Solidarity Grows for Dockers Victimized by "Police Riots"
Solidarity efforts for the Charleston Five dockworkers are mushrooming across the country, including support from unions, community and civil rights organizations, and the international community. The national AFL-CIO has endorsed the campaign and many state federations, central labor councils, and local unions have gotten on board.
The Five are members of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, indicted on felony riot charges last year after what union members describe as a “police riot.” The ILA represents east coast and Gulf coast dockworkers.
Some of Local 1422’s most significant support has been generated by the west coast dockers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, including a $100,000 commitment to their defense fund. ILWU leaders stated, “The global attack by steamship lines, terminal operators and stevedoring companies on the unions, wages and conditions of longshore workers has moved from Mexico and Brazil, from Liverpool and Australia, and has landed on American shores—specifically at the Port of Charleston, South Carolina… Charleston is the opening salvo in the war against American longshore workers and the American labor movement…”
The Port of Charleston is the sixth largest port in the U.S. “Sixteen of the top 20 [shipping] lines in the world call on the Port of Charleston,” according to Local 1422 President Ken Riley.
The members of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Washington voted to assess themselves $20 apiece each month for the Charleston Five defense fund.
In February the Black Radical Congress, together with ILWU locals, organized a weekend of events and fundraisers in the Bay Area and a tour along the west coast. In Atlanta, a coalition effort was initiated by the Brisbane Institute: Southern Center for Labor Education and Organizing at Morehouse College, with the state AFL-CIO, Atlanta Labor Council, Black Radical Congress, and Black Workers For Justice, among others, to build a solidarity movement in the South. A weekend of successful events was held in Atlanta in March.
And international support has been growing. The Havnearbejdernes Klub of 1980, a Danish local union of 135 Copenhagen Freeport dockers, has expressed solidarity with the Charleston Five. Riley has traveled to Spain to meet with the International Dockers Council, a group of longshore unions around the world who are supporting the campaign.
On the first day of the Charleston Five’s trial, which is yet to be scheduled, ILWU unions have pledged to shut down the west coast ports. The International Dockers Council has pledged to shut down ports in Europe, and pressure is building within the ILA to take similar action.
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The conflict began on October 1, 1999, when the Nordana Line, a Danish shipping company, announced it would end its 27-year recognition of Local 1422 and the affiliated checkers and clerks Local 1771 and begin using non-union labor to unload its ships. Nordana hired Winyah Stevedoring to unload the Skodsborg, a container ship.
Local 1422, whose members are almost all African Americans, tried to negotiate with Nordana and the Charleston Port Authority, but the company would not budge. The Port Authority said it had been ordered by the state to “leave things as they are.”
On the night of January 20, 2000, to confront picketers the “police assembled a force of 600 officers…, drawing from the State Law Enforcement Division, the state Highway Patrol, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the departments of Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant,” according to press reports.
Police in riot gear attacked the picketers just after midnight. As Riley and others tried to calm the situation, a policeman whacked him across the head with a baton. According to observers, when Riley was attacked the police riot broke out in full force. Before it was over, more than a dozen had been injured.
The deployment of police against protesting Black workers is reminiscent of the days of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Conner, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, all of whom used state forces against civil rights demonstrators.
Efforts by prosecutors to pin the incident on ILA members failed in court. South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon sought a temporary injunction against the ILA and Riley for public nuisance and violation of the state’s right-to-work laws.
Later, Condon secured grand jury indictments on felony charges of rioting against five members of Local 1422, seeking sentences of up to five years in prison. Condon has plans to run for governor.
Winyah Stevedoring is also suing Local 1422, its affiliate locals, and at least 27 local members, seeking damages of $1.5 million.
Ashaki Binta is Associate Director of the Brisbane Institute: Southern Center for Labor Education and Organizing at Morehouse College.