Admiral “Bull” Halsey, who commanded the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet in the South Pacific during World War II, once said, “There are no great men or women, but only great challenges that ordinary men and women rise to meet.”

That certainly can be said of Kenneth Riley, president of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in Charleston, South Carolina.

With a shy smile and the shoulders of the weightlifter he once was, Riley was propelled onto the world stage the night of Jan. 20, 2000.

That was when 600 police, backed with dogs, armored vehicles and helicopters, attacked a peaceful demonstration of Local 1422 members protesting the use of non-union labor by a Danish shipping company.

Thus began the saga of the Charleston Five and the 22-month-long campaign to free the four members of Local 1422 and one member of Checkers and Clerks Local 1771. The five were arrested and charged with inciting a riot.

Charles Condon, South Carolina’s viscously anti-union attorney general, said the five deserved “jail, jail and more jail.”

By the time the felony charges were dropped and a settlement reached in November 2001, their struggle had ignited a global campaign that saw dockworkers around the world rally to the cry, “Free the Charleston Five!”

That Riley should earn an international reputation comes as no surprise to Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, and a key figure in the campaign that freed the five.

Riley, Dewitt said, grew during the campaign. “The campaign widened his vision of what could be done, strengthened his confidence that it could be done and fortified his determination that it would be done.”

Evelina Alarcon, a member of the national Charleston Five Defense Committee who lives in Los Angeles, calls Riley a “gladiator for justice in the South” whose humility and integrity “won thousands of workers across the country to the cause of the Charleston Five. He certainly ranks as one of the nation’s most courageous and forward-looking labor leaders.”

Riley’s experiences as a high school student in Charleston, a stronghold of the Confederacy where the slave market still stands, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and, until last year, where the Confederate battle flag still flew, were full of difficulties.

When Riley was in the 11th grade he and a handful of Black students were enrolled in a previously all-white school.

“Remember,” he said, “this was 1969, 15 years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools and Charleston high schools were still all Black or all white. News travels slow in that part of the country,” he said sarcastically.

Riley describes that year as “very difficult with a lot of turmoil.” He was especially bitter when he described the behavior of white teachers who “didn’t care how many students failed so long as they failed the Black students.” As a result, Riley failed four of six subjects that year.

After high school there were a total of seven years of college as Riley pursued a career in business administration and accounting.

“I had a number of job offers after graduation, but all of them required relocation,” Riley explained.

“Besides, none of them paid as much as I had earned working part-time on the docks, so I turned them down. After two weeks as a steady hand working on the docks, I knew I was hooked and would spend the rest of my life as a longshoreman.”

Riley said a few things convinced him to stay on the waterfront: The camaraderie – “the fun, the laughter, the jokes” – and the money.

“My first full year as a member of Local 1422 I earned $29,000,” he said. “The best offer I had to work as an accountant was less than half that.”

Riley’s career as a union leader began when he was elected to the Local 1422 executive board barely a year after becoming a member of the local. But finding that meetings often degenerated into “angry exchanges over petty, personal grievances,” Riley and others felt change was needed.

“The leadership had no vision, there was no pride in being a member of the ILA. So we – the younger guys – decided to do something about it and I was elected to the board”

From that came a 10-year campaign by Riley and his supporters that resulted in him winning the presidency of the local in 1996.

“We had to fight all the way, including going to court to regain control of the local that had been put in trusteeship.”

Although the criminal charges against the five have been dropped, the local and 29 of its members still have to contend with a $25 million civil suit stemming from the events of Jan. 20, 2000.

But that’s not all Riley has on his plate. In addition there is the Longshore Workers Coalition, a reform movement within the ILA that Riley helped found in 1999, and the Campaign for Workers Rights in South Carolina, a state in which barely 3 percent of eligible workers belong to unions.

“Obviously these are front-burner issues,” Riley said.

And there’s the March 2 Charleston Five victory celebration that will mark the official opening of the local’s new $5 million headquarters.

“One might say that event will mark the end of one struggle and open a new phase,” Riley said, adding that leaders of the International Dockers’ Council and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union will participate in the celebration and use the occasion to discuss steps to further international unity and cooperation.

Riley said the solidarity built around the Charleston Five laid the groundwork for a strengthened fightback by dockers everywhere.

“We’re faced with mergers and buyouts by shipping and stevedoring companies around the world and that requires a similar response on our part,” he said, pointing to the struggles of longshoremen in England and Australia as examples of what he called a “coordinated attack” on waterfront workers.

“These companies are serious,” he warned, “and we have to get as serious. But it can be done.”

If Riley has anything to say about it, it will be done.


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries