Since the city's founding, Charleston's black dockworkers have been loading ships with everything from rice and indigo to BMWs, first as slaves but for the last 133 years as union members.

By the time Ken Riley was named president of the Charleston International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) in 1997, the union was a financial and political powerhouse with over $400 million in pension and welfare funds. The ILA has contracts with all the major shipping lines and handled nearly all of the $29 billion worth of goods that moved through the state ports last year.

When Nordana, a small Norwegian steamship line, announced in October 1999 that after 23 years it was going to quit using the ILA, union leaders feared that it was the beginning of a move to break the state's most powerful union.

The ILA set up pickets at each of Nordana's three port calls between October and December. In December, the picket caused the nonunion workers to retreat to the ship, and union truckers delivering freight to the docks to voluntarily stop their rigs. The picket lasted less than an hour, and the 40 cops on the scene made no arrests.

After the picketers left, the State Ports Authority (SPA), the state agency that runs the port, ordered the ship to leave before it finished loading.

"We lost control of the terminal and we had to ask the Nordana ship to leave," said SPA attorney Bill Vaughn.

Riley disagreed. "They never lost control of the docks," he said. "It was a huge overreaction to pull that ship out."

Union supporters from across the country gather on the steps of the S.C. State House June 9 to support the Charleston Five, shown here (from left): Kenneth Jefferson, Rick Simmons, Peter Washington, Elijah Ford and Jason Edgerton.

The SPA used the fact that the ship left unloaded to invite numerous law enforcement agencies to assemble a "force of at least 200 officers" to prevent ILA interference when the next Nordana ship docked on Jan. 19.

While the state Department of Commerce boasts that South Carolina has the lowest number of hours lost to labor troubles, the state has few actual labor disputes to gauge how far the state will go to keep the wheels of private enterprise turning. The last time workers tried to shut down a factory was during the Great Textile Strike of 1934, which left six workers in Honea Path dead.

The army assembled to protect the 20 nonunion workers was the largest in peacetime South Carolina. (To put it in context, three days before the disturbance on the docks an anti-flag march drew nearly 70,000 people to Columbia. The event was overseen by a police force of 200, or about one cop for every 400 protestors. At the ILA picket, there were four cops for each protestor.

The police videos that recorded the troops preparing for battle with the ILA have a home-movie quality to them. It begins with a Charleston police captain telling a large room full of cops that union workers from across the southeast would be coming to help the ILA disrupt port operations. Their job was to keep the protestors off port property and to ensure the nonunion ship was loaded without delay.

The SPA had scheduled the ship to arrive when the ILA wasn't working another ship and there was no truck traffic. When the Skodsborg docked the evening of the 19th, an army of 660 cops were on hand to protect the 20 nonunion laborers waiting to load the ship.

"We want to have such a show of force to project an image that we can't lose this battle tonight," the captain says. In the next scene, cops file by a supply room to get helmets, four-foot riot batons and gas masks. Shots pan the mobile headquarters for the various police agencies ranging from a camouflaged tractor trailer to RVs, all sprouting antenna and satellite dishes, and humming with serious activity.

Other shots: a platoon of state troopers in full riot gear jog to keep up with an armored car. Police dogs and armored police horses. A police boat, the police plane and the police helicopter all make cameo appearances.

The police chaplain is there "in case things take a turn and I need to minister to the needs of the officers."

The video shows that when the 150 or so longshoremen marched up to the SPA property line at 12:18 am, they were stopped by about 150 cops. An angry confrontation erupts when the opposing forces meet. The longshoremen demand to be allowed to go to the docks to picket. The police are adamant that their line will not be crossed, and warn on a loudspeaker that anyone crossing the railroad track is on SPA property and subject to arrest. Most of the protestors had crossed the same tracks to go to work that day.

There were no barricades to stop the picketers, just a line of cops, allowing the opposing forces to meet face-to-face. The pushing starts almost immediately. The cops begin pushing longshoremen, some of whom react in kind.

At 12:18, some longshoremen start throwing rocks and a couple of railroad ties at the police line as their coworkers try to restrain them. The pushing and shoving intensifies, and riot batons start flailing. While trying to separate the battling forces, Riley's forehead is cracked open, he says, by a police baton. The police say Riley was hit by something thrown from the crowd. At 12:36, two SUVs from the Crowd Control Unit of the Dept. of Public (DPS) drive rapidly through the crowd, throwing flash/bang grenades. One picketer ends up on the roof of one of the SUVs.

