Charleston, South Carolina
They give “ghost tours” of the Historic District in the evening, as if ghosts weren’t present enough without conjury in this too-charming city: the ghosts of planters who stepped from porches of the grand mansions along the Battery within sight of Fort Sumter, headed for the auction house on Chalmers Street, there to appraise human backs and forearms and hips; the ghosts of Africans thus measured, put up for bid; of the ships that brought more captive Africans to this port than to any other American city, and of the black dockers, freemen and slaves, who loaded up the rice and cotton that the new arrivals would soon toil to produce; the ghost-vestiges of extraordinary violence, dressed up as heritage and gracious living–the South in inverted commas, which favored almost no one who lived in it, including the poor and landless whites who died for it under a battle flag that Charleston is too polite to fly but that figures, nevertheless, in our story.
This past June 9 the flag of the Confederacy hung lifeless in the afternoon heat in front of the state Capitol in Columbia. A year ago it was demoted from its place atop the Statehouse dome, and on this day the air around it vibrated with the shouts of people demonstrating in support of a labor union, International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422, that had been instrumental in organizing the protests that brought the flag down. At the height of the antiflag campaign last year, 46,000 people had marched on Columbia. This was a smaller crowd, about 5,000, but an old-timer told me he had never in seventy-five years seen so many people turn out for a union in South Carolina. They came because the state is gunning for this union of black dockworkers from Charleston who weren’t polite about the flag and weren’t docile when a shipping company whose vessels they’d worked for twenty-three years decided to use scab labor.
Their troubles with the state began on January 19, 2000, two days after the historic march against the flag. A ship from the Danish Nordana Shipping Lines pulled into the Port of Charleston. Nineteen scabs were mustered to unload it. On three of Nordana’s prior visits the union had picketed without police interference. This time 600 battle-dressed troops from throughout the state surrounded the dock, decamped outside Local 1422’s hall, patrolled the waters by boat, flew overhead in helicopters, mobilized armored vehicles and horse units, armed themselves with rubber bullets and “bean bags” full of buckshot, beat their batons against their riot shields and waited, waited in the rain for something to happen. After midnight something did, and now five longshoremen–four black and one white, four from Local 1422 and one from the smaller checkers’ and clerks’ union, ILA Local 1771–are under house arrest awaiting trial this summer on felony riot and other charges that could send them to prison for five to ten years.
They are the Charleston Five, Kenneth Jefferson, Elijah Ford, Peter Washington Jr., Ricky Simmons and Jason Edgerton. But the chant that rang in Columbia on June 9 was “We are the Charleston Five!” because the outcome of this case will not be felt by those five men alone.
The only thing stronger than racism in South Carolina is the hatred of unions and the attendant fear that workers might choose class solidarity over skin and challenge the setup that depends on keeping most of them poor, weak and divided. South Carolina is hardly the only state where this is so, but with some of the lowest wages and the second-lowest rate of unionization in the country, it is among the worst. The white Attorney General, Charlie Condon, openly links his prosecution of the Five with preservation of South Carolina’s anti-union “right to work” laws, and it is not happenstance that he has chosen to make an example of the state’s best-organized, highest-wage workers, of powerful black workers and white race traitors. Nor is it irrelevant that Local 1422 has supported progressive candidates in local and statewide elections, that it has lent its hall to such candidates and causes, and that Condon–an ambitious Democrat turned right-wing Republican–plans to run for governor.
But there’s more. Nordana’s switch to a nonunion stevedoring company that paid men $8 an hour without benefits for work that brings a unionist $16.50-$25 an hour with benefits was the first time in America that a major line used scab labor to load and unload container ships, the mainstay of longshore life. Charleston’s dockers didn’t just defy the police; they won their work back. Now they’re organizing those former scabs into the union. Men pay for such audacity, especially black men, especially when they win.
Ken Riley, the president of Local 1422, remembers driving along East Bay Street toward the union hall on the afternoon of January 19 and being awed by the gathering army. Outside the Ports Authority’s office next to 1422’s hall, riot police were practicing maneuvers, lunging in formation with shields raised, batons up. “My Lord,” Riley thought, “what are they preparing for?” After conferring with the presidents of Locals 1771 and 1422-A (port mechanics), he outlined the unions’ strategy to workers assembled in the hall: They would do nothing. But because the grand strategy was to drive up the costs of working nonunion, they wouldn’t go home either. They’d keep the police out there all night, costing the city, the state, the port and Nordana so much money that those forces would be hard-pressed to claim victory.
