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Eyewitness Report on Charleston 5 Rally

June 21, 2001

On June 9, some 5,000 marchers protested in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital demanding "Free the Charleston 5!" The Charleston 5 are longshore union members, four black members of ILA Local 1422 and one white member of ILA Local 1771 who are under house arrest and face 5 years in jail for picketing in the port of Charleston last year. Caravans of buses carried demonstrators from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and New York. The march was heavily integrated with many young trade unionists from as far away as the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and even a few from overseas. Some of the unions represented were ILA, ILWU, MEBA, IBT, UAW, UMW, mail and transit unions as well as Labor Federations from Michigan, South Carolina, New York, and Georgia. Many of the predominantly-black ILA locals from Georgia, South Carolina and Florida had recently protested in Tallahassee against the police roadblocks excluding blacks from voting in the presidential elections last November. In the forefront of the march was the Drill Team from ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco proudly strutting their stuff.

Just as South Carolina's riot police (SLED) provoked the melee in the port a year and a half ago by bloodily clubbing the longshore union president Ken Riley, the State Attorney General Charlie Condon has provoked the wrath of the whole trade union movement by unjustly targeting the Charleston 5 for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest. He has promised "jail, jail and more jail" for the longshoremen to protect that state's anti-union laws. "Good Ole Charlie" who champions the defeated slaveowners' Confederacy of the past, today fights for corporations to keep South Carolina "free of unions". Behind him are Democratic Governor Jim Hodges, who had Riley's nomination to the State Ports Authority withdrawn after pressure from big business, and right-wing President Bush with his anti-labor agenda. Provocations are nothing new to the state of South Carolina. Confederate troops there started the Civil War by firing on the Union's Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor. And as the Union troops won that civil war, the union movement will win this class war.

Unlike in the port of Charleston, police gave protesters a wide berth. However, one incident rattled nerves at the beginning of the march when police, in an unprecedented move, confiscated the decorative cargo hooks which ILWU Local 10's Drill Team uses as part of its longshore marching regalia. The uniformed Drill Team wore their traditional black and white striped hickory shirts, black Frisco jeans and white West Coast Stetson caps. Despite the hot and muggy weather the thousands of animated demonstrators marched in a disciplined manner to the capitol. There, an eerie pall was cast over the demonstration with the Confederate flag flying overhead. Police sharpshooters perched on the roof of the capitol building were reportedly there to shoot anyone trying to bring down the flag of slavery.

The march and rally were organized by the South Carolina AFL-CIO and the Progressive Network. Speakers included preachers, politicians, celebrities, leaders of black organizations and union officials. Unfortunately, not read from the podium was a message of solidarity from black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal languishing on Pennsylvania's death row: "I support the Charleston longshoremen's fight for freedom to protest free from state violation and judicial repression. All working people should unite behind this union fight in defense of the First Amendment right to assembly and protest and to defend the right to fight for compliance with a broken shattered contract." Speaking for organized labor were AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, ILWU's International President Jim Spinosa and Vice President Bob McEllrath, ILA President John Bowers and Cecil Roberts from the Mineworkers' Union. It was Bowers' first public appearance in support of the Charleston 5 since the police attack, hypocritically saying he would go to jail with the Charleston 5 if he had to. In response to his uninspiring speech, rank and file ILA and ILWU longshoremen loudly chanted for several minutes, "Shut the ports down!". Jim Spinosa spoke and said ILWU would do whatever the Charleston longshore union asked.

Swedish Dockworkers' Union President Bjorn Borg, of the International Dockworkers' Council (IDC) which grew out of the militant Liverpool dockers' struggle, announced that there would be a day of solidarity action on docks around the world. It was the IDC affiliate in Spain, the Coordinadora, which took action against the Danish Nordana shipping line which helped win a contract for the Charleston longshore unions. In a history-making step the Longshore Division of the ILWU voted for an international day of action on the first day of the trial and is calling on the ILA to join us in shutting down both coasts. The trial now appears to be set for the end of August.

This march and rally was an important, initial mass action by labor in defense of the Charleston 5. More important was the meeting of rank-and-file longshoremen from both coasts. We began to discuss our common problems: attacks from global shipowners like Nordana which sparked the Charleston struggle, privatization, non-union dock operations, especially in the East and Gulf Coast ports. Like long lost brothers, we embraced and talked seriously about the next step: organizing the first-ever nationwide industrial action, not for a contract, but for a principle-- the fundamental right of labor to picket.

Working longshoremen on both coasts agreed, "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!"

Jack Heyman #8780

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