At 12:39, the loud speaker announces, "This has been declared to be an unlawful assembly. In the name of the people of the state of South Carolina you are commanded to disperse. There will be no innocent parties."

The video turns surreal, like a Hollywood set. Smoke and tear gas combine with the rain to refract the flashing blue lights and the spotlight of the helicopter hovering overhead. A cop is silhouetted in the glare of a discharging smoke bomb. He takes aim and the muzzle blast of his beanbag shotgun sends a flame after the retreating longshoremen.

By 12:45 it's all over. Nine longshoremen have been arrested for disorderly conduct or trespassing. Two cops, a photographer and several protestors have minor injuries. Several police cars have windows broken, and a news vehicle has been overturned.

Both sides in the fight were surprised there weren't more casualties.

Unfortunately, the Charleston police video doesn't end with a list of credits. It would have made it much easier to understand who was directing the show.

The police agencies involved requested in a Jan. 6 memo that the SPA define in writing "exactly what steps would be taken if the ILA didn't comply with orders" and to "specifically address the issue of physical arrest and at what point they would take place."

The SPA responded that it had committed the agency to "follow through with prosecution of those arrested" but failed to address the specifics of arrest protocol.

While the SPA acknowledges calling for the operation, it takes no responsibility for its implementation or cost. The city of Charleston sent the SPA a bill for $160 thousand for the 155 officers it lent to the operation. The SPA responded that while it has "pursued several options at the state level to obtain funding for reimbursement of the City's extraordinary expenses, regrettably we have thus far been unsuccessful."


DPS figured that agency's cost for 270 troopers at $281 thousand, which includes nearly $17,000 in consumable riot paraphernalia. The 100 SLED agents, 135 local cops, along with a state plane and helicopter, pushed the total bill over $600 thousand.

SPA expressed its gratitude, if not its financial responsibility, in a letter to the mayor of Charleston. "Commerce was virtually unimpeded for the Port's customers, thanks to the efforts of the public safety organizations that responded to these unfortunate circumstances," wrote SPA Director Bernie Groseclose.

"It looks like somebody encouraged the cops to pick a fight," Ken Riley said.

The State Law Enforcement Division and DPS added 200 officers to the contingent the day before the incident. Chief Robert Stewart said SLED sent added men because "we received intelligence that there were people coming in from out of state, possibly in large numbers."

This threat never materialized. Riley and other union leaders say there was never a call for nor any expectation that people were coming from outside the local union to protest. According to the ILA's defense attorneys, the rumor was either planted by antiunion forces or it was an after-the-fact rationalization by the police.

While the police mobilization had been underway for weeks, Riley said the ILA learned the day of the event that security was being beefed up and that his members would be arrested if they entered port property. The ILA's three previous pickets of the ship were held on the docks.

"We had to struggle to get 40 guys on the previous picket lines," Riley said. "When our guys saw the massive police presence on the docks that day, they thought there was a terrorist threat. When they realized that they were the threat, they got angry, and four times as many turned out for the picket."

"If the situation had been left up to the Charleston police to deal with there wouldn't have been any problems," Riley said. "We knew that we weren't going on port property that night. Forty cops would have stopped us just as surely as 600."

The nine ILA members charged with disorderly conduct or trespassing held a blood drive to satisfy their sentences.

The question of who called for the police mobilization and why was the subject of a Freedom of information request to the Governor's Office and all the agencies involved in the operation.

The documents reveal that the SPA initiated the mobilization by asking for help, citing the state's right-to-work law as justification for using force to ensure the timely loading of a nonunion ship. The SPA requested "a sufficient force of at least 200 officers." It got 660.

Chief Stewart defends the level of force that was used. "We needed every man we had out there that night and could have used more." As to whether the right-to-work law requires a zero tolerance policy for union pickets, Stewart said, "That's a political question. We don't make the laws or interpret them; we just enforce them."

Apparently, no elected official was involved with overseeing the operation. While the SPA says the agency briefed the Governor's Office before the event, the governor's spokesperson, Morton Brilliant, said, "The first the governor knew about this (police mobilization) was at a SLED briefing the next morning."

