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On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5


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On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5 by Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger. Monthly Review Press: 240 pages, 2008. $17.95.

 

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.

 

This old labor hymn was written by Ralph Chaplin way back in 1915 and is the unofficial anthem of the US labor movement. It’s sung at labor rallies and gatherings, but with an interesting twist. Organizers often pass out songsheets because many of the assembled labor activists don’t know the words.

It’s a sobering and even embarrassing moment for the US labor movement which is now down to about 8% of the private sector workers. Those who romanticize organized labor based on college history classes or nostalgic folksong fests need to remember that solidarity always begins with a hope….not a certainty.

And if solidarity ends in even a small partial victory, you can bet there will have been lot of hard work, hard feelings and heartaches along the way to that ecstatic moment when the victory celebrations begin.

Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger have put together a book that tells how solidarity really works and that yes, the words that Ralph Chaplin penned can become a reality even to those of us who can’t remember the lyrics without a songsheet.The book is the product of years of research and writing from a team that consists of a former union organizer and an anthropologist . You couldn’t ask for a better combo.
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January 19, 2000 was a bad night for the City of Charleston S.C. and the Port through which so much of it economy depends. What had been planned as a routine picket of a ship being unloaded by a non-union crew escalated into a bloody melee involving hundreds of mostly Black dockworkers and mostly white police. Even though some of the picketers were white, no one doubted that there was an ugly racial component to the behavior of the cops. It’s a wonder no one was killed.

South Carolina has a long violent racial history that stretches back to the earliest slave days and many Black South Carolinians had to die before the chains of slavery and later Jim Crow were finally cast off. Although modern South Carolina likes to pretend that its days of white supremacy are over, its citizens know better.

The authors of On the Global Waterfront describe in detail what happened that January evening. Later, local police and union officials both concluded that the confrontation had simply gotten out of hand. Some workers apologized to the police the next morning for the rocks and railroad ties they had thrown. For their part, the local police wanted to settle the whole thing as simple cases of trespass. Police behavior that night was far from exemplary and their provocations and brutality had been fully recorded on video.

City officialdom wanted the whole incident disposed of quickly and quietly so as not give the city a reputation for being "troubled". Troubled ports repulsed rather than attracted the kind of shipping business that the Charleston economy had come to depend upon.

But this was a new Millennium and the realities of a globalized economy made it impossible for Charleston to quietly bury that violent evening.

The 5 men who were charged with serious felony offenses as a result of the riot become the focal point of a complex international struggle that involved competing US dockworker unions, an international network of dockworker militants who saw Charleston as an opening salvo against dockworkers everywhere, a politically ambitious rightwing Christian fundamentalist politician, competing interests among the shipping owners themselves and an expensive legal battle that managed to cross oceans before being resolved.

It would have been easy to lose readers in this bewildering story, but Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger manage to tell it without resorting to facile oversimplification. One comes away with a special appreciation for ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley who led his local through the entire struggle with an intelligence and grace under fire that was key to their eventual victory.

Ken Riley’s union was the East Coast based International Longshoremen’s Association(ILA), an organization with a tainted history of corruption and gangsterism that had endeared them to the worst of the brutal shipping company owners. Ken Riley represented a new generation of dockworker leaders, people who wanted to clean up the union and adopt a militant stance toward the pressures of the new globalized economy. The oldline leadership of the ILA hated Ken Riley and everything he stood for. It would take many months before the national ILA leadership lifted a pinky finger to help Local 1422.

Fortunately, the West Coast based International Longshore and Warehouse Union(ILWU) had a much different tradition that had grown out of the bloody 1934 San Francisco General Strike. Their leadership evolved from the leftwing movements of the 1930’s and their legendary former leader Harry Bridges had been accused of being a communist, not a Mafia thug. Their tradition was one of labor solidarity and alliances with social movements for peace and civil rights.

The modern ILWU leadership grasped immediately  the importance of Charleston. If the international shipping industry could break ILA Local 1422 and the port of Charleston went non-union, the results could be catastrophic for dock workers everywhere. The ILWU immediately contacted Ken Riley and offered him the kind of money and international contacts he needed to save not only the 5 workers facing serious charges but his very union local.

On the Global Waterfront takes the reader step by step on how another kind of globalization was evolving, the globalization of the labor movement. As Charleston 5 defense committees sprang up and the creaky wheels of the AFL-CIO leadership began to turn in favor of ILA Local 1422, the authors make it clear that all of this was the result of long exhausting hours of work done by a core of very smart and very committed people with the support of thousands around the world.

When victory for the Charleston 5 and Local 1422 finally came in March of 2002 it was a time for joyful celebration. It also became a time of deep reflection as labor activists around the planet pondered their next move in a globalized economy when money crossed borders at light speed and the economies of entire nations were dwarfed by the largest global corporations

Global capital by its very nature seeks to cheapen the price of labor to increase its profits. To do this it must maintain efficient production while fighting to keep workers as disunited and divided as possible. But efficient modern production is difficult with a dispirited demoralized labor force, so the more far-seeing multinational corporate owners see a place for compromise with the global labor movement. This is not  compromise based on any sort of moral values or sense of justice, but a cold calculation of power relationships.

It’s class war. But  even in war, enemies sign treaties and ceasefires while they anxiously assess what the capabilties of their adversaries might be when the peace is finally broken again.

The last chapter of On the Global Waterfront is called "Not Just Another Labor Story". The authors aren’t kidding. It’s easy to say,"Think globally, but act locally". But what are we exactly supposed to think about? And what actions are we supposed to take?

The morning after that bad night of violence in Charleston SC, Ken Riley and the other Local 1422 activists did not have immediate answers to those questions. But with their own formidable inner resources and the help of others around the world, they came up with some pretty good answers later on. How they did it is an organizers textbook for anyone concerned about social justice.

What Ken Riley and the members of ILA Local 1422 discovered when they took their campaign on the road was that there really is a solidarity community out there and it is truly global. We don’t hear about it much from our corporate-owned media (surprise…..surprise), but it’s real, it’s growing and we here in the USA really need to take our place in this global community.

Whether you are a union militant, a feminist, an environmentalist, an anti-racist organizer, a peace advocate, a combination of all these things or any kind of social activist at all, it really is Global Solidarity Time.

Living in the world capital of individualistic dog-eat-dog cat-eat-mouse economics, solidarity is not something we are taught in school, inherit as part of our common culture or learn about on "Reality TV". It’s going to take some effort, but the Ken Riley’s of the world are patiently waiting to teach us all about it.

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

 

Visit Suzan Erem’s website at Lastdraft.com.
See YouTube videos of the book tour with Suzan Erem and Ken Riley
HERE.

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