Union action demands:
Free Charleston Five!
5,000 in South Carolina condemn
frame-up of longshoremen
BY OMARI MUSA
AND ARLENE RUBINSTEIN
In an effort to defend so-called right-to-work laws, state officials are pressing "inciting to riot" charges against longshoremen attacked by cops during union picket last year.
COLUMBIA, South Carolina--In an outpouring of working-class support, 5,000 unionists and others participated in the Rally for Racial Justice and Workers’ Rights here June 9 to demand the state drop its antiunion frame-up charges against five longshoremen.
Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Forde Jr., Peter Washington Jr., Rick Simmons, and John Edgerton, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, have been indicted on felony "inciting to riot" charges by state Attorney General Charles Condon. The charges stem from a police riot in January 2000 against dockworkers who were picketing against the shipping company Nordana as it attempted to use nonunion labor to unload its ships. The five are under house arrest and could not attend the demonstration. The protest was organized by the South Carolina AFL-CIO and South Carolina Progressive Network.
The ILA local has waged a campaign to defend its members and push back the company and government attack. This includes winning support from labor unions and other organizations at speaking engagements and rallies in cities across the country over the past several months.
The impact of this work could be seen in the number of workers at the rally from scores of different unions. They included United Auto Workers; Service Employees International Union; United Steelworkers of America; Boilermakers; Transport Workers Union; Communication Workers of America; the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE); and many others.
Workers involved in strikes and other struggles came to express their solidarity with the Charleston 5. They included a carload of UNITE members who had struck Hollander Home Fashions in Frackville, Pennsylvania. A busload of workers at Hollander’s plant in Tignall, Georgia, who honored a strike picket line for 10 weeks, was also there. Nineteen UNITE members from Calvin Klein Sports in Abbeville, South Carolina, came chanting "Support the union, free the Charleston 5."
A delegation of 10 ILA members from locals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, traveled to the protest. Jose Velez, president of ILA Local 1575 in San Juan, told the Militant, "We are family. We are here to back up the Charleston 5." Jose Ojeda from the same local said, "I am also here to protest because of the U.S. use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing site for the last 60 years."
International support for the embattled local was emphasized by several speakers at the rally in front of the statehouse. Kwang Jun Yu of the Daewoo auto workers union in south Korea brought loud cheers from rally participants when he spoke about the attacks coming down on workers in that country. He noted that General Motors is planning to buy Daewoo Motors and lay off thousands of workers.
"I bring the solidarity of 13,000 Daewoo workers against racism, union-busting, and police violence," he said. "General Motors is using racism to keep us divided. Racism against Black people is horrible. This is capitalism. Exploitation of any worker is wrong." Kwang told the rally that Korean workers have very little unemployment insurance, and the cops are mobilized when the workers protest against their bosses. "We extend our solidarity," he told the crowd to loud applause.
After hearing Kwang’s presentation, Vanessa Spann, a UNITE member at the National Linen laundry in Charleston, told the Militant, "I had no idea of what they face [in Korea]. Every worker needs to join in as one."
State vows to prosecute
Attorney General Condon has repeatedly vowed to prosecute the framed-up dockworkers "to the full extent of the law." The charges he is pursuing carry up to 10 years in prison. The government prosecution also gives encouragement to a civil "damages" suit filed against ILA Local 1422 by the nonunion stevedoring outfit Nordana had hired in its attempt to break the union.
Condon insists the prosecution of the longshoremen is needed to uphold South Carolina’s so-called "right-to-work" laws, legislation that prohibits labor contracts from stipulating all workers at a company belong to the union. The state justifies Nordana’s drive to open up the docks to nonunion labor under this piece of union-busting legislation.
The capitalist class has a direct interest in keeping South and North Carolina largely nonunion. In the two states only 3.5 percent and 3.2 percent of workers belong to unions respectively--the lowest in the nation. As a result, the bosses have the upper hand in their attempts to reduce wages, pension plans, benefits, and union control on the job. But as more companies have set up shop in the South over the past two decades, the stakes have grown for big business in their drive to keep unions out.
Fight for union rights, against racism
William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) told the cheering crowd that Condon "has brought together the labor movement and the civil rights movement." A large percentage of those at the march and rally were African-American working people.
Among the pro-union crowd here were 20 members of the CBTU from St. Louis. "We have driven 13 hours to get here and march with you," Lew Moye, president of the chapter, told the rally. "What we have here is an attack on the labor and civil rights movement. Trying to bust the ILA is like trying to bust the civil rights movement."
Tim McCall organized to get to the action along with a delegation of railroad workers who are members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "We came because this is an injustice to working people," he told the Militant. "Here we are in the 21st century and we have to protest the Confederate flag and police attacks on working people picketing. We have to stop this stuff now before it spreads."
Just days before the police assault on their picket line in January 2000, dockworkers from Charleston had taken part in a march of tens of thousands of people here in Columbia to demand that the Confederate battle flag be removed from the top of the statehouse. Repeated protests and a tourism boycott of South Carolina forced the legislature to take down the flag last July, but a smaller version remains at the Confederate soldiers monument on the statehouse grounds.
More strength for coming fights
Rahman Allah was one of 20 members of United Steelworkers of America Local 850 at the demonstration. The union had fought Continental General Tire Co. in a yearlong strike that they won in 1999. "This is about all of us that work everyday. You never know when the next fight will ignite, but each one gives the next a little juice. More are coming."
ILA Local 1422 president Ken Riley told the rally that Condon "decided to attack us. But he didn’t know the world was watching. We’re going to organize in South Carolina like never before. We’re part of a new labor movement in the South." Riley told the Militant at the end of the rally, "I think this was a fantastic day, a tremendous show of support and solidarity."
Students and youth were also a visible part of the action. Many of the marshals were from students from Charleston and Columbia. A group of students from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, joined the action as well. Lauren Bulchoz, a member of the group, said, "There is a student movement for union rights in the South. I think the auto worker from Korea was on target in talking about capitalism."
AFL-CIO executive council member Linda Chavez-Thompson spoke at the rally, as did ILA president John Bowers; James Spinosa, president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union; United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts; NAACP regional director Nelson Rivers; and the AFL-CIO state presidents from Georgia and Tennessee. International Dockworkers Council member Bjorn Borg called for international protest actions by longshore workers throughout the world when the trial of the Charleston five begins in September.
Organizers of the march and rally circulated petitions demanding the charges against the dockworkers be dropped. The petitions are to be delivered to South Carolina governor James Hodges.