CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Take a short stroll circling the waterfront off Battery
Park, and it's hard to tell whether the Old South or a new, updated
version, is winning out in Charleston. In and around the park stand genteel
mansions, a slouching white gazebo, and the occasional hoop-skirted tour
guide, buttering up a gaggle of visitors in search of Old South charm. These
nostalgic flourishes reflect a deeper tone in the port city, run by a
good-ol'-boy network just the way one might expect in a state that keeps the
very senior senator Strom Thurmond propped in Congress, and whose fondness
for the old ways kept the Confederate battle flag flying over the state
capitol until last year.
But Charleston is also the crown jewel of a state desperately wanting to be
seen as cosmopolitan and "world class." And if one refocuses the eyes
further down the coastline, faintly visible are the massive cranes, vessels
and kindred machinery that comprise South Carolina's portal to its global
future: the Charleston shipyards.
The old ways are cute, but integration in the global economy pays the bills.
Harboring vessels from nine of the world's 10 biggest shipping
lines, Charleston is the fourth-busiest container port in the country. And
the port's role in making South Carolina a "global player" is only expected
to rise, as international auto companies like BMW funnel their wares through
Charleston to expand operations on the other side of the state.
So for the state's leaders, stakes were high when, in January of 2000, 150
members of the International Longshoreman Association Local 1422, held a
militant picket to protest the use of non-union labor by a small, renegade
shipping line on the Charleston docks. The demonstration soon escalated into
a violent face-off between authorities and the workers, five of whom now
face trial for felony rioting charges in what has become one of the most
closely-watched Southern labor battles in over a decade, and which speaks
volumes about the economic and political struggles at the heart of the South
IN SOUTH CAROLINA, the Old South culture occasionally comes into conflict
with the excited Newer South visions of the boosters. There was the time in
the mid-1990s, for example, when one multinational company, courted by state
leaders to move to South Carolina, took note of the state's flag controversy
and ultimately shunned what it labeled "the cracker capitol of the world."
But usually the minds of the Southern elite, both traditional and modern,
meld on a common program: pro-corporate economics, and racially coded
politics, the only question for debate being the appropriate proportions of
This past June 9, some two hours inland from the coast, 5,000 spirited
demonstrators gathered on the state capitol in Columbia to protest what they
saw as the latest manifestation of this unholy alliance, the case of the
Charleston Five. For over 200 years, the Charleston docks have been worked
by generations of African-American labor -- and four of the five facing
charges are black -- making the crackdown on the ILA a flashpoint for labor
and freedom struggles.
The June rally was originally called by the South Carolina Progressive
Network and local labor leaders, but soon attracted interest nation-wide.
Many agreed with Bill Fletcher, Jr. -- who has coordinated the national
AFL-CIO's support for the workers -- that "this is a very compelling case,
one that brings together all the issues, a voice at work and the right to
organize, issues of racial justice and issues of democracy."
Tracing the same route through Columbia's depressed downtown that was used
by over 40,000 demonstrators against the Confederate flag last year, the
mobilization was impressive not only for its size -- as an older city native
commented, "this has got to be the biggest labor rally in Columbia since the
1930s" -- but also for the range of participants. Buses from North Carolina,
Georgia and even New York delivered dozens of union locals who militantly
declared their solidarity.
The rally also attracted a sizable showing of Seattle-generation protesters
(sans handkerchiefs) and, to the astonishment of locals, swarms of left
grouplets who ringed the demonstration, newspapers held high. And in South
Carolina, where labor rights *are* civil rights, the program featured
leaders of the civil rights establishment, although these groups' numbers
were small in the crowd.
The larger political and economic dimension was not lost on the marchers.
Numerous speakers noted that South Carolina's unionization rate -- at three
percent, the lowest in the country -- is no accident. Anti-union and
anti-worker zeal, begun in earnest during labor's textile campaigns of the
1930s and refined during the industrialization boom of the 1970s, has
reached a new level. One piece of legislation pending before the state
legislature would prohibit municipalities from setting a wage higher than
the federal minimum -- pre-emptively spiking local "living wage"
initiatives. Another bill preventing longshore workers from serving on
Charleston's Port Authority -- targeted at ILA Local 1422 President Kenny
Riley, who was unanimously asked to serve on the Authority in 1999 -- has
been revived from last year.
As Brett Bursey of the Progressive Network remarks, "they'd bring back
slavery if they could."
IT WAS IN 1821 that a recently freed slave in Charleston, Denmark Vesey,
having bought his way out of chains, began planning a slave revolt to free
the rest. Vesey had originally planned to spark rebellion throughout South
Carolina through agitation, which would hopefully spread to undermine the
South's entire plantation complex. But he grew impatient, and began
organizing his own uprising.
It almost worked. By the next year, nearly all the slaves in plantations
surrounding Charleston were prepared to join the revolt. But a day before
the insurrection, one slave betrayed Vesey, who along with five associates
were quickly tried and hanged. Once Vesey's intricate plan became known, it
struck fear into the planter class; the public execution of Vesey and his
compatriots was seen as critical in convincing slaves across the South to
think twice before daring to act for their freedom.
The port picket planned by ILA Local 1422 on January 20, 2000, was much less
ambitious, but one wouldn't know it from the response of the South Carolina
establishment. What exactly transpired on that chilly day is now a matter of
legal dispute, and the workers' legal team is staying silent as the
Charleston Five await trial, probably this fall.