Throughout the evening members of all three unions–the blacks who load the ships and have since slave times, the whites who do the paperwork and have since slave times, and the blacks and whites who work as mechanics–passed through 1422’s doors. At about 11:30 pm, guys coming into the hall were saying police at roadblocks had harassed them. A discussion followed. The show of force was meant to provoke but also to intimidate; the workers didn’t want to fall into the trap, but they didn’t want to be bullied either. These days, some union supporters say this is a case about democracy, but the talk that night was about respect, about not being ground down. “I Am a Man” read the famous sign carried by striking garbage workers in Memphis, 1968, and it was that statement the dockers wanted to make by going out to face the police line in Charleston. Riley watched as they funneled out of the hall. He says there were 130 to 140 workers; rank-and-file participants say there were no more than 200; the media’s count has swung wildly, from 600 to 400 to 300.
Things have a funny way of happening in the night, things that never would happen but for the mixture of fear and anger and the infuriating exertion of overwhelming force. Nineteen months later, the story of that night has shrunk to caricature in some tellings, as if the only way to defend the workers is to portray them as passive actors set upon by police and collapsing under the assault. Perhaps it’s the liberal fetishization of nonviolence, or a reflexive response to the state’s claim, seconded by the white press, that police were passive guards attacked by frenzied workers. What seems to have transpired instead was an explosion of human emotion when only one side has all the serious weapons.
Leonard Riley, Ken’s brother, was at the front of the line as the workers approached police. “When you have forces like that come together,” he said, “you’re not gonna have huggin’ and kissin’ and glad-to-meet-ya’s. But we did go out there with a peaceful plan.” The workers came up to the line, told police they wanted to picket the port and were repelled by riot sticks, he said. Each time they returned and were repelled again. Workers now say they couldn’t believe they were being treated like criminals. And they didn’t yet know that the city jail had been emptied for them. At the line some pushed back; some grabbed hold of police sticks and engaged in a tug-of-war. Farther back in the crowd, William “Boogy” McPherson, a white clerk with 1771, heard a cop say, “We’ll beat the hell out of you niggers.”
“We were yelling and screaming,” McPherson said. “I went up, said to a cop, ‘I know what the white man’s up to.'” Overhead the helicopters droned. People were pushing. Word passed back that guys up front were being clubbed. McPherson’s not sure when workers started picking up rocks to hurl, but he remembers Ken Riley running from the union hall with the other local presidents and rushing to the front. Riley was trying to create a space between workers and police when he was cracked in the head with a baton, receiving a gash that required twelve stitches. It was then that, as 1422’s recording secretary, Anthony Shine, put it, “things got ugly.” Workers fought back, and some were clubbed mercilessly. They overturned a light tower and struck photographers. Meanwhile, police were beating on them, shooting at them and dispensing tear gas. Local 1422’s James Freeman says he had just conferred with police and was getting workers to retreat when he turned and saw the headlights of a police SUV charging the crowd. Freeman dove to the side. Right behind screeched a highway patrol car. In terror, some workers ran; others smashed the car’s windows. “They gonna kill us, man,” McPherson remembers someone crying out, “they gonna kill us.”
Not all of the Five, whose lawyers have advised them not to speak with the press, were arrested that night (one was singled out after his picture appeared in the local paper), and those who were arrested were charged by police with trespassing. That didn’t sit well with South Carolina’s elite, because almost immediately Condon had the men rearrested, this time on riot and conspiracy, and a range of other charges including assault and resisting arrest. A circuit court dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.
In the meantime, dockworkers around the world had begun to mobilize in solidarity. In Spain they refused to handle Nordana cargo. Pretty soon Nordana was negotiating with the Charleston unions; the scabbing was finished. Condon empaneled a grand jury and got indictments on the same charges the court had thrown out, plus some additional ones. The company that had contracted with Nordana to provide the nonunion workers, WSI, filed a $1.5 million civil lawsuit against the locals, their presidents and twenty-five members, holding them personally liable for lost business. *
There hasn’t been a labor disruption in the Port of Charleston since 1971. It is the fourth-largest port in the country, a linchpin for the South’s global economy; and, worldwide, only the dockers in Tokyo load and unload a ship faster. More than other industries, shipping depends on speed, a condition that both strains longshore workers and makes shippers vulnerable. At 1422’s hall, men line up from 6 am most days as jobs are called out and gangs are formed to work a ship. Often they’re asked to “work through,” meaning work through lunch, through dinner, through the night, whatever it takes until the ship is ready to go. This brings overtime pay but also fatigue and greater risk of injury. Men eagerly volunteer for it, especially those at the back of the line, with the least seniority, the guys who will take any work–say, loading chicken boats at subfreezing temperatures–because they can’t be sure when they’ll work again. Much is made of the fact that a longshore worker can earn $100,000 a year, but the new people might go days, weeks without work and make a fraction of that.
