Black Labor Rights on Trial in South Carolina

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Posted by on May 13, 2001 at 19:24:38:

Black Labor Rights on Trial in South Carolina

By Frances M. Beal

Ken Riley is traveling from coast to coast and he has quite a tale to tell.

He is the President of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), whose membership is 99% African American. It's a story about the state of South Carolina unleashing a violent police assault on dockworkers picketing to oppose scab labor in Charleston. It is also a tale about an assault on Black political power in this southern port city.

Five workers face charges of felony assault and if the power elite has its way, these ILA members will be imprisoned for up to five years. However, if the AFL-CIO and the Black Radical Congress have anything to say about it, a strong solidarity movement will be forged to push back this racist offensive.

The facts are chilling. A shipping company -- Nordana Lines -- unilaterally decided to start using non-union labor to work its ships in Charleston after 23 years of using ILA workers. The union -- rightfully -- responded with picket lines. The state responded with upwards of 600 riot-equipped police in armored vehicles, on horseback, in helicopters and patrol boats who mounted a military-style assault on the picketers. The end result is that five workers now face charges of "inciting to riot" and are under an unheard of house arrest order.

We learned the bitter truth in the Florida presidential election that disenfranchisement of Blacks is a southern strategy used by the power elite to keep African Americans from participating in the political process.

In the case of these dockworkers, the State of South Carolina is going even further to rein in black political power. There is state legislation pending to inhibit the right of unions to collect dues from their members, and separate legislation to prohibit any union member from being appointed to any board, agency or commission in the state of South Carolina! This will have a big impact on Local 1422, which has been an important player in local politics in Charleston, and has historically acted as a significant engine for black working class power in this southern port. The local played a major role in the 1998 election of South Carolina's first Democratic governor in many years, and earned the enmity of the Republican right in this state which still flies the Confederate flag.

One cannot help but make comparisons between the use of police state tactics against the Black dockworkers and indiscriminate acts of violence by law enforcement which people of color face regularly. There is a similarity in the random nature of these assaults. It matters little that Amadou Diallo was a law-abiding small-scale entrepreneur to the New York City officers who murdered him. And it mattered not that the Charleston dockworkers were exercising their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and concerted activity. They were Black and, therefore in the minds of many in law enforcement, had no rights the police were bound to respect.

On the other hand, there is at least one significant difference. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the case of the Charleston dockworkers, there was a well thought-out plan by employers and their political allies.

That the attack on the workers would be accompanied by a move to disenfranchise union members is so far fetched as to suggest an emergent police state in South Carolina.

Ken Riley and Local 1422, however, are not alone in this battle.

Nationwide educational, fundraising and mobilization activities are occurring, and have recorded some successes. West coast unions have promised to close down California ports and a car caravan will depart from Atlanta and arrive in Charleston on the first day of the trial. The fight back has also gone beyond U.S. borders. Riley 's dynamic presentation in Barcelona, Spain at the International Dockers Council, a confederation of docker unions around the world, earned a pledge to take part in an international day of action, shutting down ports around the world and taking other actions, on the first day of the trial against the Charleston 5.

If this trend continues, South Carolina's racist anti-labor politicos may learn that they have bitten off a little more than they can chew when they went after Black labor rights in Charleston.

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