What is known is that the trouble began in October of 1999, when the
small-time Nordana shipping line notified Local 1422 that it was ending its
23-year relationship with the union and would be using non-union labor to
work its ships. A couple peaceful pickets followed, but eventually state
officials decided it was time to show which side they're on.
On January 20 of the next year, as the Nordana ship Skodsborg rolled into
harbor with 20 non-union workers prepared to unload its cargo, 150 ILA
picketers greeted the ship to express their dissatisfaction. Also on hand,
to the surprise of the ILA workers, were massed 600 paramilitary-style
officers representing law enforcement agencies from local cops to highway
The show of force was dazzling: police helicopters hovered overhead; land
units road on horses and others in armored vehicles; canine units held
snarling dogs at bay; black-clothed police squads stood poised with beanbag
bullets; patrol boats cruised the waterside of the terminal, apparently
staving off a possible union invasion by sea. "You would think there was
going to be a terrorist attack on the State of South Carolina," Riley says.
As the saying goes: when you prepare for war, that's what you get. Some say
a longshoreman made the first move, trampling a local cop's foot. Others say
the cops pushed into the group of picketers first. Another version holds
that a longshoreman had jumped the gun, but the local police -- who were
holding the line against the protest -- were doing just fine until a state
officer further back ordered a second phalanx of armed cops to charge the
picketers. Riley says that he stepped in the middle to calm the situation,
and was clubbed on the head.
Whatever the spark, the fight was on -- although, given the imbalance in
numbers and firepower, the fracas was fairly brief. All in all, the skirmish
itself was a relatively minor footnote in the nation's history of bloody
labor battles. Yet the morning after, a dispirited mood hung over the port
city. Unlike elsewhere in South Carolina, labor had earned the respect of
the Charleston authorities, who in the cut-throat dockside world knew the
instrumental role organized longshoremen played in maintaining the port's
prosperity. According to one observer, "both sides felt bad that it had come
It was a testament to the understanding between the union and authorities
that the local police decided against aggressively pursuing charges. Nine
workers were arrested for trespassing -- misdemeanor charges that were later
dropped for lack of evidence.
WHAT THE CHARLESTON longshoremen could not have calculated is the role that
political ambition would play in determining their fate -- namely, the
political ambitions of South Carolina's Attorney General, Charlie Condon.
Condon had grown up in Charleston, and by his 20s was fast becoming a
darling in Democratic Party circles. Sensing a shift in the political winds,
he turned Republican. Condon's years as Attorney General have been
distinguished by his ravenous appetite for media attention -- including his
publicity-grabbing, if legally questionable, law-and-order crusades,
including those stripping the right of accused criminals to appeals, and
most recently, campaigns to jail drug-addicted expecting mothers for "child
abuse" against unborn fetuses. He may be the only state Attorney General in
the nation who has lost every case he has brought before the federal Supreme
Court (three so far) on 9-0 decisions.
In the case of the Charleston longshoremen, Condon saw political gold. A
crackdown on the ILA would not only bolster his law-and-order credentials,
but make a similarly clear statement about the place of blacks and workers
in Condon's South Carolina, where he announced his intention to run for
governor this past March.
Such ambitions explain why, in February of last year, as Charleston
authorities were quietly letting the cases against the dock workers slide,
that South Carolina television viewers were treated to an unusually strident
piece of political propaganda. With George W. Bush and John McCain trading
blows for the state's presidential primary, Condon broadcast a now-infamous
campaign ad, endorsing Bush and promising "jail, jail and more jail" for the
shipyard workers. What bearing the presidential race had on the Charleston
labor battle wasn't mentioned, but the ultimate message was clear: a vote
for Bush was a vote against the ILA.
Bush won South Carolina. And Condon soon set to work to make good on his
political promise. The state singled out what were to become the Charleston
Five and served them with a laundry list of charges, including felony
rioting, conspiracy to riot, two assault cases, and resisting arrest. The
accused are currently under house arrest, which requires them to stay at
home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.; the felony riot charges alone carry up to five
years of potential jail time.
As for Nordana, they joined with WSI -- a stevedoring company, that supplies
the non-union workers -- to sue Local 1422 and their sister union, checkers
and clerks Local 1771, $1.5 million in alleged financial losses. But last
April, the unions bargained with Nordana to establish a new "small boat
agreement" which holds union wage levels, but which loosens union standards
for hours and staffing levels. Upon reaching the agreement, Nordana dropped
out of the civil suit and encouraged WSI to do the same -- but WSI instead
added 27 more ILA picketers to the suit, which it is still pursuing.
THE MORE the state presses, the more determined the opposition -- rooted in
labor-community coalitions and far-reaching solidarity networks unique to
Southern organizing -- seems to become. A growing number of unions
nationally are pledging support; the ILA and ILWU, longshore unions often at
odds, have joined forces behind the Charleston Five banner; and a Swedish
representative of the International Dockworkers Council promises that
workers will shut down ports across Europe if justice isn't served.
Back on the Charleston waterfront, the port is still humming. The
dockworkers of Local 1422, including the Charleston Five, are back at work,
loading and unloading the fortunes of the global South. But the city is
haunted -- by a new consciousness of labor's power to shape shipyard
economics, by fear of what this power, tied to freedom and worker struggles
the world over, may spell for the South's future.
Through the Charleston waterfront and the mind of the South, the ghost of
Denmark Vesey blows still.
Chris Kromm (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Southern Exposure magazine,
and director of the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies. A
version of this story appears in the July 1, 2001 issue of CounterPunch,
(c) Copyright 2001 Chris Kromm