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From the Charleston 5 victory to the 2004 elections
An interview with Ken Riley

by Evelina Alarcon (2585 words)

SAN FRANCISCO--The following interview with Ken Riley, president of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina occurred on May 2, 2003 during the 32nd International Convention of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) where Riley participated as part of a five member ILA delegation. Riley spearheaded a near two-year national campaign in defense of five dockers who became known as the Charleston 5. The case began January 20, 2000, when 600 police in full riot gear attacked about 150 members of the ILA who were conducting a lawful picket line to protest the use of a nonunion crew to unload a Danish Nordana lines freighter in Charleston's port. Police in armored vehicles, on horseback, in helicopters and in patrol boats, injured many longshoremen, including Riley, who was hit over the head with a baton and received 12 stitches. Police arrested five dockers, four African Americans from ILA Local 1422 and one white from ILA Local 1771. Republican State Attorney General Charles Condon charged the five with conspiracy to riot, charges carrying sentences up to 10 years in prison. During more than a year and a half of house arrest the men were unable to leave their homes between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Riley addressed the ILWU Convention in Portland, Oregon in May 2000 seeking their support. In response, the ILWU made the Charleston 5 campaign a priority and contributed over $300,000 to the defense fund. Nearly two years later in December 2001, that help, along with international labor solidarity and a national coalition including the AFL-CIO and many community and civil rights organizations, successfully freed the Charleston 5. The charges were reduced to minor misdemeanors carrying small fines. Riley was recently reelected president of ILA Local 1422, a local whose membership is 99 percent African American. Here Riley talks about his perspective on the Charleston 5 victory, the ILWU Convention, the upcoming ILA contract negotiations and the fact that South Carolina is the site of the nation's third primary of the 2004 elections.

It has been three years since we interviewed you at the ILWU Convention in Portland, Oregon when you first sought the ILWU's support for the Charleston 5. The five are free now. How do you view that struggle?

I look at it as a great victory. It was a victory that was seriously needed by everyone. Especially considering that we won after Sept. 11 when labor was getting beat up and it was considered anti-American to make a stand against any employer. It was also an opportunity to build new friendships and to create a new network of supporters, not just for the Charleston 5, but for future struggles. It was a perfect example of what you can do by building stronger unity and solidarity among workers, not just amongst dockworkers, but workers all around the world. International solidarity is something that does work. It helps to solidify struggles. With this new global economy with corporations dominating all foreign countries?in fact, corporations dominate everything?I think we have to give more effort to, and invest more, in building solidarity, not only in this country but around the world.

It sounds like you got a lot out of the Charleston 5 campaign?

I've been through grade school, secondary education and got my masters and doctorate through this struggle. In the last three years, I learned more than I had in the entire twenty five years that I had been active.

How are the Charleston 5 now?

The Charleston 5 are doing very well. They are back working and living productive lives, enjoying their careers. The port is doing very well. My membership is more enlightened. They are more knowledgeable about the movement. Many of them are unionists because of circumstances. They wanted to work on the docks because they heard there was good money out there and by the way?you joined the union. Now they really understand that we are involved in a much broader movement. Any time I go to them for help to support other struggles, they go back to the Charleston 5, then agree to support.

So what happened to South Carolina's Republican Attorney General Charles Condon who called for "jail, jail and more jail" for the Charleston 5?

That is the better part of the story. Everyone seems to have won as far as labor is concerned, but Charlie Condon lost the most. He has disappeared from the political scene. This guy was riding high. He was the most visible figure in the state?top gun?with great aspirations of becoming the Governor by using the Charleston 5 publicity as a launching pad for his campaign. Turned out that in the primary Charlie Condon only received 14 percent of the vote. Therefore he was defeated. A few months later, after inauguration, he was headed back down to Charleston where he is trying to make a living, trying to practice law.

The ILWU just went through a contract battle and emerged with a huge victory. Do you think the Charleston 5 fight impacted that outcome?

I think it did because a worldwide network of support had just been reenergized for the Charleston 5. The network hadn't even had time to collect dust. The contacts were fresh. When the ILWU called for solidarity early on in the negotiations, a lot of us came to San Francisco. [Teamsters President James] Hoffa, the International Transport Workers' Federation, the International Dockworkers Council, the Maritime Union of Australia and the Panama pilots sat at the negotiation table where Hoffa did speak, to show the Pacific Maritime Association that there was broad-based support for the ILWU. When we introduced ourselves from the ILA in Charleston, the PMA knew who we were. I think that in the end, while the PMA were still willing to test the waters, they also had to take a risk analysis. They had to recognize that to really take on the ILWU, they were risking exposing themselves to actions taken around the world.

What are your observations about the ILWU Convention, and the new relationship between the ILA & ILWU?

The ILWU is a great union, a great institution, a perfect example of a democratic union. They have their problems like everyone else. They have their internal politics like everyone else, but overall I think they are on the right track. Until today, even they in some respects have been silent about speaking out on the war issue. Everyone seems to be very cautious about speaking out as International unions. We know Local 10 (San Francisco) has been the conscious of the ILWU. They're very vocal and they try to open up the thinking of the ILWU. We saw that happen here today. The Hawaiians were also very open. Let's face it, Hawaii is the most unionized state in the country with the greatest union density in the 50 states. [Hawaii Local 142 presented an anti-war resolution adopted overwhelmingly after an intense debate.] Talking with my members who are here, I think that for first time they feel that there is a meaningful effort for our two unions [ILWU and ILA)] to start trying to build a better relationship. On our side, that primarily comes from the rank and file. Our members want more than rhetoric, they want action. I think that is what some of us here this week feel. We feel the genuineness of people. From the top ILWU leadership, from [ILWU International President] Jim Spinosa to the rank and file, you really feel a genuine coming back together of the two unions, not that we would become one union but that we would work more closely, and that we must open up our minds and understanding of one another?where we came from?for the benefit of both coasts. Considering the past, that is really quite an achievement.