Either way, Gov. Jim Hodges clearly wants to distance himself from the disturbance on the docks. The governor owes a political debt to the ILA after reneging on his nomination of Riley to the SPA board, which happened before the dock disturbance.

The ILA was host of Hodges' largest rally during his campaign. At the event, candidate Hodges promised a crowd of nearly 4,000 that he would support unions in general and the ILA in particular. But Hodges caved in to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and withdrew Riley's nomination. Hodges said then that he didn't want to waste his political capital in a fight over unions. The governor has decided to stay out of the current fray.

Since Riley's failed nomination, the House passed a bill that would prevent anyone associated with a maritime union from serving on the SPA board.

"I can sum up this bill in one word: unconstitutional," said Charleston attorney Peter Wilborn. "There will be a lawsuit filed the minute that this bill becomes law."

Wilborn noted that an executive at Michelin, the port's biggest customer, sits on the SPA board. "The people who make the ports work have every bit as much right to sit on the Ports Authority board as the industry representatives who profit from the port."

The ILA is a huge extended family that stretches back for several generations. With 900 active members, plus retirees and relatives, the ILA can easily turn out 3,500 people for a family picnic.

Former slaves organized the Longshoremen's Protective Union Association in 1869 and, through a series of strikes, forced shippers to pay union wages. The LPUA was a political force in post-reconstruction politics, and helped establish the United Labor Party in 1887 to challenge the Republican Party. Gov. Ben Tillman's election in 1890 resurrected the Democrats as the party of white supremacy and marked the end of the dockworkers' political influence until the late 1930s.

During the first three decades of the 1900s, the fall of cotton and the rise of railroads ushered the Charleston docks into a period of disuse and disrepair. ILA Local 1422 reorganized the Charleston port in 1936, and remains the largest and oldest black union in South Carolina.

The Charleston ILA's first president was George German, a third-generation dockworker. The ILA's attorney from its founding through 1969 was William Morrison, whose grandfather owned German's grandfather until freeing him in 1861. Morrison was also Charleston's mayor from 1947 to 1959, and helped weave the ILA into the business and political fabric of the city.

During his 30 years as president, German supported the white Democratic politicians of Charleston. In return, they supported the union's control of the docks.

The ILA dockworkers have been recognized in the shipping industry's trade journal as running the most "on time" port in the world. Nearly all of the $29 billion in goods shipped from state ports in 1999 were loaded by the ILA.

Rev. Joe Darby, the minister at Morris Brown AME church in Charleston, has spoken out in defense of the ILA. "The people who are castigating these men don't know them for their strong families and their positive influence on our community," Darby said. "The former ILA president is chairman of my Steward Board, and other members are in my congregation. We have too few good and stable jobs for African Americans, and it makes no sense to target the ILA or its members in this manner."

The ILA is also a player in the county Democratic Party. The union held the last several Democratic County Conventions in its hall, and it is regularly among the highest donors to Democratic campaigns.

"We are proud to count the ILA as supporters," said Charleston County Democratic Party officer Warring Howe, "and we are looking forward to working with them in the future."

In spite of the union's Democratic bent, Charleston Republican Sens. Glen McConnell and Arthur Ravanel are friends of the ILA. Bucking their own party, they both supported Riley's nomination to the SPA board.

Riley enjoys broad respect in his community. A second-generation dockworker, Riley graduated from the College of Charleston with a business degree. He has a young son and a daughter who attends the University of South Carolina.

Riley worked his way through college on the docks, and after graduation was offered a job with Milliken Textiles. Roger Milliken is the state's richest antiunion activist. Riley stayed on the docks waiting for a better offer.

Riley said that as union president he is working longer and harder than when he was loading freight. His pay, around $50,000, is less than he made on the docks.

The softspoken Riley doesn't drink, smoke or swear, says grace in restaurants and upsets the stereotype of a union boss. Riley sued his own union in 1992 over a lack of democratic process. He lost that fight but was elected president of the local union in 1997.

"Kenny is the type of guy that you would like to have as a neighbor," said Charleston Sen. Glen McConnell, the Republican leader of the state Senate.

The ILA, the city of Charleston and the SPA have put the incident behind them and are working together to support an expanded port. Nordana and the ILA signed a new contract three months after the incident. Riley said 70 percent of the nonunion workers they had been picketing have since joined the ILA.

