Re: Interview with Charleston Longshore Prez. Ken Riley

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Posted by on October 16, 2001 at 16:56:48:

In Reply to: Interview with Charleston Longshore Prez. Ken Riley posted by Michael Honey on August 11, 2001 at 23:40:54:

: August 9, 2001

: An Interview with Ken Riley

: By Michael Honey

: On July 19, International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 President Ken Riley, of Charleston, South Carolina, spoke at a rally held in the parking lot of Local 19, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, in Seattle. Hundreds of longshore workers and union supporters turned out. That night, Riley spoke again at a community rally in the ILWU Local 23 hall in Tacoma. All up and down the west coast, the ILWU has rallied support for the Charleston Five, and 5,000 rallied on their behalf in Charleston June 9. The National Education Association (2.6 million members) and the AFL-CIO have come out strongly in support of the Charleston Five, five black workers who were beaten up and then arrested by state troopers in January 2000.

: ILA members had been picketing a Danish company named Nordana, which tried to bust the solidly unionized Port of Charleston by using non-union labor at half the wages paid to union members. State Attorney General Charlie Condon, who chaired the George Bush campaign in the state and is planning to run for Governor, sent in six hundred troopers in riot gear, who clubbed Riley on the head (the wound took twelve stitches) and provoked a confrontation. Although the courts threw out charges of inciting to riot against the workers for lack of evidence, Condon, who says he is protecting "the right to work," got a grand jury indictment and is trying to bolster South Carolina's anti-union climate by punishing black workers, the most organized group in the state. These five men have been under house arrest for 18 months, from 7 pm to 7 am. They can't go to rallies nor travel out of state without violating the terms of their bond. "This is to send a very chilling message to every worker in South Carolina, to say that if something should happen on a picket line, you are going to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Riley told the rally. The men could get five years in prison on charges of inciting a riot. The state also sued 27 other union workers for civil damages.

: The case has provoked tremendous labor solidarity. Spanish dockworkers refused to cooperate with Nordana until it hired union labor in Charleston, which it now has, and the ILWU has raised over a hundred thousand dollars and is threatening to shut down the ports if the case goes to trial this September. Longshore workers see the case as an opening attack on organized dockworkers similar to those that took place in Liverpool and Australia, and a first attempt to break up the agreements Harry Bridges and others negotiated with port authorities in the 1960s, by turning containerized freight over to non-union labor. Bill Fletcher of the AFL-CIO calls it a blatant attempt to intimidate black workers who are increasingly organizing the South. There are three separate locals in the Charleston port, of black dock workers, white checkers and clerks, and white and black mechanics. They have all joined together to stop union busting. Four of the Charleston Five are black, one is white.

: Mike Honey, the Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, conducted the following interview with Ken Riley at the Local 23 ILWU headquarters in Seattle. For more from the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, see the web site at:


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: HONEY: Could you tell us a little about the history of your local?

: RILEY: Our deep sea local was formed in 1936. We have two white members. The clerks and checkers local, on the other hand, is all white. The first blacks are just now trying to make their way into that local. That's the way its been throughout the history of the South, most of your southern ports were like this. And like you say, its's not by accident, blacks were recruited to do the hard, back-breaking tasks on the waterfront. Right after the Civil War, blacks formed the longshore protective association in Charleston, so blacks were somewhat organized, but it's not until 1936 that they joined the ILA (International Longshoremen's Association).

: HONEY: Are these attacks on your union something that's happened before, or is this something new?

: RILEY: The attacks on us today are a direct result of our awakening to the fact that we do have responsibilities that extend beyond our membership, but to their families, their community, and to our state. When we recognize the problems plaguing us, and geting involved in local and state government, that's when we then become a target. We are supposed to stay in our places. As long as we were being quiet and dormant, focusing only on our work, we were ok. But when you get involved, you are singled out in our state. Especially in a state where unions are not welcomed, where there's open hostility toward you. It's not a subtle thing, it's not a hidden thing.

