Charleston Five Defender Crosses ILA Picket Line

by Charles Walker


Ken Riley is president of that now well-known Charleston, South Carolina, longshore local union that gave a good account of itself in January 2000, when a 600-strong goon squad, usually called the Charleston cops, attacked its picket line.

The cops had as bad a reason to be on the docks as the dockworkers had a good one. Some 150 International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) members were trying to save their unionized jobs. The cops in armored vehicles, on horseback, in helicopters, and in patrol boats were doing their damnedest to see that the dockers got the short end of the stick, in more ways than one. The cops won the battle, but the longshore workers won the war that was waged for nearly two years in courtrooms, union halls, and unionized foreign ports.

State and local authorities and the business interests that really pull the strings thought they could put five of the picketing dockers in a state prison for about ten years. The unionists had a different idea. They figured that labor solidarity should be able to do what their local union didn’t have the critical mass to do. The dockers got it right. They kept the Charleston docks unionized thanks to the timely solidarity of Spanish dockers, who refused to work a scab ship. At the same time the authorities weren’t able to lock up the Charleston Five and toss the key away for a decade, settling for a “legal” slap on the wrist.

From the get-go the dockers got moral and material help from the West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who kicked in more than $300,000 to a solidarity defense fund. Countless union bodies and social justice groups, nationally and internationally, made their support and clout felt, including the AFL-CIO. The Central Workers Union of Cuba and the imprisoned-on-death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal were among the many who championed the dockers’ cause.

At the end of the campaign, on November 13, 2001, Riley said, “We have learned that we are a part of something much bigger, something that spans oceans and bridges cultures. We are part of an international labor movement. I want to dearly thank the thousands of persons who have made up the ‘Free the Charleston Five’ campaign. To those that have traveled here from long distances to be by our side, to those that have given so generously, and to those who have inspired and supported us, we thank you.”

Recently Riley quipped about his experience to a writer for the People’s Weekly World, “I’ve been through grade school, secondary education and got my masters and doctorate through this struggle. In the last three years, I’ve learned more than I had in the entire twenty five years that I had been active.”

But there’s a thing or two that Riley didn’t learn. For starters, he didn’t learn that labor solidarity is not a sometime thing. We sadly say that because on June 5 Riley and the Charleston local crossed a picket line to unload an Evergreen Marine Corp. ship fleeing a strike begun May 14 at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, by another ILA local union. The New Jersey beef stems from a successful attempt to organize some port captains employed by Evergreen. The national labor board directed the firm to recognize the union, but the firm refused, appealing the directive. The union put up a picket line, which was honored by other east coast ILA locals, excepting the Charleston union.

“Kenneth Riley, the head of the local dock-workers’ union, said he had left up to his members to decide whether to honor the picket line or cross it. Most crossed it” (Charleston Post, June 6).

Riley also said, “Our commitment to solidarity is as solid as ever, but this one is sort of different.” It’s not reported what the difference is, but it doesn’t make any difference. The beef is with the bosses. The bosses can claim it’s a secondary boycott, as they do, and it still doesn’t make any difference. We claim as our authority (though not the only one we could cite) the West Coast dockers, who have a well-deserved reputation for respecting all picket lines and letting others sort out the rights and wrongs later. That’s what Riley and the Charleston dockworkers should have done. They scabbed, plain and simple, and that’s plainly wrong; that’s an outrageous affront to all workers, unionized or not.

There’s still another line that Riley plans to cross and urges other workers to cross, a political line, no less important than a picket line.

When asked in the interview with the People’s Weekly World (May 24) about the 2004 presidential election, Riley said, “We have to win. When I say we, I mean the Democrats. We have to take back the seat from George W. Bush. I agree 1,000 percent with what [Democrat] Mayor Willie Brown said at this [ILWU] Convention. This time around we don’t have the time to toy around with other parties. Practically speaking, no party has a better shot at taking the White House away from Republicans than the Democrats. So, let’s not divide up the votes. We saw in the last election that every vote counts.”

The problem with Riley’s view is that, practically speaking, once in power the Democrats turn the screws on organized labor, perhaps, at best, more incrementally than the Republicans, but that’s the two corporate parties’ mode of operation—hard cop, soft cop, but still cops. From Roosevelt to Clinton and every Democratic president in between, federal troops have been used against unions or their strikes otherwise shut down by presidential order.

As labor has grown weaker—as it must as long as it embraces the corporate Democratic Party and forsakes it own political independence— the Democrats have been able to get organized labor’s support and pay less and less for it. In other words the once promising labor movement is on the skids, and there’s no end in sight without a sharp turn to truly independent political action, in fact, as well as name.

Riley has heard this argument before, perhaps from another labor leader in South Carolina, Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, also a leader of the Labor Party. We say that because Riley says, “I’ve been in a lot of circles and some say the Democrats have forsaken us too. That’s all fine and good, but if Bush gets reelected in 2004 where he will never be running for President again, we will be in terrible trouble. The most important thing for us is to support a candidate that can win. I think the earlier we can get behind one candidate, the better off we are.”

Perhaps Riley hasn’t been told that organized labor has fallen for the scam of “beat the Republican candidate at all costs” before. And even when the Republican candidate lost, workers, very often the poorest, have paid a heavy price.

For example, in 1996 Clinton, whose election was backed by the AFL-CIO, decided to end welfare “as we know it.” He signed a bill that, according to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, threw “1 million more children into poverty, by abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children, then the main federal assistance program, which provided monthly cash benefits to 12.8 million people, including more than 8 million children.” Even a longtime friend and political supporter of Clinton, Marian Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that Clinton’s support of the new law was tied to his reelection hopes. In a well-publicized thrust, she called Clinton’s action, “a moment of shame.”

In the Congress, both sides of the aisle, in both houses, lopsidedly passed the law. The children’s plight didn’t stop the union bureaucrats at the top from backing Clinton’s reelection, nor the election attempt of his partner-in-crime, Albert Gore.

Hopefully, the next time a cop raps a union picket on the head, or a Democrat attacks a strike, or the social wage for the least able among us is cut, that will remind Riley that it’s time to reject political business unionism and to stop voting for what workers don’t really want. Hopefully, too, Riley will apologize for the scabbing and commit himself to honor all labor and its picket lines. If not, the Charleston dockworkers can’t get a new leadership fast enough.