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Charleston Five win their fight
A victory for all labor

November 16, 2001 | Page 12

LEE SUSTAR reports on labor's crucial victory in South Carolina.

IN A stunning victory for organized labor, the Charleston Five have been cleared of felony charges that kept them under house arrest for 20 months and could have sent them to prison for five years.

Less than a week before an international day of action involving unions across the U.S. and around the world, prosecutor Walter Bailey bowed to growing pressure and allowed five members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) to plead no contest to misdemeanor charges and pay a token $100 fine.

The struggle began January 20, 2000, when more than 600 heavily armed riot cops attacked a peaceful picket line against Nordana Lines' use of the nonunion company Winyah Stevedoring Inc. (WSI) to unload a ship. Behind this move was an orchestrated effort to break the power of the ILA, one of the strongest unions in South Carolina.

State Attorney General Charlie Condon, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, wanted to make an example of the ILA to win the favor of corporate giants like BMW and Honda, which operate nonunion plants in South Carolina.

Condon obtained indictments for Kenneth Jefferson, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton, Elijah Ford and Ricky Simmons on felony riot charges–and vowed they would get "jail, jail and more jail." While awaiting trial, the five were put under house arrest from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.–unless they were working or attending union meetings.

Condon was also doing what South Carolina employers and politicians have done since the end of the Civil War–playing the race card. ILA Local 1422 played a leading role in the movement that forced the removal of the Confederate flag from over the state capitol building, leading a mass anti-flag march of 47,000 just days before the police attack on the ILA picket line.

Condon didn't expect the national and international campaign of support for the Charleston Five. Days after the police attack, members of the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union were on the scene–and began raising funds that would total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dockworkers' unions from Spain to Denmark vowed that they wouldn't touch any cargo loaded by nonunion labor in Charleston.

ILA Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley and other local union leaders toured the U.S., Europe and even South Africa to build support. A spirited rally of 7,000 union members and supporters in Columbia, S.C., on June 9 showed the growing solidarity with the struggle from across the labor movement.

Condon finally withdrew from the case last month, and the house arrest was lifted shortly afterward. Support for the five was still growing as the November 14 day of action approached.

UAW leaders last week announced a contribution of $25,000 to the defense campaign. And dockworkers around the world were ready to take solidarity action on the first day of trial. That sent politicians and employers everywhere a message in the only language that they understand.

WSI is still pursuing a $1.5 million lawsuit against the ILA and 27 union members. But their case is now severely weakened.

The victory of the Charleston Five in the second-most anti-union state in the country is an inspiring example to working people everywhere that organized labor can fight–and win.

"We have to build on this solidarity"

KENNETH RILEY, president of ILA Local 1422, talked to Socialist Worker about his union's victory.

TO BE honest, this victory still hasn't fully sunk in. And you don't have a chance to rest on your laurels. We as an African American community made a lot of gains during the time of the civil rights movement. But we've seen a lot of those gains rolled back.

The way that the industry has evolved, our union is 65 percent Black–more so when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. You can't organize the South without talking about racism. We have to have all those issues on the table.

The Charleston Five serves as a model of how we can build a coalition and establish a network. I saw those letters come in over the past week, a last-ditch effort to try to stop this from going to trial. Even the shippers weighed in on their concerns–about the possibility of commerce being stopped [on the first day of trial]. We had unions around the world ready to move.

What the movement as a whole has learned from this is the single concept of solidarity–between unions and labor organizations in this country and abroad.

We really have to build on this. There will be all types of struggles that might not build to this intensity, but will come down to the same hard issues.

This was an expensive proposition if one local or one organization had to finance it. But when you spread it out, we can take on several fights.

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