On the world’s littoral: the fight to free the Charleston 5 by Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger. Monthly press review: 240 pages, 2008. $ 17.95.
When the union’s inspiration through the blood of the workers runs
There can be no greater power anywhere under the sun;
However, what force on earth is weaker than one’s weak force,
But union makes us strong.
This old labor anthem was written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915 and is the unofficial anthem of the American labor movement. It is sung at rallies and work meetings, but with an interesting twist. Organizers often hand out song sheets because many of the union activists gathered do not know the lyrics.
It’s a sobering and even embarrassing moment for the American labor movement, which has now shrunk to roughly 8% of private sector workers. Those who romanticize organized work based on college history classes or nostalgic folk song festivals must remember that solidarity always begins with a hope … not a certainty.
And if solidarity leads to even a small partial victory, you can bet that there will be a lot of hard work, resentment and heartache on 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 Ralph Chaplin wrote can become reality even for those of us who can’t remember the lyrics without a score. years of research and writing by a team made up of a former union organizer and an anthropologist. You couldn’t ask for a better combo.
January 19, 2000 was a bad night for the city of Charleston SC and the port on which much of the economy depends. What had been planned as a routine picket of a ship being unloaded by a non-union crew turned into a bloody riot involving hundreds of mostly black and mostly white police dock workers. Although some of the picketers were white, no one doubted that there was an ugly racial component to the behavior of the police. It’s a wonder they didn’t kill anyone.
South Carolina has a long racially violent history dating back to the early days of slavery and many black South Carolinians had to die before the chains of slavery and then Jim Crow were finally cast off. Although modern South Carolina likes to pretend its white supremacist days are over, its citizens know best.
The authors of On the world coast describe in detail what happened that night in January. Later, the local police and union leaders concluded that the confrontation had simply gotten out of control. Some workers apologized to the police the next morning for the stones and sleepers they had thrown. For their part, the local police wanted to settle the whole thing as simple trespassing cases. The behavior of the police that night was far from exemplary and their provocations and brutality had been recorded entirely on video.
City officials wanted the entire incident to be resolved quickly and quietly so as not to give the city a reputation for being “disturbed.” Troubled ports repelled rather than attracted the kind of shipping business on which Charleston’s economy had come to depend.
But this was a new millennium and the realities of a globalized economy made it impossible for Charleston to quietly bury that violent night.
The 5 men who were charged with serious crimes as a result of the riots became the focal point of a complex international struggle involving the United States dockworkers unions, an international network of dockworker militants who saw Charleston as an opening salvo against dockworkers everywhere, a politically ambitious right-wing Christian fundamentalist politician, competing interests among the shipowners themselves, and a costly legal battle that managed to cross oceans before being resolved.
It would have been easy to lose readers in this puzzling story, but Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger manage to tell it without resorting to Facile’s oversimplification. One leaves with a special appreciation for ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley, who led his local through the entire fight 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 won them the affection of the worst owners of brutal shipping companies. Ken Riley represented a new generation of dockworker leaders, people who wanted to clean up the union and take a militant stance in the face of the pressures of the new global economy. The old ILA leadership hated Ken Riley and everything he stood for. It would be many months before the national leadership of the ILA raised its little finger to help Local 1422.
Fortunately, the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had a very different tradition that had grown out of the bloody San Francisco General Strike of 1934. Its leadership evolved from the left-wing movements of the decade. 1930s and its legendary ex-leader Harry Bridges had been accused of being a communist, not a mob thug. Its tradition was one of labor solidarity and alliances with social movements for peace and civil rights.
The modern leadership of ILWU immediately understood the importance of Charleston. If the international shipping industry could break ILA Local 1422 and the Port of Charleston ceased to be unionized, the results could be catastrophic for dockworkers everywhere. The ILWU immediately contacted Ken Riley and offered him the amount of money and international contacts he needed to save not only the 5 workers facing serious charges, but also his local union.
On the world coast takes the reader step by step on how another type of globalization was evolving, the globalization of the labor movement. As the Charleston 5 advocacy committees emerged and the screeching wheels of AFL-CIO leadership began to turn in favor of ILA Local 1422, the authors make it clear that this was all the result of long and grueling hours of work performed. by a nucleus of very intelligent and highly committed people with the support of thousands of people around the world.
When the Charleston 5 and Local 1422 victory finally came in March 2002, it was a time of joyous celebration. It also became a time of deep reflection, as labor activists around the globe reflected on their next move in a globalized economy as money crossed borders at the speed of light and the economies of entire nations were eclipsed by largest global corporations.
Global capital by its very nature seeks to lower the price of labor in order to increase its profits. To do this, you must maintain efficient production while fighting to keep workers as disunited and divided as possible. But efficient modern production is difficult with a disheartened and demoralized workforce, so the more forward-thinking multinational corporate owners see a place for engagement with the global labor movement. This is not compromised on the basis of any kind of moral values or sense of justice, but on a cold calculation of power relations.
It is a class war. But even in war, enemies sign treaties and cease fire while anxiously assessing what their adversaries’ capabilities might be when the peace is finally broken.
The last chapter of On the world coast it’s called “It’s Not Just Another Work Story.” The authors are not kidding. It’s easy to say, “Think globally, but act locally.” But what exactly are we 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 had no immediate answers to those questions. But with their formidable internal resources and the help of others around the world, they came up with some pretty good answers later. How They Did It is an organizers textbook for anyone concerned with social justice.
What Ken Riley and ILA Local 1422 members discovered when they took their campaign on the road was that there really is a caring community and it is truly global. We don’t hear much about this in our corporate media (surprise … surprise), but it’s real, it’s growing, and we here in the US really need to take our place in this global community.
If you are a union activist, a feminist, an environmentalist, an anti-racist organizer, a peace advocate, a combination of all of these things, or any kind of social activist, it really is the Time of Global Solidarity.
Living in the world capital of the individualistic dog, dog, cat, mouse economy, solidarity is not something we are taught at school, inherited as part of our common culture, or learned from “Reality TV “. It’s going to take a bit of effort, but the Ken Rileys of the world are patiently waiting to teach us all about it.
In our hands is placed a power greater than your treasured gold,
Greater than the power of armies, multiplied by a thousand.
We can raise a new world from the ashes of the old.
Because union makes us strong.