CHARLESTON, S.C. – Gathered in the union hall and parking lot on East Bay Street, the dockworkers of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, mostly African American men, celebrated their hard-fought victory in the case of the Charleston Five. Elijah Ford, Peter Washington, Jr. and Ricky Simmons were freed Nov. 13 and Kenneth Jefferson and Jason Edgerton were freed the previous Thursday.
All five union dockworkers, four African-American and one white, pleaded “no contest” to a misdemeanor and paid $309 in fines and court fees. Their attorneys told the World that the workers were making “no admission of guilt.”
They spent nearly 20 months under house arrest following the riot by 650 heavily armed state troopers who brutally attacked the 150 workers walking on an ILA picket line the night of Jan. 19, 2000. The dockers had been protesting Nordana Shipping Company’s use of non-union labor, a brazen attempt to break the union and force down the wages and benefits earned by the ILA dockers.
“No worker is going to sit idle while they take our jobs away,” said Frank Jenkins, a second-generation dockworker. “This is the strongest union in the state of South Carolina. We’ve built a good life for ourselves and our families. We can afford to send our children to college.”
As a result of the ILA, wages and working conditions are a “thousand times better than when I went to work here in 1960,” Jenkins said. “Back then it was all manual labor. If you didn’t have a strong arm and a strong back you didn’t make it.”
The 1,100 active members of Local 1422 work at the three terminals that make up the Port of Charleston, fourth largest port in the U.S. “Every ship we unload and load in this port adds $70 million to the economy of South Carolina,” said Myron Washington, a 17-year ILA veteran. “Cut that off and the entire economy of South Carolina and the Southeast region would be crippled.”
The night I arrived, the South Carolina Progressive Network (SCPN), a multiracial and multi-issue organization was holding its monthly meeting in the Local 1422 recreational room. Kenneth Riley, president of Local 1422 and himself a SCPN member, thanked the group for their staunch support. “You were there from the beginning,” he said. “We couldn’t have won this victory without the backing of groups like the Progressive Network.”
“The Progressive Network is building a strong coalition movement in South Carolina,” said Torreah “Cookie” Washington, chair of the Charleston branch of the Progressive Network. “I put it this way: We all have to go to each other’s parties. We got totally involved in the Charleston Five case. I can’t tell you how many ILA members were at our rally in Columbia to demand that the Confederate flag be taken down from the state house. And we, in turn, went to the Free the Charleston Five rally in Columbia last June 9. It is so exciting that we have won a victory.”
After the meeting, SCPN Director Bret Bursey said that the ILA “is the oldest, largest, richest union in the state of South Carolina. For workers, they present a simple, tangible example of the benefits of unionization. Charlie Condon thought they would be easy pickings. He was wrong. The traditional anti-union racist South that Condon was depending on simply wasn’t there. He couldn’t railroad the Charleston Five with that strategy.”
Condon, Bursey added, is a “symptom of the larger crisis which is South Carolina’s union-busting ‘right to work’ law and the vicious anti-union sentiment that has become the law of this state.” Repealing that law is a top priority, he said.
“There is an attack on the labor movement that is not going away,” Leonard Riley, brother of Kenneth Riley, said. “In Oklahoma they just passed a right-to-work law. If we allow the erosion of workers’ rights, we are going to be in trouble. We need to use the momentum of this victory to organize the south. We built a statewide and worldwide coalition for workers’ rights in this battle to free the Charleston Five. It gave us just a glimpse of what is possible.”
The breaking point in the case, he said, came when South Carolina’s Chief Solicitor, Charlie Condon, issued a press release just before the scheduled Nov. 14 trial, comparing the Charleston Five to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and promising to “put them under the jail,” a phrase resonating with KKK lynch terror.
“That press release by Condon was so inflammatory I almost couldn’t stand to read it,” Kenneth Riley told the World in an interview at the union hall. “It was unbelievable that Condon would compare these workers to terrorists.”
