The General Assembly of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), representing dockers’ unions from around the world, gathered in Charleston, S.C. March 4-6.

Receiving an official welcome from Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley and a warm reception from their hosts – three locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) – dockers’ leaders arrived from Spain, Sweden, France, Portugal, Greece, Brazil, Canada, Liverpool and from the East, West and Gulf coasts of the United States.

Julian Garcia, IDC general coordinator and leader of the Spanish dockworkers’ union, Coordinadora, called the assembly a “historical moment that will lead to the IDC becoming progressively more and more effective in defense of the world’s dockworkers’ interests.”

The formation of the IDC is rooted in international solidarity. Dockers’ unions from around the globe first came together to support dockworkers in Liverpool, England, who were fired for refusing to cross a picket line. The battle was lost, but the conclusion drawn was that unity of dockers’ unions is necessary to answer the global attacks by maritime companies.

A dockers’ network worked together informally until June 2000, when the unions met in the Canary Islands to form the IDC charter. They have fought privatization drives, deregulation and government anti-labor laws ever since.

The meeting in Charleston was the first major gathering since its formation. The assembly was scheduled to coincide with the victory celebration for the Charleston Five, the dockers who were freed last November in one of the most significant labor triumphs in this period.

The ILA members – four African-American and one white – were unjustly charged with felonies after 600 riot-geared police attacked their picket line against a Nordana Lines ship that brought non-union-loaded cargo to their port.

A campaign, lasting nearly two years, succeeded in defeating South Carolina’s ultra-right politicians and the members of the state Chamber of Commerce, who had been determined to jail the five.

International solidarity was critical to that victory. Pledges to take action at ports around the world on the first day of the trial were compelling.

Not coincidentally, the last three of the Charleston Five walked out of court free men on the date the international action day was to occur.

Garcia played a special role in that fight. He boarded a Nordana Lines ship in Barcelona and delivered to its captain a letter saying that Spanish dockers would not work ships from Charleston carrying cargo loaded by non-union labor.

Nordana got the message, stopped hiring scabs and signed a new contract with the Charleston ILA locals.

The hundreds at the Charleston Five celebration acknowledged that solidarity by giving Garcia a standing ovation. Garcia presented Kenneth Riley, the president of Charleston ILA Local 1422 and a founding member of the IDC, with a symbol of unity – a framed copy of the letter that the Spanish dockers hand-delivered to Nordana.

Many unions, including the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), affiliated with the IDC during the Charleston meeting. ILWU International President Jim Spinosa attended along with other top officers. Spinosa was elected to head the IDC Pacific Rim Zone.

The upcoming ILWU contract, which expires July 1, was a focus for the IDC. The ILWU warned that the negotiations will become one of the most contentious waterfront battles in its history.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents shipping lines, is pushing for automation, work rule changes and arbitration process adjustments that would greatly harm union members. The PMA has threatened to lock out dockers if they did not meet those demands and has set up a fund to fight the ILWU in case of a strike.

Spinosa told the press that “if we find ourselves in troubled waters, we’re going to depend on the solidarity of our friends.”

The IDC responded by committing its full support to the ILWU, a pledge that will give important leverage in its negotiations.

The IDC also discussed its battle against a policy known as the “port directive,” a union-busting move under consideration by the European Union.

Under the guise of allowing “free market” competition in port services, the directive would allow shipping and stevedoring companies to hire whomever they want to work their vessels, avoiding the registered union dockworkers and undercutting their standards for pay and working conditions.

It would also allow ship’s crews to do longshore work. This would ignore collective bargaining requirements, including job protection and safety.

Another IDC concern is anti-labor port security measures that have emerged since Sept. 11. Right before the IDC meeting, a local newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia, ran articles using criminal background checks to falsely portray ILA dockers there as criminals who were attached to organized crime.

IDC leaders rejected any unnecessary “anti-terrorist” security measures that cause job loss and wrongly criminalize workers. Criminal background checks, imposed in the U.S. Senate version of the Port Security Act, would result in job elimination for past felony convictions. The ILWU successfully lobbied to change a House version, which limits felonies to “terrorist security risk” convictions such as treason, sedition and espionage.

The IDC meeting further consolidated by establishing new coordinating zones and electing zone coordinators to build the IDC around the globe.

On March 6, after the IDC meeting adjourned, two members of the National Steering Committee to Defend the Charleston Five – Steve Stallone, editor of the ILWU’s newspaper, Dispatcher, and Evelina Alarcon, Los Angeles Defense Committee coordinator – interviewed Julian Garcia.

Q: Did this First General Assembly of the IDC fulfill your expectations? What do you feel was accomplished?