Don't you think the Charleston 5 struggle can be given a lot of credit for that?

Absolutely. We definitely would not have been here if it wasn't for the Charleston 5. We've always out of courtesy had the ILA International President come to speak at the ILWU Convention here and then he would leave, and the ILWU President came to speak to the ILA Convention and then there was little communication after. There is a change now. The ILWU came to our local's side to defend the Charleston 5 with their full support in our time of need. A new bond flourished as a result. It was a rank-and-file connection to the West Coast that grew to what we are seeing today. The ILWU/ILA/Teamsters/ pact jelled in the course of the Charleston 5 fight also. That process continues. My local reciprocated support to the ILWU during their contract fight. I was not reluctant to let the media know openly that we did not plan to let our brothers and sisters on the West Coast stand alone. They knew that there would be a response coming from Charleston.

How do things look for your upcoming contract negotiations? Will it be similar to the ILWU's struggle?

We have until Sept. 30, 2004 before our contract expires. We are beginning early negotiations. The employers are willing to participate in early negotiations because they recognize that the East Coast has benefited volume-wise because of the struggle on the West Coast, because of the congestion there. Shippers have decided to divert some of their cargo to the East Coast, therefore all your major ports along the Eastern seaboard are experiencing a significant increase in volume. Our negotiators are thinking that we need to send the right signal to the shipping community that we are going to engage in early negotiations, that we are going to get our issues solved so there is no need to divert cargo to the West Coast, Canada or Mexico. I don't think that we'll have as many issues as the West Coast, simply because we have been operating under extensions since 2001 and we negotiated concerns then. The number one issue for us will be health care. The other issues have to do with increases in salaries, increases in contribution to our pension and welfare package, dealing with new hires and how long it will be before they get up to the basic longshore rate. Those type of things that will be negotiated back and forth until we agree on a money figure. The big discussion will be on how to address health care issues. We have experience where each port has its own fund system. We now have experience with a national health care fund. I don't think our health care system has been well thought out, nor enough research done yet so that will be a debated issue.

South Carolina is a big focus of attention by Democratic Party presidential candidates now. Describe what is going on.

It is interesting. I hope these Democratic candidates do not forget South Carolina again. South Carolina has been forsaken land by International unions and the Democratic Party. And now it just happens that our primary has been moved high on the schedule, and there are those that believe that who gets the momentum coming out of South Carolina will pretty much seize the Democratic nomination. The Democratic Party is reaching out to labor, especially to the ILA, to try to build the African American component. They are really trying to revive that tie. They are in a state where pretty much the party is in a shambles with no established system. So there are those on the ground who in a short period of time are trying to rebuild the Party while trying to make sure that the right Democratic Party candidate comes out the victor in South Carolina. The Democratic Party convention will be held this weekend. We have a dinner tomorrow night where all the presidential candidates will be attending. A widely televised debate will follow the convention. It is a unique situation. We have never had this kind of attention from Presidential candidates ever. They need South Carolina just to get the nomination.

You and your local are being widely sought after by candidates?

Yes. There are three major metropolitan areas in South Carolina---Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. The port is key to Charleston. The candidates feel that you cannot really begin to tap into labor, the Black community or the Black vote without coming to the ILA. So every candidate has been reaching out to us. They want to meet the membership and are asking for our endorsement.

How do you look at challenge of the 2004 elections?

We have to win. When I say we, I mean the Democrats. We have to take back the seat from George W. Bush. I agree 1,000 percent with what Mayor Willie Brown said at this Convention. This time around we don't have the time to toy around with other parties. Practically speaking, no party has a better shot at taking the White House away from Republicans than the Democrats. So, let's not divide up the votes. We saw in the last election that every vote counts. I've been in a lot of circles and some say the Democrats have forsaken us too. That's all fine and good, but if Bush gets reelected in 2004 where he will never be running for President again, we will be in terrible trouble. The most important thing for us is to support a candidate that can win. I think the earlier we can get behind one candidate, the better off we are.

What issues do candidates have to address to motivate people to vote?

Social security, health care and an agenda for working families are key. Dealing with corporate greed and misconduct and the ailing economy are important. Also, we in the U.S. are the most powerful country in the world, but we can't do everything by military might. We can't take our arrogance and boast like President Bush is doing. He thinks that we are invincible, that we can just drop some bombs whenever we like. It doesn't work that way. Both foreign and domestic policy have to be addressed. The AFL-CIO and others have to spend more money building the grassroots efforts. We have to build the movement on the ground to energize people.

Do you have a message for all the Charleston 5 supporters?

Yes, a great, great deal of gratitude. I don't care what persuasion, belief, background, they came from, we appreciated their support. If we had just relied on the mainstream, we would never have achieved the victory that we did. The mainstream was the last to respond. Every day, every month was crucial in this fight and I really believe that if we had put up walls and partitions between people because of their beliefs, we would not have achieved the victory that we have. You know what, if we are going to talk about uniting workers worldwide, there are going to be all kinds of theories. If we cannot accept those differences in this country then forget about building a world wide movement. We definitely need that movement.

Evelina Alarcon was a member of the National Steering Committee in Defense of the Charleston 5. She can be reached at: EvnAlarcon@aol.com

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