It took nearly two years, but a Longshore local of majority African-American dockers, supported by a worldwide movement, finally won freedom for Elijah Ford, Peter Washington, Kenneth Jefferson, Jason Edgerton and Ricky Simmons – the Charleston Five.

The battle was fierce – a union-busting and racist offensive led by Republican State Attorney General Charles Condon. It was especially such for Condon’s primary targets – the five themselves, International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422 and its president, Ken Riley.

The night of Jan. 20, 2000, some 600 police, backed with dogs, armored vehicles and helicopters, attacked a peaceful picketline of Local 1422 members protesting the use of non-union labor by the Danish shipping company, Nordana.

Four Local 1422 members and one member of Checkers and Clerks Local 1771 were arrested on the felony charge of inciting a riot.

Condon spearheaded the state’s all-out campaign against these men who became known as the Charleston Five. However, the felony charges were eventually dropped and a final settlement was reached in November 2001.

The unshakable stand of these Local 1422 longshoremen for labor rights, democracy and freedom is one for the history books.

Those of us who had the opportunity to work with these gladiators for justice couldn’t help but be moved by their courage, commitment to their class and community, and their internationalism.

They continued the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., connecting labor’s fight to the battle for civil rights. But they also met the challenge of the new millennium by reaching out globally to their longshore compatriots in other countries.

Adding to its magnitude, the victory took place in the wake of Sept. 11, in a political atmosphere shifted in favor of the extreme right-wing agenda of the Bush administration. This win – against Condon, a close ally of Bush who is now running for governor, against a conservative Chamber of Commerce and a powerful maritime industry – provides inspiration that fightback can succeed against all odds.

That idea exploded onto the scene at the AFL-CIO’s National Convention in Las Vegas last December. Delegates rose to their feet in a rousing ovation for Riley when he took the stage to give AFL-CIO President John Sweeney a crystal eagle in appreciation for the labor federation’s solidarity.

Riley fulfilled the pledge he made when the attack began in 2000. “Unions in the South are here to stay,” he had said.

“We are going to be a voice for working people and we won’t bend to aggression against us.”

Instead, it was South Carolina injustice that had to bend. The setting makes this victory all the more sweet: a movement led by workers who are the descendants of slaves, in a city where slave ships docked and the selling of human beings took place.

That is why the nation and world responded. When thousands heard the story, it aroused a new solidarity sentiment with Southern workers. These dockers represent the total opposite of Condon, who screamed that the five longshoremen would not only be put in jail but be put “under the jail.”

While Condon is out to destroy unions in the South, ILA Local 1422 is part of a forward motion for a new South.

Standing beside steelworkers, farmworkers, autoworkers, construction workers, immigrants and people of all races and nationalities, they are fighting for a South where workers can have dignity, a living wage, health benefits and union protection. This will elevate living standards for everyone.

The new challenge to the labor movement is to respond with a serious campaign to organize Southern workers into unions and eliminate right-to-work laws. The Charleston Five movement proved that the nation will join this cause.

The celebration in Charleston on March 2 will bring together fighters from across the nation and around the globe.

Labor leaders and activists from the AFL-CIO, the East Coast ILA and West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will stand alongside civil rights and community organizations and local defense committees.

The most appreciated celebrants will be dockers’ union leaders from some 20 countries. Their solidarity was a central factor in this victory. The day Spanish dockers in Barcelona told Nordana they would not unload ships from Charleston, the South Carolina men began to win their case.

The International Dockers’ Council (IDC) and International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) made freeing the five an international rallying point.

Their pledge to take action in an international day of solidarity at ports around the world hit the maritime industry and the Chamber of Commerce in their profit-making pockets. That was decisive.

The three-day IDC conference, planned as part of the celebration week in Charleston, will discuss how to build on the victory. Shipping firms are coordinating globally to push their agenda and longshore unions have to do the same.

That is why the ILWU intends to officially join the IDC while in Charleston this week and why they organized an international Dockworkers Solidarity Conference in Los Angeles last summer. They are counting on that solidarity as they enter their contract negotiations, a fight not seen since their strike in 1971.

Joseph Miniace, CEO of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing 80 steamship and stevedoring companies, has declared, before negotiations even open, that the PMA will lock out the union if they don’t agree to their demands to revamp the arbitration process.

The Charleston Five campaign also affected unity between the two U.S. dockers unions, the ILA and the ILWU. For the first time since Harry Bridges, ILWU’s founding international president, left the ILA in 1937 to form the West Coast class-struggle union, the two leaderships are working in closer collaboration.

Also joining this new unified effort is the Teamsters union, resulting in a historic pact signed by the three unions at the AFL-CIO Convention. The agreement to respect one another’s jurisdiction and struggles at the port is historic.

While this does not heal all wounds or solve every problem, greater cooperation between these unions lays the basis for action that can win major gains in the future.

Affecting all these developments is the Workers Coalition, a rank-and-file coalition within the ILA, formed by Riley and ILA local leaders in 1999. From its inception, the coalition stated that unified work with the ILWU and Teamsters was crucial for waterfront workers.

The coalition also advocates a class struggle agenda in sync with the AFL-CIO’s new labor movement. They are pushing for organizing the unorganized and more union democracy. Support for this agenda has steadily grown, bringing with it potential for positive change within the ILA itself.

The multitude of advances that resulted from the longshore gladiators’ victory will continue to resonate. As Local 1422 looks to future organizing and to ensuring Condon loses his bid for governor, one thing is definite, they won’t ever be alone. They have a world of friends. ¡Si Se Puede!

Evelina Alarcon is a member of the Charleston Five National Steering Committee and coordinator of the Los Angeles Charleston Five Defense Committee. Contact her at
EvnAlarcon@aol.com.

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