Condon’s statements were so out of control that the State Court agreed to a defense motion asking that Condon be removed from the case. A day before the hearing, Condon removed himself. The “felony riot” and “conspiracy” charges, which Condon had pushed for, were dropped.
Condon had been favored to win the Republican nomination for governor next spring; railroading the Charleston Five and breaking South Carolina’s strongest union would be his ticket into the governor’s mansion.
Condon has continued his offensive, wrapping himself in the “war on terrorism” as he pours out his racist venom against immigrant workers employed in loading and unloading containerized cargo. The U.S. Border Patrol has been brought in to patrol the Port of Charleston, Riley said. Undocumented workers, who earn wages half or a third of those paid to ILA workers, face arrest and deportation if they protest this super-exploitation.
Riley said the goal now must be to inflict a crushing defeat on Condon in next year’s gubernatorial election. “We want to defeat him in the Republican primary. It would be a big victory if he goes down to defeat in his own party. Condon is too extreme even for the GOP,” Riley said.
“Condon spoke at a meeting out in the Isle of Palms, a very wealthy enclave,” he said. “I got a call yesterday from the same group telling me, ‘We heard Condon’s side of the story, now we want to hear yours.’ I said I would come. There is no way I’m going to pass up an invitation to tell the truth about the Charleston Five to an affluent crowd like that.”
South Carolina struggle: past and present
Every victory for workers and their allies in South Carolina is a victory over the grim legacy of chattel slavery. On a side street here is the “Old Slave Mart,” now under reconstruction, but for many years hidden and crumbling like a dirty secret. From the battery at the end of East Bay Street, the first shot of the Civil War was fired against Fort Sumter and there is a big monument to Confederate war veterans. One of Charleston’s main thoroughfares is Calhoun Street, named for the chief ideologue of white supremacy, slavery and secession.
Torreah “Cookie” Washington told me of another South Carolina case involving Charles Condon. The movement for women’s equality is defending a group of mostly African-American women arrested on drug charges immediately after childbirth. Over a two-year period, she explained, a doctor at a Charleston hospital was taking blood samples as the women went into labor. This “evidence” was turned over to Charleston police. “There were cases of women being arrested in the delivery room and dragged off in handcuffs,” Washington said. “Charlie Condon was Charleston District Attorney at the time. He was saying, ‘put them in jail.’”
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last spring that the women’s Fourth Amendment protections from “unreasonable search and seizure” were violated. The high court remanded the case to a lower court with the stipulation that the blood samples cannot be used as evidence. The struggle to free these women continues, Washington said.
In the summer of 1968, I came to Charleston to cover an organizing rally sponsored by the hospital workers’ union, Local 1199, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The nation was still reeling from the assassination a few months earlier of SCLC leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The rally was held at a church attended by Denmark Vesey, leader of a celebrated 1822 slave revolt. I wanted to visit that church once again. Myron Washington rode with me and together we found the soaring Emanuel AME Church where Vesey had served as a lay preacher. We also found the house where Vesey had lived after purchasing his own freedom.
An estimated 9,000 slaves had enlisted in a plan to seize ships and, relying on Vesey’s knowledge of navigation, sail to Santo Domingo where slavery had been abolished in 1790. The plot was betrayed and Vesey and 27 other freedom fighters had been hanged a few dozen yards from the church.
“It’s wrong that his house is not open to the public,” Washington said. “That house should be a shrine.”
As we drove off, Washington spoke of how hard it is to organize workers in the face of employer union-busting. I nodded, “But if Denmark Vesey could organize 9,000 slaves in 1822, I guess we can organize workers in Charleston in 2001.”
One step in that direction involves Winyah Stevedoring, the company that supplied the non-union workers that touched off the struggle. The company is suing ILA locals, local presidents and 27 members of the union individually for $1.5 million, claiming loss of income. But, as Kenneth Riley said, the Winyah workers themselves are organizing to become members of the ILA.