Steward's Corner: How Our Local Bonded With The Community

For a long time our local union was a sleeping giant in the community. Other groups solicited us only for our funds and not for our involvement. We were also losing ground in contract negotiations: Charleston is a major port, and we weren't taking advantage of that fact to address issues that were particular to Charleston.

I wanted us to be vocal and to be involved and participate. These were the issues that I and other like-minded members campaigned on, and in 1997 we were elected.

Since that time we have improved our image in the community. Once longshoremen were looked upon as just a bunch of illiterates-folks who made a significant amount of money but had nothing really to offer. I wanted the community to know that we play an integral role in the economy of our state; we are the ones that move the commerce. I wanted everyone to know that there were intelligent people in our local that could contribute.

OPEN THE DOORS

At one time, an organization that wanted to hold a meeting in our union hall was charged a rental fee. Therefore not many meetings were held there. I figured out what it would cost for an organization to meet there one night a month and use the utilities-it was peanuts. But for us to give back to the community, to have them coming into the house of labor-the union would get more mileage out of that than the few dollars we were saving by not having them there.

We opened our doors to many different organizations: Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, NAACP, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Democratic Party.

The South Carolina Progressive Network is made up of over 80 grassroots organizations. We have women's groups, environmental groups, the legislative black caucus. Local 1422 is the only union local in the Network, along with the state AFL-CIO. The Charleston chapter holds its meetings at our local.

And then many of our members started to get involved in the different organizations that were meeting at the hall. You could say we've bonded with the community.

CONFEDERATE FLAG MARCH

Whenever there's a struggle in the state we want to be there. So when the NAACP called for a march to protest the Confederate flag flying over the state Capitol in Columbia, we sent buses. We sent cooks with grills to cook hot dogs and hamburgers. We had T-shirts and caps and banners.

When the mayor of Charleston called for a march from Charleston to Columbia, which is 135 miles away, for that flag to be taken down, we pledged 40 men a day. We printed T-shirts so that we all could be uniform and visible. We provided buses and food.

CHANGED IMAGE

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We have raised the image of the ILA. Before, you could go fifteen miles inland and talk about longshoremen and people wouldn't know what you were talking about. There is no one in South Carolina who doesn't know about the longshoremen now.

We spearheaded efforts for a Democratic governor to be elected in 1998, and the single largest fundraiser for Governor Hodges was held in our hall. The election night returns and the Democratic County Convention were held there. The governor, when he was elected, turned around and appointed the president of the ILA to his transition team and also nominated me to the board of the Port Authority-that was in every paper in every county all over the state.

Some members were skeptical about the changes we were making in the local. They'd want to go into the break room, and all of a sudden there would be a meeting in there. But for the most part everyone is appreciative; they see the newspaper write-ups about the things we've done.

Members are getting much more involved. At one time we had to drag and pull to get them to go and support another struggle. Recently, in Aiken, South Carolina, a group of workers was in court because the company wouldn't recognize the union and fired the leaders. We sent two minivans down. We didn't have to try hard to get people to go.

When the Steelworkers went on strike at the Rhodia chemical plant, we were the first ones on the line. We put a message on our recording at the hall for people to go down and help out on the line. The turnout was overwhelming. We voted to give the Steelworkers $5,000 a month while they were on strike. When the UAW at Mack Truck, 130 miles away, had a midnight strike deadline, we were there, waiting to see if they would go out.

NO MORE TUGGING

We don't have to tug at folks anymore. Certainly there are some members who will never come to that realization, but we have a solid nucleus of people now who are much more aware of what unionism is all about and the need to support other workers.

What we can't always do is pledge manpower on a consistent basis, because our people work on a call-out basis, 24-7, 361 days a year-whenever a ship comes in. We're asked to provide mentors and tutors, such as in the Big Brother program, but we can't pledge to make regular appointments. So we support with our facilities and our financial resources people who do have the schedules to be able to do that. We give a total of $12,000-$15,000 a month to various groups and causes.

Our community involvement came back to us when the Charleston Five incident took place. Within a week we had a rally for the Charleston Five. The people packed the union hall and raised funds. Senators were there, churches were there-everyone we had contributed to, especially the folks affiliated with the Progressive Network.

We do, however, have a few politicians who gave us not even a call. They hid. We're waiting on them for the next election cycle.