National rally called for June 9
South Carolina longshore pickets face felony charges, jail
A crucial struggle is unfolding to defend five Charleston, S.C., longshore workers who face possible imprisonment on state criminal charges from a struggle against the use of non-union crews.
A national rally has been called for June 9 in the defense of these workers, the right to organize for justice on the job, and civil rights in South Carolina. The rally will be held at the state capital, Columbia, on Saturday, June 9.
The workers are members of the International Longshoremen's Association. The charges arose one year ago, after a pitched battle on the docks the night of Jan. 19-20, 2000. These five and 150 other workers were heading toward a planned picket against a scab ship. A massive contingent of police attacked them. The workers fought back.
The South Carolina and national AFL-CIO have begun an international campaign to defend the workers and their unions--Clerks and Checkers Local 1771 and Longshore Local 1422--whose membership is overwhelmingly African American.
"This is a very compelling case, one that brings together all the issues-voice at work and the right to organize, issues of racial justice and issues of democracy," said Bill Fletcher, assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the federation's liaison to the campaign.
The Charleston struggle against scab ships began on Oct. 1, 1999 when Nordana Lines told longshore locals that they planned to sever their 23-year ties with the union and use non-union replacements on their ships. The locals responded with picket lines that delayed some Nordana ships.
Last Jan. 19-20, the state of South Carolina--a "right to work" state with the country's lowest unionization rate--launched a repressive, anti-union offensive. To protect the right of Nordana Line and Winyah Stevedoring to employ scab non-union labor, the state sent in 600 police in full riot gear. Some were on horseback, some in armored vehicles. Others circled in helicopters overhead or floated in patrol boats near the terminal.
As added provocation, the police mustered at the terminal and in front of the union's hall nearby.
That evening, as the workers headed toward the terminal to exercise their legal right to picket, the police pushed them back. A cop ran out of formation and clubbed Local 1422 President Ken Riley on the head, and a fight began. As is typical in cases of police assault, the cops arrested some of the victims--eight longshore workers who police charged with misdemeanor trespassing. State Attorney General Charlie Condon then took over the case, upping the charges to "felony rioting." A judge dismissed the charges at a preliminary hearing, but Condon went to a grand jury and got felony riot indictments against the Charleston 5.
Condon says he intends to prosecute the workers vigorously. His plans for them, he says, include "jail, jail and more jail." In addition, although Nordana settled with the union in April, the company that supplied the scabs sued the Longshore locals and 27 picketing workers for $1.5 million in financial losses. Dockworkers unions around the world have pledged to stop work on the first day of the trial of the Charleston 5.
"It's no coincidence that the racist police attack took place around the time that 47,000 people--mainly African American--marched to demand that the confederate flag be torn from the top of the South Carolina capitol," said Larry Holmes, co-founder of Workfairness, which organizes workfare workers in New York. "The powers that be would like to push back these militant longshore workers because they represent a strong, anti-racist current tying the labor movement with the community. That's why we need to step up to defend the Charleston 5."
Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, said the march against the confederate flag "scared the Republicans to death in this state." As a result, she said, "They're using the long-shore union as an example because they are strong leaders and the state doesn't want others to see them that way."
The AFL-CIO campaign will seek the acquittal of the Charleston 5 and complete vindication of the 27 workers and their locals in the lawsuit. Organizers say the campaign--which will create Charleston 5 defense committees nationwide--will also build a strong case for workers' rights and expose the racist efforts of the state to limit Black power in South Carolina.
"Local 1422 is a largely African American local, a very important segment of the Charleston community," said Fletcher. "It is significant that they are under attack because they are living proof that unionization is the best anti-poverty program ever created."
"Anyone who wants to fight racism and stand up for the rights of workers to organize should get behind the defense of these workers," said Johnnie Stevens, who organizes grocery and other low-wage workers with UNITE Local 169.
The national APL-CIO is supporting the march, as are the state AFL-CIO federations of Georgia and North Carolina. Tentative speakers include national AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
For more information contact the Campaign for Workers Rights in South Carolina care of the South Carolina APL-CIO at (803) 798-8300. If you are interested in going from Florida, call (352)378-5655.
For more information go to www.ilwu.org and click on "Charleston 5 Information" at the top of the page. Readers can also send checks payable to "Dockworkers Defense Fund" to Campaign for Workers' Rights in South Carolina, P.O. Box 21777, Charleston, SC 29413 or to Dockworkers Defense Fund, attn: Robert J. Ford, 910 Morrison Drive, Charleston, SC 29403.
Article by Mary Owen from Workers World Service, Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For subscription info send message to: email@example.com. Web: http://www.wprkers.org
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