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South Carolina Dockworkers Show the Way

Sam Alcoff Apr 11, 2007

The corporate media’s penchant for tales of union corruption and mob-ties serves an underlying agenda for union-busting, but workers have a different impetus for clean strong unions: They serve as one of the best tools for advancing working-class interests. One of the best examples of this is International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 and the case of the Charleston Five.

In 2000, a Danish shipping company, Nordana, attempted to break the union on Charleston docks with scab labor at half the pay, and the union began picketing. Local 1422 had a solid history of internal reform initiatives and a solid rank-and-file membership and had played a strong role in the previous year’s successful campaign to remove the Confederate flag flying high over the South Carolina Capitol Building.

With the lowest rate of unionization in the country and more than a fifth of children living below the poverty line, South Carolina is run by a wealthy elite whose dependence on black poverty has shaped state politics since slavery. Since 1954, state legislators have enforced anti-union legislation cynically called “right-to-work.” This legislation bars union security clauses, allowing workers in a unionized shop who receive the economic benefits of union representation to avoid paying the dues that cover the cost of maintaining the union. Union strength is immediately diminished. Given this, ambitious South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon wanted to prove that he would enforce South Carolina’s peculiar institutions and Local 1422’s picket was the low-hanging fruit.

In late January 2000, more than 600 heavily armed police descended on the picketing dockworkers with racist threats and physical intimidation. The dockworkers responded, and nine were arrested. Charges were dropped, but Condon quickly introduced new felony riot charges against five: one white, four Black. They were placed under house arrest for over two years while the attorney general compared them to “terrorists,” explicitly evoking 9/11, and used the incident to justify South Carolina’s anti-worker laws in a campaign ad for Bush. While Condon’s plan to demonize the dockworkers may have seemed like a free pass to the governor’s mansion, he didn’t count on the union’s political dynamism and solid organizing work.

Kenneth Riley Jr., president of ILA Local 1422, toured North America and Europe, linking the case to racism, globalization and the fate of the labor movement. Nordana quickly caved after Spanish dockworkers refused to unload the company’s ships. Meanwhile, hundreds of posters went up, rallies were organized and national media coverage bloomed. Police officers were quoted questioning the harsh treatment of the five, and the attorney general removed himself from the case after unions across the South began sarcastically thanking Condon for re-energizing the labor movement. Condon’s political career was quickly derailed. Though the individual cases for the Charleston Five resulted in much-reduced plea bargains, the larger lesson was clear: A strong militant union can take on the bosses and politicians and win.