Labor Wins Big in Union-Busting South Carolina

December 1, 2001

CHARLESTON, S.C. Gathered in the union hall and parking lot on East Bay Street, the
dockworkers of International Longshoremens Association (ILA) Local 1422, mostly African
American men, celebrated their hard-fought victory in the case of the Charleston Five. Elijah Ford,
Peter Washington, Jr. and Ricky Simmons were freed Nov. 13 and Kenneth Jefferson and Jason
Edgerton were freed the previous Thursday.

All five union dockworkers, four African-American and one white, pleaded no contest to a
misdemeanor and paid $309 in fines and court fees. Their attorneys told the World that the workers
were making no admission of guilt.

They spent nearly 20 months under house arrest following the riot by 650 heavily armed state
troopers who brutally attacked the 150 workers walking on an ILA picket line the night of Jan. 19,
2000. The dockers had been protesting Nordana Shipping Companys use of non-union labor, a
brazen attempt to break the union and force down the wages and benefits earned by the ILA

No worker is going to sit idle while they take our jobs away, said Frank Jenkins, a
second-generation dockworker. This is the strongest union in the state of South Carolina. Weve
built a good life for ourselves and our families. We can afford to send our children to college.

As a result of the ILA, wages and working conditions are a thousand times better than when I
went to work here in 1960, Jenkins said. Back then it was all manual labor. If you didnt have a
strong arm and a strong back you didnt make it.

The 1,100 active members of Local 1422 work at the three terminals that make up the Port of
Charleston, fourth largest port in the U.S. Every ship we unload and load in this port adds $70
million to the economy of South Carolina, said Myron Washington, a 17-year ILA veteran. Cut
that off and the entire economy of South Carolina and the Southeast region would be crippled.

The night I arrived, the South Carolina Progressive Network (SCPN), a multiracial and multi-issue
organization was holding its monthly meeting in the Local 1422 recreational room. Kenneth Riley,
president of Local 1422 and himself a SCPN member, thanked the group for their staunch support.
You were there from the beginning, he said. We couldnt have won this victory without the
backing of groups like the Progressive Network.

The Progressive Network is building a strong coalition movement in South Carolina, said
Torreah Cookie Washington, chair of the Charleston branch of the Progressive Network. I put
it this way: We all have to go to each others parties. We got totally involved in the Charleston
Five case. I cant tell you how many ILA members were at our rally in Columbia to demand that the
Confederate flag be taken down from the state house. And we, in turn, went to the Free the
Charleston Five rally in Columbia last June 9. It is so exciting that we have won a victory.

After the meeting, SCPN Director Bret Bursey said that the ILA is the oldest, largest, richest
union in the state of South Carolina. For workers, they present a simple, tangible example of the
benefits of unionization. Charlie Condon thought they would be easy pickings. He was wrong. The
traditional anti-union racist South that Condon was depending on simply wasnt there. He
couldnt railroad the Charleston Five with that strategy.

Condon, Bursey added, is a symptom of the larger crisis which is South Carolinas union-busting
right to work law and the vicious anti-union sentiment that has become the law of this state.
Repealing that law is a top priority, he said.

There is an attack on the labor movement that is not going away, Leonard Riley, brother of
Kenneth Riley, said. In Oklahoma they just passed a right-to-work law. If we allow the erosion of
workers rights, we are going to be in trouble. We need to use the momentum of this victory to
organize the south. We built a statewide and worldwide coalition for workers rights in this battle
to free the Charleston Five. It gave us just a glimpse of what is possible.

The breaking point in the case, he said, came when South Carolinas Chief Solicitor, Charlie
Condon, issued a press release just before the scheduled Nov. 14 trial, comparing the Charleston
Five to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and promising to put them under the
jail, a phrase resonating with KKK lynch terror.

That press release by Condon was so inflammatory I almost couldnt stand to read it, Kenneth
Riley told the World in an interview at the union hall. It was unbelievable that Condon would
compare these workers to terrorists.

