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Charleston Five Victory -- The War Continues

The Charleston Five won an important victory, but the war continues -- in Illinois, the U.S., throughout the world. Coverage of the victory rally.
Hal Sutton

Charleston Five/Victory rally


page 1

"Legislation has been introduced in Springfield called the Anti-Terrorist Act: If a group of people gathers and property might be damaged, they can all be arrested on the spot. Today, I did just that. We gathered with the Carpenters and Teamsters and the employer could have said that we might damage the property. So, we must all be vigilant about what is happening in this country. We have lost some rights because of what happened on September 11. They say it's only

temporary, but I worry about it."

The warning above was issued by Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere at a rally of about two hundred trade unionists and supporters at Teamsters City in Chicago to celebrate the victory of the Charleston Five. The turnout was surprisingly large for a rally that originally had been planned to show solidarity with the embattled ILA members on the first day of their criminal trial, on Oct. 14. Blackshere, who seems to be everywhere these days, continued:

"All of us have been on picket lines to challenge management and the employers. So, here are some longshoremen trying to do that in Charleston, because non-union people -- the kind way of referring to scabs -- are unloading a Danish ship. We all know what that means. We've all carted around that big old rat that we use here in Chicago when scabs do our work. That's what they were doing in Charleston: challenging that company not to use scabs to do their work. And, they had done it for a couple of days. But they arrive on this day and are shocked to see 600 armed policemen in riot gear standing in front of the work site. They proceeded to where they were

going to picket and the police responded violently, hitting the president of their local union over the head. And, you can imagine what the members of any local union would do. They would rally around and challenge the police who came to do this. They (the Charleston ILA members) had no guns. They had no sticks. They had nothing to fight back with but themselves, and they tried valiantly. And, for doing that they were arrested and accused of felonious charges.

"The courageous Charleston Five said, 'We're standing up to them, even if they're going to curfew us and only allow us to leave our houses after 7:00 p.m. to go to work or attend union

meetings.' That was finally dropped when attorneys for the union workers challenged the attorney general with gross misconduct for raising the level of these charges to felonies. Only this week were all five defendants vindicated. And, it's not over by any stretch of the imagination."

Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, explained the significance of the battle that has been won: "This campaign has spanned the world in Spain, Denmark, Finland, Puerto Rico, Canada. And it's gone across this country -- from the state of Washington to New York; from California to Florida, to fan the flames of justice for this issue. What it has said to all the business leaders and elected leaders is that if you demand a global economy, you're going to take the global consequences." Lee Sustar, chairman of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Charleston Five, elaborated: "Dock workers in Spain said that if cargo was loaded by scabs in South Carolina, they could forget about delivering it at any port in Spain. Dock workers in Sweden and Denmark made it clear that if union workers were hurt by this trial, the employers would also suffer some harm."

However, as Dewitt explained, the war for labor justice in South Carolina continues: "Twenty-seven civil cases arising from this struggle will be going into federal court. So, we're continuing to work with the Charleston Five. During a union organizing campaign, Gary McLain (sic) questioned company officials during a captive audience meeting by Tenneco management. The next day, he was driven off the road by local law enforcement officials and taken to a local hospital where he was sedated and placed in a mental institution for two weeks."

Sustar, who is also a member of the National Writers' Union, which is affiliated with the UAW, explained that the civil cases mentioned above threaten twenty-seven members of ILA Local 1422, as individuals, with about $1.5 million in damages. "That's the kind of pressure and intimidation that is still occurring in South Carolina and that threatens workers across the nation," said Sustar.

Explaining the importance of the struggle for labor rights in South Carolina, Sustar continued: "The South is now the most industrialized region of the country. If unions don't increase their penetration from 4 per cent membership in South Carolina and 3.8 per cent in North Carolina, the game is up for us. The Campaign for Workers' Rights in South Carolina should actually be called the campaign to rebuild the labor movement in the U.S. This is only the beginning. Like the song goes, 'We're going to roll the union on.'"

Dewitt graphically described the anti-labor attitude of government authorities in South Carolina in the following account of the escapades of South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, a gubernatorial candidate who was the main antagonist of the Charleston Five: "South Carolina has

the lowest paid law enforcement officers, with the worst working conditions in the U.S. This has caused the South Carolina public safety troopers to join the International Union of Police. Condon issued a public statement that by joining the union, the officers have 'diminished their

sense of professionalism.'

"Following the events of Sept. 11, we sent this comment to the police and fire fighters unions in New York City. And, the public employees department of the New York AFL-CIO sent Condon a scathing letter that informed him of how sick in their stomachs they felt, reading his comments about the professionalism of union public safety employees who had lost their lives in the NYC catastrophe.

"We obtained a copy of the letter and publicized it. Condon accused us of 'capitalizing on a very tragic situation.' So, the AFL-CIO and its Campaign for Workers' Rights will continue to fight business and elected leaders who exploit working families for their personal gain. And, we know that we're not going to be alone, because the 'I Will' spirit has characterized the Chicago labor movement everywhere we go."

Mike Fitzgerald, business manager of IBEW Local 134, described the "I will" spirit: "We had planned to send $1,000 to the Charleston Five defense fund. But, after we told them the story, the members of Local 134 said, 'That's not enough.' So, we bandied it about, there was sort of an auction, and we finally settled on $10,000." Sustar mentioned that the UAW international leadership has announced it will donate $25,000. "Honda and BMW are operating non-union assembly plants in South Carolina and Bosch has a big parts plant in the state," added Sustar. "The UAW will need to come into South Carolina, not only for the sake of our union, but for the labor movement as a whole."

Reverend Calvin Morris, co-chair for Chicago Jobs with Justice and executive director of the Committee to Rebuild Society, told the rally, "What happened with the Charleston Five is not just a victory for labor, but a victory for any group of people who find it necessary to stand up, have their voices heard, protest what they think and feel and believe is wrong." "There are people in this nation who work every day and are homeless," Morris continued. "People who work every

day, making this nation the great nation that it is, and they have no health care insurance -- they have to decide whether to pay the rent or seek medical or dental care for themselves and their children." "And, there need to be people who speak up for them, just as we have made our voices heard in support of the Charleston Five," insisted Morris. "Solidarity forever is very, very important."

Sarita Gupta, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, said, "Since September 11, workers who stand up for their rights are constantly being told that they are 'unpatriotic' and it's great to see that the Charleston Five and those who have worked for their campaign throughout the nation have remained strong in the face of that climate." "We still have a lot of work to do," Gupta concluded. "It's really about building a global labor movement."





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