Defend the Charleston Five!  

by Charles Walker


One hundred and fifty dockworkers in Charleston, South Carolina, left home one cold, drizzly night last year to peacefully protest an anti-union company’s unloading of a container ship. It was January 20, 2000, the beginning of a new millennium. The dockworkers couldn’t know that five of them would be falsely charged with felony conspiracy to riot, be placed under house arrest pending a trial, and become organized labor’s first major defense campaign of the 21st century.

On June 9, 5,000 dockworkers, other unionists, and supporters rallied at the South Carolina capitol where the racist Confederate flag flies on the State House grounds. The angry throng demanded justice for the victimized dockers, now called the “Charleston Five.” The rally drew union members from many states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and South Korea. The presidents of the East Coast and West Coast longshore unions, John Bowers and Jim Spinosa, along with AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson were among the speakers.

Chavez-Thompson said: “We send a message to all union-busters in Charleston who are trying to bankrupt the longshore workers and send five of them to jail. Our message is this: We know what you’re up to and you’re not going to get away with it!”

The press quoted a retired Atlanta schoolteacher in the crowd as saying, “You have a right-to-work state and they do everything in the world to tear unions up. South Carolina needs to come into the 21st Century. It’s living in the Dark Ages.”

Solidarity Statement from Mumia

This nation’s foremost political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, sent a message of support, declaring that the dockworkers’ legal “picket line was a righteous response to the violation of a labor contract that assured that shippers at the port in Charleston would use union labor. For daring to protect their just bargaining rights and the right of working people to a living wage ILA’s [International Longshore Association] leaders are beaten, its members imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and a proud historic union is maligned in the corporate press. 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 protest...”

But on January 20, 2000, the dock workers right to assembly and protest was violently violated by 600 state, county, and city cops in riot gear, backed up by armored vehicles, helicopters, and police patrol boats. The president of the mostly African American Local 1422 Ken Riley says, “You would think there was going to be a terrorist attack on the State of South Carolina.”

Riley says that the cops attacked the assembled dockers; then he and other union officers formed a buffer line between the cops and the pickets. But at that point one of the cops ran up and struck Riley on the head, clubbing him to the ground and initiating a skirmish.

When it was over the cops charged eight dockers with misdemeanor trespassing. But the State Attorney Charles Condon took the case away from city officials and raised the misdemeanor charges to felony rioting charges. A local judge dismissed Condon’s charges for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, Condon got a Grand Jury to indict five of the defendants.

Since then, the local union has reached an agreement with the shipping company, and its members are back at work. However, Attorney General Condon refuses to drop the charges against the five rank and file dockers. South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt says Condon is planning on running for governor and is using the case “to make himself a name at the expense of these five guys.”

Dewitt says that after 47,000 people — mostly African Americans — marched and demanded that the Confederate flag be taken down from the state capitol, the Republicans were scared to death. “They’re using the longshore union as an example because they are strong leaders and the state doesn’t want others to see them that way.”

However, the dockers also have major problems with the Democrats. The union backed the first Democrat governor elected there in 12 years. The new governor, Jim Hodges, nominated the dockers union president, Ken Riley, to the State Port Authority, but the South Carolina Manufacturing Alliance and the Chamber of Commerce said: “We must stop that appointment, we must defeat that appointment because it will send a message around the world that South Carolina is now open to labor unions, that we are embracing labor unions in the State of South Carolina, and that is something that can’t happen.” Then, Riley says, “the [Democrat] Governor folded under such pressure and pulled back the nomination. It looked like big business once again had crushed the labor movement in the State of South Carolina.”

Certainly, the bipartisan big business favoritism of both the Republican attorney general and the Democrat governor should be a sharp warning to the Charleston Five’s supporters not to entrust the protection of workers constitutional rights to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Even before the historic fights to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, Mooney and Billings, the Minneapolis Teamsters, and Harry Bridges, it was a settled principle for labor’s best defenders that while the struggles to defend class-war victims must include workers and supporters of diverse views, it was self-defeating to have any faith in capitalist justice and institutions. In other words, the heart and soul of the battle strategy must be workers’ solidarity, and workers’ actions in the streets and on the job.

There are plans to set up local defense committees in cities around the country and organize national days of action, including job actions on the as-yet-unscheduled opening day of the Charleston Five’s trial. International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in San Francisco has “resolved that upon the convening of any trial of the Charleston Five, the membership of ILWU Local 10 will walk out in protest for that day...” The International Dockers Council, a group of longshore unions around the world, has unanimously pledged to shut down ports and take other actions on the first day of the trial. The Association of State Green Parties announced shortly after the rally that “we endorse the call by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for a day of solidarity with the Charleston Five.”

The national AFL-CIO has endorsed the defense campaign, as have many state federations, central labor councils, and local unions. Keep the momentum of the defense campaign growing. Ask your union and community organization to pass resolutions supporting the Charleston Five. Checks should be made out to the “Dockworkers Defense Fund” and sent to: Campaign for Workers Rights in South Carolina, P. O. Box 21777, Charleston, S.C, 29413.

And take to heart Local 1422 President Ken Riley’s message to laboring folks: “Workers are going to have to unite so that wherever there are working people in a struggle, not only in this country, but around the world, workers everywhere else can rise to their support and bring relief in a very timely manner.”

Defend all workers’ constitutional right to assembly and protest! Defend all workers’ right to unionize! Defend the Charleston Five!