: When the Republican Party can announce that the two top items on their agenda for the year 2000 was number one, education, and number two, to rid the state of labor unions and union influence in state government, you know it's open season. It's not something you have to wonder about. You know they are against unions. You have the state Chamber of Commerce boasting that "we are the most powerful in the country, because we can in fact write our own legislation." Big business controls the state, through the state Chamber of Commerce. Since all this foreign capital started coming into our state and into the South, the state Chamber now solely focuses on the multi-national corporation and their agenda. They carry forth their agenda, to the extent that the small to mid-size businesses, their goals and their agendas are no longer being looked at. They're now looking at forming a new chamber for the small and mid-size businesses. The BMW, the Michelins, German capital, they are coming to the South.

: HONEY: They're looking for low-paying, non-union labor, in a "right to work" state.

: RILEY: Absolutely. Promoting low-paying jobs. Right now we're about 4.2 percent organized in South Carolina. A couple years ago we were 3.8 percent. When unions started to organize more in the last couple years, a grass-roots alert went out to all the businesses that union activities are on the rise, beware. They started holding seminars of how to bust unions, defeat a union campaign. When we began to hear about these seminars, we decided we were going to join the State Chamber of Commerce, to make it uncomfortable for them to talk about labor unions the way they are. We applied for membership twice and paid the fees... They said our philosophy was not the same as theirs. They told us they were about enhancing the quality of life for all the citizens, and we said we can agree with that! The union runs a hiring hall, and therefore is an employer, one that goes along with fair employment standards, but they denied us membership.

: HONEY: There have been a lot of struggles in South Carolina around the Confederate flag. Are the civil rights forces now coalescing around the Charleston Five?

: RILEY: Yes they are, because we were very actively involved in that campaign to take down the flag. We were there at the rally, we took buses, we sent cooks to feed people, when the Mayor of Charleston called for a 125-mile march to the Capitol in Columbia, we pledged forty men a day and we put them there. So the NAACP, and the South Carolina Progressive Network, made up of forty different groups, supported us. The Network were in fact co-sponsors of that rally we had the other day to support the Charleston Five.

: HONEY: Dr. King always talked about the need for a labor-civil rights coalition.

: RILEY: There must be, there must be. Our goal is to build that and make it stronger. Before I took office four years ago, it was pretty much non-existent. We've got a lot of resources, we are one of the wealthiest locals in the state. We have this big meeting hall, and I can remember they used to charge groups to use it. I'm saying to myself, how do you measure the value of allowing someone to use your facilities against a forty-dollar light bill for that night? I say forget about that forty dollars. I'd get more out of building this relationship by having them come in and use our facilities. We'll pay the forty dollars. We started opening our doors almost every night of the week to some organization, the NAACP, the Progressive Network, United Citizens Party, the Democratic Party, CAFE (Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment), student groups. That way we started to form this coalition with the community. Now we have to build a new hall because of a bridge that is coming through, and we have spent an extra million and-a-half dollars to develop a community wing. We could have gone out somewhere on the outskirts of town and gotten a pretty reasonable property, but we'd rather stay in the center of the community.

: HONEY: What's your projection for the future of this labor-civil rights coalition? That's what Dr. King was asking, when is the civil rights struggle going to move into the economic issues?

: RILEY: Sometimes something has to happen like this for everyone to wake up and realize it is time to get together. I have to fly the red eye plane back on Sunday because the ministers have called a meeting to see how they can weigh in on this situation with the state government and say look, we represent X amount of people in this state, from Catholics to Protestants, and we want this kind of injustice to stop. It's been a tough time waking people up, but I think it's starting to happen. Sometimes things happen and you don't recognize right away what this is going to mean. Certainly we didn't think it would have meant all of this when we were out there that night getting our heads bashed in. But it didn't take long to realize the community was there. Within three days State Senator Robert Ford called for a rally in our hall and it was packed. That was what we received because we had opened our doors to the civil rights community.

: HONEY: Did you have a civil rights background before you got active in the union?

: RILEY: No. Believe it or not, I trained in business management, and I took every single management course at the College of Charleston. I did seven years over there, Business Administration. I did my senior paper on the social responsibility of management. I just took that over to the union side, the social responsibility of unions to the community. My father was a longshoreman, second generation, so while I was in college I would still go down there and work. After graduation, I wanted to stay in Charleston, and while I was waiting for some opportunities to present themselves in Charleston, I thought, hey, I'd go down and work on the docks. But after working two or three weeks full-time on the docks, I knew I wasn't going anywhere. And within one year I was elected to the executive board, and I've been involved ever since.

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