A couple of days after the march on Columbia a worker was sitting in the hall with his head in his hands. Eddie Thomas, who started on the docks back in the 1960s, when “it was rough, baby, Johnnie-get-your-gun rough, everything by hand,” was encouraging this fellow, telling him that things would pick up, that everyone’s been through the waiting, and signaling to a union officer to loan the brother some money. Thomas, a retiree who trains new recruits to operate heavy machinery, said, “These guys catch pure hell trying to get work.”
It seems people might resist the waiting and the lash of speed, but workers boast that Charleston is number one in the country in productivity, that they can load and discharge a ship with 2,000 containers in twenty-four hours or less, that the scabs couldn’t come close to that time, so hiring them wasn’t about cost; it was about power. Speed is the boss’s game, but workers take pride where they find it. Some point out that not only have black men always worked these docks but after the Civil War they also organized one of the country’s first longshore unions and won one of the first waterfront strikes for wages. “That dock out there,” Riley said, “that’s our house. We built it with our sweat, with our blood, with our injuries. And Nordana is our wife of twenty-three years.”
* WSI had a neat shell game going, hiring workers through its subsidiary, a temp agency called Apollo Services. It charged Nordana $14 an hour for their labor, then paid the workers $8, appropriating the rest for administrative costs and profit. As Ken Riley illuminated the terms of their exploitation, “When I started on the docks, I was making $8.60 an hour. That was 1971.” He expects those workers to vote handily for the union in a representation election in August. Back to text
In Charleston liberals and the black community back the workers against the police and prosecution, but it’s an indication of the challenges facing organized labor here that even supporters can be heard complaining about union control of the docks. “Why should the union prevent a brother from working for $8 to feed his family?” a journalist with the city’s black paper, The Chronicle, asked. His question might just as easily have been phrased, Why shouldn’t every worker be threatened with replacement by someone who will work for less until everyone is working for less and every job is a low-wage job? But he didn’t see it that way, and he is not alone. This is the colonizing power of “right to work” ideology, the cunning force of a law that seems to be about individual choice, since on paper it simply provides that no one can be forced either to join or not to join a union. In practice, it functions to intimidate workers from organizing and to sow division by allowing those in shops that have unions to reap the benefits of a contract but to opt out of paying dues. And the state not only tacitly condones employer threats and promotes itself as a good place to do business on the basis of its unorganized work force; it has exempted itself from the law.
For state workers there is no free choice on the matter of unionization. Since last year, more than 140 state employees who operate the cranes on the docks signed cards to join Local 1422. They were sick of working ninety-hour weeks, as the number of containers passing through the port increased by 10 percent between 1999 and 2000. The State Ports Authority told them to drop dead; it does not recognize or negotiate with unions. At about the same time anti-union hacks in the state legislature advanced a bill prohibiting anyone from serving on the Ports Authority board “who is or becomes a member, associate, representative, or employee of a labor union if the principal activities of the union are ports-related.” Colloquially known as “the Ken Riley bill,” this was promoted after the Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, named Riley to the board but then retreated under pressure from the state Chamber of Commerce.
No one I met thinks this case is just, or even mainly, about class, though. In South Carolina workers make about $5,000 less than the typical US wage worker. The legislature aims to keep it that way, passing a bill that would prohibit any locality from raising its minimum wage. This would disproportionately affect blacks, whose average income here falls below the national average, while white income exceeds it. Over the past twenty-five years Charleston has remade itself into a white city–“historic Charleston,” with blacks pushed into the kitchens, the hotel maids’ uniforms and the occasional local-color spot, weaving baskets outside the old market, “just to show the tourists we have some happy, smiling black folks,” said community activist Jerome Smalls. Black churches appear as islands in a sea of white, relics of a time before politicians used federal urban development money to drive blacks to the fringes of downtown and beyond. The same type of colonial houses that look so fresh in the gentrified quarters are falling down in the ghetto. The city is finally putting some money into restoration there, but whereas its priority for white folks is housing and business development, for blacks it’s law enforcement. “Fuck CPD,” someone wrote near the corner of South and American Streets, where the Charleston Police Department has been conducting mass drug raids.
