CHARLESTON, S.C. – Dockworker Elijah Ford stood with his wife and children before his union brothers and sisters in the magnificent new International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) union hall here March 2. He is a quiet, modest man and he seemed overcome by emotion at the vast meeting room packed with friends and allies from across the U.S. and around the world – more than 800-strong.

“I just want to thank everyone for standing with us,” he said. The crowd erupted in cheers and chants of “Union! Union!” It was a high point in a rousing celebration of the victory in freeing Ford and four of his fellow workers from 22 months of house arrest in the infamous union-busting case known as the “Charleston Five.”

They were facing long prison terms on Attorney General Charlie Condon’s trumped up “felony riot” charges. In fact it was 600 heavily armed state police who rioted Jan. 19, 2000, attacking 150 ILA members as they peacefully picketed the unloading of a Danish cargo vessel by non-union workers.

ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley, who spearheaded the worldwide drive to free the Charleston Five, told the crowd that Condon had made a serious miscalculation about the dockworkers fighting prowess. Condon, he said, planned “to break the back of one of the most progressive labor organizations in this state,” Local 1422.

Condon didn’t realize “we were so connected,” that this small, predominantly African-American local had the solidarity of the nation and the world. “We have fought this fight,” Riley said, “and proven we could be victorious even in South Carolina.”

ILA President John Bowers thanked AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and its affiliated unions for their support and called for the creation of a special defense fund to support workers brought up on phony union-busting charges.

Bennie Holland, head of the ILA’s South Atlantic and Gulf Ports Division, said many people “may not appreciate the magnitude of what you did for South Carolina but even more for all of organized labor.”

Out of the Charleston struggle, he said, has come a memorandum of understanding by three international unions, the ILA, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the Teamsters “to stand back to back to fight anybody who messes with any of these unions. We know we are in a battle and we’re going to fight.”

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