A: This assembly has exceeded all predictions. Consider the fact that two weeks before this assembly, we weren’t aware that the ILWU, the locals of the ILA, Bulgaria and Peru would affiliate, but in recent weeks all of those have.

The ILWU is an incredibly prestigious union, an important partner that makes a great contribution especially in the Pacific. It’s a union that combines bargaining with struggle. It is recognized all over the world.

We’ve also debated at length the tools we have to use in the future.

We’ve chosen seven or eight very important, wide-ranging strategies. Solidarity with the ILWU in their upcoming contract will be a priority for us.

I feel this organization is going to be a success because there is this feeling of exhilaration from the member unions to be able to be part of a dockers’ organization.

Q: In addition to the ILWU contract battle, the other immediate issue facing IDC member unions is the proposed European Port Directive. What is the IDC doing to try to stop this?

A: We had a work stoppage against the directive on Nov. 6 in five countries, Portugal, Spain, France, Greece and Sweden. We struck all ports for 24 hours.

We’ve also done much to try to influence the final policy. We’ve met with the Transportation Commission, the promoters of the Directive, on several occasions, to tell them what we oppose.

We’ve approached all the political caucuses in the European Parliament and the various governments, which are also key in approving the directive.

Part of our mission is to be a union that promotes dialogue, sits down at the table and reaches agreements, and works for training, for safety, for disseminating information.

Q: Among the issues the General Assembly tried to deal with is how to help each other to standardize safety regulations on the docks. How do you see the process?

A: It’s complicated, but we must address it because, in addition to deregulation, it is one of the worst problems faced at the docks.

There are two areas we can work on. One is with the shipping companies.

We can analyze on a global scale the types of ships they have and how they function. We can also do great work at the large container terminals.

We have to work for common standards, which for some large unions may not mean a great deal because they already have them in place, but for many countries the winning of those standards would be a huge improvement.

It’s all about money and costs. If the large unions are to make gains, the weaker ones have to make gains so that competition is reduced.

Q: The IDC meeting expressed great affection for Ken Riley and the Charleston dockers. Leaders held up the Charleston Five victory with great pride. What do you think is the significance of the victory?

What happened in Charleston has been a boost. There was a lack of discussion about the profession amongst dockers and a sense of constant defeat because we’ve experienced too many years of automation, loss of jobs, and precarious labor relations.

I think that Charleston signals an end to the downward spiral. Charleston will mean that dockers will once again believe in their great strength. That we’re playing a leading role in globalization.

The Charleston Five fight has taught us to win, that we won’t continue to slide down, that we’ll rise again. Dockers have regained their self-confidence and realized the importance of the work we do.

It’s made us realize we’re holding the transportation chain together and in this movie about globalization, we’re the leading characters.

There’s free trade, the maritime issue is exploding and we’re in the middle of this development. And consequently we have to make our voice heard, no one can speak for us.

Q: How did you come to hear about the Charleston Five and what happened that day when you told the captain of the scab-loaded Nordana ship about your concerns?

We heard about the Charleston Five in an e-mail from an ILWU longshore worker. Solidarity strikes are banned in Spain, so we never attempted to call a strike.

We maintained that there were hazardous working conditions because the ship was loaded incorrectly.

When I delivered the letter to the ship’s captain, the ship was paralyzed because the workers were telling me that they couldn’t work under those kinds of hazardous conditions.

We pointed out that the ship wasn’t loaded by professionals. The work continued but we told them that in future trips, if the problem wasn’t settled in Charleston, we’d stop work from the beginning.

I went personally to the ship in Barcelona with a couple of our brothers. The shipping agent, the ship’s representative in Spain, knows us well and had already spoken to the captain and the company and told them that if we were saying it, we’d make good on it.

Q: Your message resulted in Nordana withdrawing the scab labor. This was a major turning point in the struggle. It has been hailed as a great act of international worker solidarity. What do you say?

I don’t think that things are done for the simple sake of solidarity. It’s a give-and-take. We all get something from it when we become part of international organizations.

Nobody belongs to these types of organizations just because they are good individuals, great people, or good or great organizations.

We talk about solidarity, but what we’re all trying to do is guarantee our situation, as well as someone else’s situation, and this solidarity thing is a summary of many stories.

I didn’t know anyone from Charleston. I had trouble finding Charleston on the map. Why did we offer our solidarity?

It was not only because of our Charleston brothers and sisters, but also to guarantee our situation in Spain. Because if they lost in Charleston, we would start to lose in Spain.

It’s a question of interests and I believe we need to be clear about that. Workers should not be ashamed to speak in those terms because that’s reality.

Now that I’ve been to Charleston and know the people, it’s true that I have a different relationship with them and other feelings, but the first action was motivated by self-defense.

Evelina Alarcon can be reached at