South Carolina crane operators won a whopping labor victory this week after their refusal to work nearly shut down all operations at the Port of Charleston, the nation’s fourth largest container port.

In a phenomenal two-day protest in this right to work state, crane operators employed by the State of South Carolina walked out after the State Port’s Authority (SPA) fired a crane operator, Virgil Cross, for criticizing the SPA to a television crew.

The operators have been angry for months over SPA budget cutting that was targeting them. Among the most contentious issues was that in February the SPA had unilaterally changed work rules, making it more difficult for operators to get overtime pay on weekends, resulting in significant pay reductions.

Those SPA actions were seen by operators as unfair retaliation for their decision to become members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422. Upon walking out the crane operators congregated in the local union hall where they received the solidarity of their union brothers and sisters.

Although as state employees, the crane operators are not allowed to have collective bargaining or to strike under South Carolina’s right to work law, they joined the union two years ago, nevertheless. However, right-to-work law still has authority, making their walkout a truly courageous act in one of the nation’s most anti-labor states.

On May 11, after 32 of the port’s 35 crane operators refused to work, the SPA suspended 18 of them. This added fuel to the fire, with crane operators then adding to their walkout demands a refusal to go back to work if SPA retaliations against their jobs continued for their walkout.

Weekends are the highest traffic times at the three container terminals in Charleston Harbor, and the protest slowed work to a crawl, forcing supervisors to fill in for the missing crane operators. At best, management might do 10 to 15 containers per hour, while regular crane operators do 40 to 45 an hour. In addition, idling a vessel in port can cost an ocean carrier as much as $150,000 per day.

The work stoppage was quickly costing millions, forcing SPA officials to give crane operators all their demands including the change of one overtime work rule. In addition officials pledged to study their concerns about pay and overtime. The SPA also agreed not to fire those who failed to man their machines.

This waterfront triumph comes on the heels of the historic victory of the Charleston Five, ILA dockworkers who were freed after falsely being charged with felony conspiracy to riot for participating in a picketline against a ship carrying non-union labor. Four of the five are members of Local 1422.

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