By MARTY GOODMAN
COLUMBIA, S.C.-Some 5000 demonstrators gathered here on June 9, chanting, “Free the Charleston Five!” The Charleston Five are trade unionists framed on felony riot charges stemming from a police attack on a union picket line against a non-union ship docked at a Charleston, S.C., port. The five have been under house arrest.
The rally took place at the state capitol building, where the racist Confederate flag flew under the watchful eye of police sharpshooters.
The rally was sponsored by the South Carolina AFL-CIO and the Progressive Network. Union delegations came from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Illinois, and New York. Longshoremen came from as far away as the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and overseas.
Larry Adams, president of the Mailhandlers Union Local 300 of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, said at a pre-march rally, “We come not as missionaries but as militant class soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with you. Same fight, different front.”
Swedish dockworkers’ union President Bjorn Borg of Stockholm-a member of the International Dockworkers’ Council, an organization that grew out of the militant Liverpool dockers’ struggle-said, “We demand that all of the charges against the Charleston Five be dropped. Five good men who did nothing but exercise their fundamental trade-union, citizen and human rights, peacefully defending their jobs.
“The violation of workers rights here in South Carolina is of importance to every longshoreman, wherever he is. If the Charleston Five are not set free, that will not go unnoticed in ports around the world. Long live worker’s international solidarity!”
The International Dockworkers’ Council affiliate in Spain took action against the Nordana shipping line; their solidarity helped win a contract for the Charleston ILA. The Longshore Division of the ILWU voted for an international day of action on the first day of the trial and is calling on the ILA to join in shutting down both U.S. coasts. Other speakers included preachers, politicians, celebrities, and leaders of Black organizations.
Unfortunately, a statement to the rally from African American death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was not read to the crowd. The statement reads, “I support the Charleston longshoremen’s fight for freedom to protest free from state violation and judicial repression. All working people should unite behind this union fight in defense of the First Amendment right to assembly-and to defend the right to fight for compliance with a broken, shattered contract.”
The Charleston Five were arrested on Jan. 20, 2000, during a peaceful union picket of a non-union ship belonging to the Nordana shipping line. In October 1999, Nordana shipping began the use of non-union labor from a company called WSI after employing members of Local 1422 for 23 years.
About 600 cops-with armored cars, dogs, horses, helicopters, patrol boats, concussion grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets-attacked the 130 people on the picket line.
Arrested were four Black members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, a local that is 99 percent African American, and one white member of ILA Local 1771. At one point a cop ran out of the police line and clubbed ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley on the forehead. A fight ensued.
Nine were arrested on misdemeanors (Riley was not arrested). Later, charges were dropped in a negotiated settlement with police. Then State Attorney General Charlie Condon, a candidate for governor, indicted five workers on felony riot charges. Condon has called for “jail, jail, and more jail” for the Charleston Five.
Following the indictments the ILA succeeded in bringing Nordana shipping back to the table and worked out an agreement acceptable to both. However, WSI, the scab outfit that supplied the non-union workers, continues to sue ILA Local 1422 and Ken Riley and Local 1771, the Charleston Checkers and Clerk’s Local, for $1.5 million in alleged financial losses.
This frame-up is a threat to unions everywhere. South Carolina is a so-called “right to work” state, which enables management to bust unionization drives and strikes. South Carolina’s corporate and political elite actively promote their state as having the lowest rate of unionization in the country.
South Carolina Democratic and Republican party politicians are now competing over who is more anti-labor. In recent months, legislation passed one or both chambers of the state legislature that would prevent cities from establishing a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum.
The Charleston Five case is to be heard in court in September. There will be nationwide actions in their defense. For updates on solidarity actions, call (1-888) 716-7362. Make out checks to Dockworkers Defense Fund at 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403.