Seven years ago, just as the “Charleston 5” case was becoming a well-known labor cause celebre, I invited a longshore worker from South Carolina to Boston to speak about the attempted prosecution of his co-workers. The sponsoring committee wanted to broaden the turnout so we also contacted the Boston-area affiliate of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) to see if they wanted to meet our guest as well.
The ILA’s local headquarters is in “Southie”—the Irish American neigh- borhood where public school desegregation and busing was violently contested in the mid-1970s. Both locally and nationally, the scandal-scarred ILA had little past connection to progressive trade unionism. Its rather insular Massachusetts membership was rarely seen on the picket lines of other unions. But, when the South Boston ILA official who answered the phone was informed that a union brother named Ken Riley was coming to town, arrangements for a meeting were quickly made. To the surprise of some who attended, the main speaker turned out not be a fellow son of “the auld sod,” but rather a brother from another planet indeed—a black longshore worker from a local union in the deep South whose picket-line militancy had triggered a worldwide solidarity campaign.
Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger’s On The Global Waterfront is a detailed study of the fight to save five ILA members from politically-motivated felony charges. The prosecution of the Charleston 5—four blacks and one white accused of rioting—could easily have remained an obscure local problem. Instead, as the authors note, their far-flung supporters “created a blueprint for a future where commerce—having torn down national boundaries in its neo-liberal, greed-driven gallop across the globe —is forced to stop and negotiate not with statespeople and diplomats, but with the lowest members in the hierarchy: the workers who move its goods and the local communities in which they live.”
The main character in this unusual story was Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, the public face of the Charleston 5 campaign. With crucial backing from then-AFL-CIO headquarters staffer Bill Fletcher and North Carolina labor federation president Donna DeWitt, Riley built a defense campaign with considerable inter-racial and cross-border appeal. Among those it brought together were labor and civil rights groups in South Carolina (and elsewhere), longshore workers on the east and west coasts (who belong to two different unions) and dockworkers around the world.
Such solidarity took a lot of hard work, organizational arm-twisting, and bottom-up pressure generated by member-to-member contacts that often ignored the official protocol and procedures of labor bureaucracies, here and abroad. As Fletcher told the authors, even some of his fellow activists in the Black Radical Congress “didn’t quite see the relevance” of the case initially because “people looked at it as a ‘labor struggle’” lacking sufficient “crossover with the black community.” Meanwhile, DeWitt, a retired telephone operator presiding over one of the smallest AFL-CIO state bodies in the country, faced similar resistance. “Before we even tried to do defense committees, we were trying to make South Carolina members understand. A lot saw it as a racial issue, not something labor should be involved in…. I had to do a lot of convincing that this is about keeping union jobs in the port and that we’re all about civil rights. It became real contentious—conservatives were saying this is a bunch of renegade members that had got out of hand and we shouldn’t support them.”
The “renegade” label applied in several ways and was used by Local 1422’s political foes in their attempt to isolate and discredit “a small union in a rabidly anti-union state” with an organized workforce of less than 5 percent. Although almost entirely African American, Charleston longshore workers did not fit the usual profile of southern workers under siege—more often than not, low-wage blacks or immigrants picking vegetables, plucking chickens, slaughtering hogs, or tending to farm-raised catfish, under conditions of extreme exploitation. Riley’s members who worked full-time earned $1,350 a week, “performing what many perceived to be unskilled if dangerous work in a state with an average wage of $8 per hour.” In the immediate aftermath of the waterfront encounter that led to charges of a felonious “conspiracy to riot,” the Charleston dockers were widely denounced by the state’s political establishment. According to the authors, even the city’s community-oriented police chief (a Jewish African American named Reuben Greenberg) regarded them as “rough, drunken, and violent”—an image unfairly rein- forced by media coverage of the picket-line battle.
The political and economic context of that January 19, 2000 showdown made it no ordinary dust-up. In Columbia, South Carolina more than 45,000 people had just spent Martin Luther King Day marching on the state capitol to protest the Confederate flag that had flown over it for three decades. The event highlighted a controversial NAACP-backed boycott of tourism in the state—aimed at removing the rebel banner. Among the marchers were members of Local 1422 and their newly-elected president, Ken Riley. Several days later, all the law enforcement agencies mobilized to keep order in Columbia shifted their forces to the Charleston docks. There, Local 1422 was vigorously challenging Nordana Lines, a Danish shipping company, which had—after 27 years of bargaining with the ILA—decided to cut costs by using a non-union stevedoring firm to handle its cargo. In the four-month run-up to January 19, Nordana ships faced growing interference with their unloading in Charleston. This disruption at South Carolina’s main port, like the NAACP boycott, posed a “distinct economic threat with the added insult of being orchestrated by blacks.” The local power structure responded by marshalling “six hundred police in riot gear who shot at longshoremen with beanbag bullets and concussion grenades.” They clubbed or arrested more than a dozen ILA members, sending Riley (who was singled out for assault) to the hospital to get 12 stitches in his head. In addition to the heavy cost of defending against the resulting criminal charges, Local 1422 and various individual members soon faced a $2.5 million damage suit filed by the scab stevedoring outfit. If the plaintiff won and some “longshoreman lost their homes and savings accounts for picketing and protesting…other shipping companies would be free to go non-union without risk.”
What turned the tide against these multiple threats—and beat Nordana in the process—was a creative, wide- ranging effort to invest 1422’s fight with national and international significance. Early on (and for too much of the campaign), Riley’s own national union “was useless.” Internationally, Local 1422 “couldn’t budge” the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) without a much-delayed official request for assistance from ILA President John Bowers, who abhorred Riley’s ties to the Longshore Workers Coalition, an ILA reform caucus. Even the AFL-CIO, under the new leadership of John Sweeney, “was asleep”—until Fletcher and others prodded the federation to put resources into the campaign. (True to form, some labor officials continued to redbait Charleston 5 backers; to his credit, “Riley refused to distance himself from the leftists who had helped out in his union’s time of need.”)
Among the activists best positioned to help get the criminal charges dropped were those in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), based in California, and the International Dock- workers Council (IDC), whose solidarity-minded affiliates threatened disruption of Nordana cargo handling across Europe. The cause of the Charleston 5 was quickly adopted by radicals in the ILWU, which made large financial contributions to Local 1422 and resolved to hold “stop-work meetings” in west coast ports on the first day of any trial. By the fall of 2001, ILA supporters within the state, throughout the U.S., and around the globe had combined to make such a big ruckus about the case that everyone—except South Carolina’s right-wing attorney general, Charlie Condon—wanted it to go away. Over Condon’s objections, the defendants were allowed to pay $100 fines and plead “no contest” to misdemeanors, thereby averting a worldwide day of “industrial action” planned by the IDC (and even the ITF) if the prosecution proceeded. (Once an up-and-coming GOP candidate, Condon lost bids to become governor and Senator—in part, because his crusade against “mob violence” ended up backfiring.)
For labor, the main lesson of the Charleston 5 campaign is as follows: American unions need all the help they can get from wherever they can get it. The example of ILA Local 1422—which gave to and received from the black community, and then made new friends and allies throughout the U.S. and the world—needs to be emulated by many other labor organizations. In today’s increasingly hostile political and economic climate, no union is an island—and any one that tries to be won’t survive for long.
Steve Early is a longtime labor activist and freelance journalist in Boston.