Condons statements were so out of control that the State Court agreed to a defense motion
asking that Condon be removed from the case. A day before the hearing, Condon removed himself.
The felony riot and conspiracy charges, which Condon had pushed for, were dropped.

Condon had been favored to win the Republican nomination for governor next spring; railroading
the Charleston Five and breaking South Carolinas strongest union would be his ticket into the
governors mansion.

Condon has continued his offensive, wrapping himself in the war on terrorism as he pours out
his racist venom against immigrant workers employed in loading and unloading containerized
cargo. The U.S. Border Patrol has been brought in to patrol the Port of Charleston, Riley said.

Undocumented workers, who earn wages half or a third of those paid to ILA workers, face arrest
and deportation if they protest this super-exploitation.

Riley said the goal now must be to inflict a crushing defeat on Condon in next years gubernatorial
election. We want to defeat him in the Republican primary. It would be a big victory if he goes
down to defeat in his own party. Condon is too extreme even for the GOP, Riley said.

Condon spoke at a meeting out in the Isle of Palms, a very wealthy enclave, he said. I got a call
yesterday from the same group telling me, We heard Condons side of the story, now we want to
hear yours. I said I would come. There is no way Im going to pass up an invitation to tell the
truth about the Charleston Five to an affluent crowd like that.


South Carolina struggle: past and present
Every victory for workers and their allies in South Carolina is a victory over the grim legacy of
chattel slavery. On a side street here is the Old Slave Mart, now under reconstruction, but for
many years hidden and crumbling like a dirty secret. From the battery at the end of East Bay Street,
the first shot of the Civil War was fired against Fort Sumter and there is a big monument to
Confederate war veterans. One of Charlestons main thoroughfares is Calhoun Street, named for
the chief ideologue of white supremacy, slavery and secession.

Torreah Cookie Washington told me of another South Carolina case involving Charles Condon.
The movement for womens equality is defending a group of mostly African-American women
arrested on drug charges immediately after childbirth. Over a two-year period, she explained, a
doctor at a Charleston hospital was taking blood samples as the women went into labor. This
evidence was turned over to Charleston police. There were cases of women being arrested in
the delivery room and dragged off in handcuffs, Washington said. Charlie Condon was
Charleston District Attorney at the time. He was saying, put them in jail.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last spring that the womens
Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure were violated. The high
court remanded the case to a lower court with the stipulation that the blood samples cannot be
used as evidence. The struggle to free these women continues, Washington said.

In the summer of 1968, I came to Charleston to cover an organizing rally sponsored by the hospital
workers union, Local 1199, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The nation
was still reeling from the assassination a few months earlier of SCLC leader, Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr.

The rally was held at a church attended by Denmark Vesey, leader of a celebrated 1822 slave
revolt. I wanted to visit that church once again. Myron Washington rode with me and together we
found the soaring Emanuel AME Church where Vesey had served as a lay preacher. We also
found the house where Vesey had lived after purchasing his own freedom.

An estimated 9,000 slaves had enlisted in a plan to seize ships and, relying on Veseys knowledge
of navigation, sail to Santo Domingo where slavery had been abolished in 1790. The plot was
betrayed and Vesey and 27 other freedom fighters had been hanged a few dozen yards from the

Its wrong that his house is not open to the public, Washington said. That house should be a

As we drove off, Washington spoke of how hard it is to organize workers in the face of employer
union-busting. I nodded, But if Denmark Vesey could organize 9,000 slaves in 1822, I guess we
can organize workers in Charleston in 2001.

One step in that direction involves Winyah Stevedoring, the company that supplied the non-union
workers that touched off the struggle. The company is suing ILA locals, local presidents and 27
members of the union individually for $1.5 million, claiming loss of income. But, as Kenneth Riley
said, the Winyah workers themselves are organizing to become members of the ILA.


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