At the 1422 hall, a longshoreman named Dwight Collins was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Endangered” over images of an eagle, an elephant and a black man. Racial profiling, police abuse, unpunished killings of blacks at the hands of police–“we’re being shot down everywhere,” Collins said. And yet there’s been no mass action, no unified resistance, just “apathy and fear,” according to Smalls. Out of this suffocating atmosphere burst the dockworkers’ defiance. As Kevin Gray, who heads the ACLU in South Carolina, puts it: “The issue is, will the state allow one of the last powerful black institutions here to survive? The NAACP is all but dead or ineffective, black leadership is underground, black churches are doing nothing but ‘Give it up to Jesus.’ This is one of the last strong black organizations organizing on significant things, period. Period. And that’s why they’re slammin’ on those brothers.” On the street, the issue is also whether the union can put it together with the community and do the necessary coalition-building for a long fight.
The opening date of the trial of the Charleston Five has not been announced, but on that day longshore workers in sixteen countries and along the Pacific Coast have pledged to silence the ports. Solidarity is something new for the ILA, whose International apparatus is more commonly associated with corruption, complacency, concessions and anticommunism. At the June 9 rally ILA president John Bowers could only squawk about his supplications to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (“If you can use your influence, you’re gonna find that our people are gonna vote for people like you”) while in the crowd dockers from as far away as Denmark chanted, “Shut the ports down! Shut the ports down!” Although every ILA convention for the past twenty years has featured complaints about nonunion incursions into the union’s jurisdictions on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Bowers did nothing to discourage other ILA locals from working Nordana ships while Charleston was out picketing. Immediately after the police brawl, ILA headquarters declined offers of help from the AFL-CIO. The federation ultimately pulled together the Campaign for Workers’ Rights and sponsored the march and rally in Columbia, though AFL intervention in a local struggle is always a delicate matter when an International leadership is less than fully committed. In nineteen months Bowers hasn’t visited his embattled members in Charleston. The union treasury can’t be used to defend the Five or the twenty-five in the civil suit, but he didn’t set up a defense fund until he was shamed into it by more than a year of rank-and-file efforts, and Charleston workers have yet to see a penny of it. No matter; Bowers belongs to the past.
Today dockworkers are together as never before, not only white and black at the Port of Charleston, but East Coast and West, as rank-and-file workers have toppled the wall separating them since 1937, when the West Coast dockers walked out of the ILA to form the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union and were branded subversive reds. While the ILA bosses dithered, the ILWU raised more than $150,000 for the workers’ defense. Its paper, The Dispatcher, has become the main source from which ILA members get news on maritime labor issues and even on the Charleston Five. ILWU members have organized fundraisers and voted to assess themselves monthly contributions. Riley and other Charleston leaders have been traveling the country and the world as part of a grassroots campaign that has animated the Black Radical Congress, the South Carolina Progressive Network, the International Dockworkers Council and numerous labor groups. (Contributions can be made to the Dockworkers Defense Fund, c/o ILA Local 1422, 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403, attn. Robert Ford. To join or start a solidarity group, call the state AFL-CIO at 803-798-8300.)
Internally, the culture and spirit of the ILA is getting a shake-up, as efforts on behalf of the Five are strengthening a reform movement, the Longshore Workers Coalition, which demands accountability, regional and racial equity, one person/one vote. Open to all, it was spearheaded by black dockers in the South Atlantic, and that is where the energy is in the ILA. In 1999 Riley, the coalition’s co-chair, stunned the ILA convention by calling the International’s decision-making procedures “a mockery of democracy.” The weekend of the rally, Local 1422’s hall was electric with talk of reform among ILA men from Philadelphia to Houston: Why aren’t members allowed to talk at so many local meetings? Why are there the black slots and then the white club that runs everything? Why does management sit in on International conventions, and why has the leadership negotiated us into a situation where we’re fighting for our lives? Why all the corruption and deception, all the intimidation and fear? Bowers has tried to slander and suppress the coalition, but the genie is out of the bottle. “The Charleston workers, they stepped to the front line, baby; they stood up for everyone in the ILA,” said Royce Adams, a trustee with Local 1291 out of Philadelphia. “And we’re not going back: not with Charlie Condon and this whole establishment in South Carolina, not with scab companies, not with our own International. We’re moving forward.”