The action, called to protest the use of nonunion labor on the docks, occurred two days after many of the longshoremen and other workers from this area participated in the 50,000-strong Martin Luther King Day march and rally in Columbia, South Carolina, demanding that the Confederate battle flag, which has flown over the state Capitol since 1962, come down.
The police "blocked off the streets. There were blue lights everywhere. I saw four big buses headed down there. They had the whole circumference covered. They were on the roofs, horseback, there was a helicopter and they had the National Guard on alert," stated Kenneth Riley, president of ILA Local 1422.
The cops mobilized to ensure the unloading of a Nordana Line ship by nonunion dock workers. Nordana is a small Danish shipping company that since December has been provoking the ILA by using Winyah Stevedoring, a nonunion outfit, to unload. ILA members unloaded these ships for 22 years prior to that. In response, the ILA has conducted informational pickets at the terminals to protest.
Union dockworkers are paid about $24 per hour plus benefits to load and unload ships. Nonunion longshoremen get about $10 per hour with no benefits.
At 6:00 p.m., longshoremen held a closed-door meeting. The local press claimed 1,000 workers met at the union hall. Riley disputed this, saying, "There's only 800 members in Local 1422, and a few hundred of them were probably working then. They raised the numbers intentionally to justify 600 cops."
Charleston Police Chief Rueben Greenberg insisted, "We needed to have every one of them there."
At midnight, hundreds of longshoremen returned to the union hall. Carrying picket signs, they began to march towards the terminal chanting, "ILA, ILA, ILA." A fight ensued when the marchers confronted the wall of 600 police. A temporary floodlight the cops had erected was knocked over and the scene was plunged into darkness. A police helicopter then circled the crowd with a spotlight.
What followed was a police riot against the longshoremen. Two state Highway Patrol cruisers headed straight for the rear of the workers. One of them slammed into at least one of the protesters, opening a path for the other car, which was pelted by debris.
Throughout the melee, cops employed shock grenades, smoke bombs, dogs, and tear gas. The press reports that police fired guns containing "bean-bag-like" projectiles at the crowd to move them back. At one point, when the union president tried to mediate, police hit him in the head with a baton. At least ten people were treated at area hospitals or by paramedics for cuts, bumps, and bruises.
Charleston police were on hand making videotapes of the clash. Since differentiation between the police photographers and local media was difficult in the heat of the battle, at least two cameramen, after being warned to shut their equipment off by workers, were roughed up. A television van was also overturned.
"The police did a marvelous job," declared Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. "If we hadn't had that many personnel there, things really would have gotten out of hand. All things considered, things were held under control."
In an unusual nighttime court session, the workers were ordered to be held on bail ranging from $35,000 to $100,000. The judge also stipulated that if released on bail, the defendants would be on home detention from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. They can go to work and to union meetings but can't participate in any picketing or protests, they were told. The ILA paid the bond to have them released the next day.
Condon said his plan to deal with "union dockworker violence and attacks upon police officers" is "jail, jail, and more jail." In a press release from his office, he said there should be either no bail or the maximum allowed, no plea bargaining, and no leniency for union dockworkers "who attacked or are planning to attack police officers enforcing the law at the harbor in Charleston," according to a press release from the attorney general's office.
South Carolina authorities describe the protests against the use of nonunion longshoremen to load and unload ships as a challenge the state's antiunion "right-to-work" laws and mentality. Condon announced the State of South Carolina is seeking a temporary injunction for public nuisance and "violation of the States's right to work laws against the International Longshoremen's Association and Kenneth Riley."
The order would prohibit more than four individuals at any time from peacefully picketing any entrance to the Columbus Street terminal. "A citizen's right not to join a union is absolute and will be fully protected," Condon stated.
The Charleston Post and Courier described the scene as "the worst labor disturbance the waterfront has seen in decades."
The editors joined in the attack on the union January 21, with an editorial arguing, "Those involved must know that with or without their approval, South Carolina remains a right-to-work state. Nonunion workers, by law, can load and unload nonunion ships at this port."
On January 17, the dock workers sent three buses and several carloads of workers to participate in the Martin Luther King Day rally in Columbia. "The local was in agreement the flag should come down," Riley said. "We called a meeting of the members and they voted unanimously to send the buses. We did it because the flag issue was creating divisions."
ILA member Robert Vanderhurst said he took his three sons to the protest. "I felt this was a good opportunity for them to see a large group of people who believe in something come together for positive change," he said.
The big majority of members of ILA Local 1422 are Black. The eight facing charges include both Black and white workers. They are scheduled to appear in Municipal court January 25 for preliminary hearings. At the hearings January 21 there was standing room only.
"The show of local support from other unions has been good," Riley said. "Everyone has been calling in and waiting for us to tell them how they can help." Messages of support can be sent to ILA Local 1422, 910 Morrison Dr., Charleston, SC 29403. Phone: (843) 720-7362. Fax: (843) 723-5643.
Paul Cornish contributed to this article.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home