking outside the box, he’d better rethink it. The successful Charleston 5 struggle and the spirited, anti-capitalist demonstration of 500,000 in Barcelona two weeks ago should evince shippers and maritime companies that ILWU still has sufficient support nationally and internationally to defend organized labor’s place on the waterfront.

Jack Heyman
Chair of the Labor Committee in Defense of the Charleston Longshore Workers