From the Charleston 5 victory to the 2004 elections

The following interview with Kenneth Riley Jr., president of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., took place during the recent convention of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Riley was the spearhead of a two-year campaign in defense of five dockers in Charleston, S.C., known as the Charleston 5. The struggle began Jan. 20, 2000 when 600 police in full riot gear attacked members of the ILA who were conducting a lawful picketline to protest the use of a nonunion crew to unload a Danish freighter. Police in armored vehicles, on horseback, in helicopters and in patrol boats injured many longshoremen, including Riley.

Police arrested five dockers, four African Americans from Local 1422 and one white from Local 1771. Republican State Attorney General Charles Condon charged the five with conspiracy to riot, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

In May 2000, Riley appealed to the ILWU convention for support. The ILWU made the campaign a priority and contributed over $300,000 to the defense fund. Nearly two years later that support, along with solidarity from the AFL-CIO, world labor, civil rights and community groups freed the Charleston 5, who received only minor fines.

Q: It has been three years since we interviewed you at the Portland, Ore., convention, when you sought ILWU support for the Charleston 5. They are free now. How do you view that struggle?

A: I look at it as a great victory. It was a victory that was seriously needed by everyone, especially considering that we won after Sept. 11, when labor was getting beat up and it was considered un-American to make a stand against any employer.

It was also an opportunity to build new friendships and to create a new network of supporters for future struggles. It was a perfect example of what you can do by building unity and solidarity among workers – not just among dockworkers but among workers all around the world.

International solidarity is something that works. It helps to solidify struggles. With this new global economy with corporations dominating all foreign countries – in fact, corporations dominate everything – I think we have to give more effort to building solidarity not only in this country but around the world.

Q: How are the Charleston 5 now?

A: They are doing very well. They are back working and living productive lives. My membership is more enlightened. They are more knowledgeable about the movement.

Q: So what happened to Republican Attorney General Charles Condon who called for “jail, jail and more jail” for the Charleston 5?

A: That is the better part of the story. Everyone seems to have won as far as labor is concerned, but Charlie Condon lost the most. He has disappeared from the political scene.

This guy was riding high. He was the most visible figure in the state – top gun, with great aspirations of becoming the governor by using the Charleston 5 as a launching pad for his campaign. Turned out that in the primary he only received 14 percent of the vote. A few months later he was headed back down to Charleston to practice law.

Q: The ILWU just went through a contract battle and emerged with a huge victory. Do you think the Charleston 5 fight impacted on that outcome?

A: I think it did because a worldwide network of support had just been re-energized in support for the Charleston 5. The network hadn’t even had time to collect dust. The contacts were fresh.

When the ILWU called for solidarity early on in the negotiations, a lot of us came to San Francisco. (Teamsters President James R.) Hoffa, the International Transportation Federation, the International Dockers Council, the Maritime Union of Australia and the Panama pilots sat at the negotiating table, to show the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) that there was broad-based support for the ILWU.

In the end the PMA had to recognize that to really take on the ILWU, they were risking exposing themselves to actions taken around the world.

Q: What are your observations about the ILWU Convention, and the new relationship between the ILA and ILWU?

A: The ILWU is a great institution, a perfect example of a democratic union. They have their problems like everyone else but, overall, I think they are on the right track.

Talking with my members who are here, I think that for first time they feel that there is a meaningful effort for our two unions (ILWU and ILA) to start trying to build a better relationship. On our side, that primarily comes from the rank and file. Our members want more than rhetoric; they want action.

Q: Can the Charleston 5 struggle be given a lot of credit for that?

A: We definitely would not have been here if it wasn’t for the Charleston 5. We’ve always had the ILA international president come to speak at the ILWU convention and then he would leave; and the ILWU president came to speak to the ILA convention, but there was little communication afterwards. There is a change now.

The ILWU came to defend the Charleston 5 in our time of need. A new bond flourished as a result. It was a rank-and-file connection to the West Coast that grew to what we see today.

That process continues. My local reciprocated support to the ILWU during their contract fight. They knew that there would be a response coming from Charleston.

Q: How do things look for your upcoming contract negotiations?

I don’t think that we’ll have as many issues as the West Coast. The number one issue for us will be health care. Other issues have to do with a wage increase, increases in contribution to our pension and welfare package, dealing with new hires and how long it will be before they get up to the basic longshore rate.

Q: South Carolina is a focus of attention by Democratic presidential candidates now. What is going on?

A: It is interesting. South Carolina has been forsaken land by international unions and the Democratic Party. And now it just happens that our Democratic primary has been moved high on the schedule and some believe that who gains momentum coming out of South Carolina will pretty much seize the Democratic nomination.

The Democratic Party is reaching out to labor to try to build an African American component. They are in a state where pretty much the party is in a shambles with no established system. So there are those on the ground trying to rebuild the party while also trying to make sure that the right candidate comes out the victor in South Carolina.

Q: You and your local are being widely sought after by candidates?

A: Yes. There are three major metropolitan areas in South Carolina – Charleston, Columbia and Greensboro. The candidates feel that you cannot really begin to tap into labor, the Black community, or the Black vote without coming to the ILA, so every candidate has been reaching out to us.

Q: How do you look at challenge of the 2004 elections?

A: We have to win. When I say we, I mean the Democrats. We have to take back the seat from George W. Bush. 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.

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 re-elected in 2004 we will be in terrible trouble.

Q: What issues do candidates have to address to motivate people to vote?

A: Social Security, health care, and an agenda for working families. Dealing with corporate greed and misconduct and the ailing economy are important. Also, we can’t do everything by military might. We can’t boast like President Bush is doing – that we can just drop some bombs whenever we like. It doesn’t work that way. Both foreign and domestic policies have to be addressed. We have to build the movement on the ground to energize people.

Q: Our readers supported the Charleston 5 and shared that victory with you. Do you have a message for them?

A: Yes, a great, great deal of gratitude. I don’t care what persuasion, belief, background, they came from, we appreciated their support. If we had just relied on the mainstream, we would never have achieved the victory that we did. I really believe that if we had put up walls and partitions between people because of their beliefs, we would not have achieved the victory that we have.

If we are going to talk about uniting workers worldwide, there are going to be all kinds of theories. If we cannot accept those differences in this country, then forget about building a worldwide movement.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com