In fact, the disturbance on the docks over a year ago wouldn't be a story today if it weren't for state Attorney General Charlie Condon, who has gone out of his way to keep it alive. Condon is running for governor, and needs a solid turnout from the Republican Party's right wing to win the nomination.

The day after the disturbance, Condon issued a press release that called for "jail, jail and more jail…for the dockworker violence." Condon opposed bond for the arrested dockworkers and vowed to upgrade the charges against them. "South Carolina is a strong right-to-work state, and a citizen's right not to join a union is absolute and will be fully protected," he said.

Several days after the incident, Condon ordered the Charleston solicitors' office to file felony conspiracy to riot charges against eight longshoremen.

It is easy to forget that Condon was a Democrat until he ran for attorney general in 1994. "There is a shallowness about Condon that prevents him from being a serious politician," said one Republican operative. Citing Condon's public stands against women at The Citadel, against sex education, and for the prosecution of pregnant drug addicts, he said, "Charlie just goes for flash-in-the-pan publicity with a total disregard for the facts."

The state's response to the Longshoremen's picket has been "overkill," according to Andy Savage, a Charleston attorney representing the longshoremen. Savage credited "Attorney General Condon's confusion between his political ambition and the proper performance of his job" as the reason the state got involved in the prosecution of the longshoremen. "Charlie is more concerned with running for governor than he is with impartial justice."

After Condon's initial warrants for conspiracy to riot were thrown out of district court for lack of evidence, he sought indictments by the county grand jury. He finally got five longshoremen indicted for conspiracy to riot charges that carry five years in prison. Condon's representative asked for a high bond and house arrest for the accused. The union posted $100,000 bond for each. The five remain under house arrest from 7 pm until 7 am while awaiting trial.

Elijah Ford was the first dockworker arrested that night.

"I was raised to be a longshoreman," Ford said. A member of the ILA for 23 years, Ford's father put in 38 years with the union before retiring. Ford's three younger brothers are also in the ILA.

Even though cranes do the heavy lifting, the job requires a lot of muscle. Like most of his colleagues, Ford looks like a professional football player. "We work a ship until it's loaded," he said. "It sometimes takes up to 16 hours."

It's hard and dangerous work but the pay is good. Most ILA members make $25 an hour plus insurance and pension benefits. The average nonunion worker in Charleston makes around $8 an hour, and most have no benefits.

Ford recalled the meeting in the union hall the night of the disturbance. "Kenny preached to us and said we shouldn't go down to the (picket) line. We chose to go anyway, and Kenny said, 'OK, but don't get in no trouble.'"

When the picketers marched up to the SPA boundary, Ford noticed that the barricades that were up earlier in the day were gone, replaced by a wall of cops. "We didn't know where the line was, so we went right up to the police."

Ford said that a few minutes later he was backing out of the path of a falling light tower that was toppled by the surging crowd—and backed into the cops. "They grabbed me and about 10 of them forced me to the ground and put handcuffs on me," he said.

Ford said that his house arrest allows him only to go to work, union meetings and church. The indictment has him puzzled and angry. "I didn't do nothing to get arrested, and they are treating me like I murdered somebody."

This is not the first experience Ford has had with Condon. In the mid-1980s Ford hired Condon to defend him on a traffic charge. Condon didn't show up in court, and sent his brother instead. "Charlie let me down on that one, too," Ford said.

Condon's office recently broke off negotiations to reduce the charges and, according to his spokesperson, is "looking forward to a trial in late summer" on the conspiracy charges.

The defendants deny conspiring to riot. Their lawyers claim that the disturbance was a spontaneous reaction to the provocative police presence. "If there is any conspiracy," Riley said, "it is on the part of the state to use the right-to-work law to bust unions."

The case has drawn more attention outside of South Carolina than it has here. "Free the Charleston Five" has become a rallying cry for unions across the country. In a show of international solidarity, longshoremen from Singapore to Sidney plan to shut down their ports on the first day of the trial. A protest is being planned in Charleston.

On June 9, about 6,000 union members and their supporters held a rally in Columbia to support workers' rights and The Charleston Five. The three-hour program on the State House steps included union and civil rights leaders from across the country. "If we let Condon win this," state AFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt said, "every working person in South Carolina will pay the price."

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© Copyright by POINT, 2001