Labor must lead in the struggle for justice

September 4, 2015

The police murder of an unarmed Black man, Walter Scott, in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April, followed by the massacre of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in neighboring Charleston two months later, spurred civil rights and labor movement organizers into action. To the surprise of no one in the city, International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 helped to lead the response to both these outrages, including the successful struggle to finally remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.

Back in January 2000, Local 1422, which is overwhelmingly African American, had, along with the NAACP, been involved in the march that pressured state officials to move the Confederate battle flag from atop the Capitol dome to an area near the steps.

But the union paid a price for its struggle. Days later, the state's Attorney General Charles Condon orchestrated an attack on a Local 1422 picket line, complete with 600 riot cops, dogs, helicopters and armored cars. In the aftermath, five longshore workers--Elijah Ford, Rick Simmons, Peter Washington, Jason Edgerton and Kenneth Jefferson--were hit with felony riot charges and placed under a 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. curfew for more than a year. Another 27 people faced a $1.5 million lawsuit filed by employers. Racism was central to this attack: all but one of the Charleston Five are African American.

For more than a year afterward, Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley toured the U.S. and beyond to build support for the Charleston Five in a defense campaign that ultimately forced authorities to drop all serious charges. Also hitting the road to build support for the five was Kenneth's brother, Leonard Riley, himself a longtime activist in the local and in the struggle for union democracy in the ILA. Today, Leonard is one of the leading organizers for Local 1422's Labor Day march, under the theme "Charleston's Days of Grace, Love's Work Is Justice" on September 5 and 6.

Local 1422 was touched directly by both racist killings: Walter Scott's relatives work on the dock, and two of the Emanuel victims were also related to ILA members. Kenneth Riley, now a vice president of the ILA, got the support of ILA President Harold Daggett for the event. "Guns inflicted the fatal wounds of April and June, but racism, poverty and the politics of rancor and discord have long inflicted grave wounds on the state's poor and most vulnerable people," Local 1422 stated in announcing the event. "This Labor Day, people of faith and conscience will come together in Charleston to remember our fallen friends and to reflect on the racism and hatred that lay at the root of their deaths, as well as the violence that tears away at the fabric of our communities."

Leonard spoke with Lee Sustar about how the march was organized and its aims.

WHY WAS Labor Day chosen as a focus for this march?

I BELIEVE that labor must lead. Labor has a social and economic responsibility.

It goes back to April 4 when Walter Scott was shot down. I spoke to Walter's family. I knew his older brothers. One of his brothers works out of our hall.

Seeing that [police killing] was so egregious. so despicable. I didn't see justice. In fact, I saw just the opposite. I saw an intensive cover up. Then I saw the system get in gear to protect itself. I realized that there was a lack of response from the community and from other organizations that have labored in the vineyard of justice for a long term.

I didn't see what I thought was an adequate fight for justice. So we immediately convened a meeting to discuss that his was not the response that needs to happen in North Charleston.

In our union hall, we hosted a group called the North Charleston Civic Reform Group. The idea of a national march was being underscored. We called people who had experience in that area. Things died down a little, but we were relentless in pushing it in the city.

Marching in Charleston after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church
Marching in Charleston after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church

Then the Emanuel Nine massacre happened. It moved my spirit again with all the outpouring of concern and love for one another. I thought some of the people who were out there were genuine. But that idea that Charleston and North Charleston could be an example for the rest of the country is almost laughable to me, because they were not changing policy.

They were bringing flowers. Corporations were throwing money at the families. But there was no change in policy. People were saying that they were showing the country how to do it. But they didn't do anything to change the substance of policy that continues every day of every year.

Still, the Emanuel Nine situation caused somewhat of a reaction in the familiar posture of South Carolina. People started to say that the Confederate flag stands for hate and repression. They started to connect the dots. There were loud calls for the flag to come down. I said, "Wow, the voices of those people were heard for once." They had been silent for many years. People were saying how shocked and surprised they were.

For me, it posed a question. If the flag we can identify as racist comes down, maybe the flag of not having health care for everyone can come down. Maybe the flag of not having education for everyone can come down. Maybe the flag of this minimum wage can come down.

I believe the power of the present time offers a unique and historic opportunity for many other flags to come down. These flags perpetrate tragedy in the lives of many people every day, every year.

So we started meeting. We're setting the stage to have a real discussion--not a symbolic discussion, but a real discussion--about identifying these things that separate us, that oppress us. I believe this will lead to policy change, and that we'll form the networks to implement those changes of policy.

I believe labor is in a unique position to do this, because unions can mobilize people.

WHEN NEWS of Walter Scott's murder and the Emanuel shootings came out, some in the media portrayed this as something that happens in a conservative, rural state. But South Carolina is host to big operations of some of the most sophisticated and powerful corporations in the world: Boeing, BMW, Bosch and so on.

THEY'RE COMING here because it's a new Third World country. Make no mistake, they see it as a cheaper mode of operation to come to South Carolina: "We can buy these people for less. We have suppressed their self-confidence. They have a lower education level and earn less than almost anywhere else in the country for their labor."

This state gives corporations more economic incentives than almost anywhere. They want to keep people slaves. Underdeveloped land, underdeveloped people--that's the way they're looking at it.

SO IN North Charleston, we have Boeing's 787 manufacturing plant, and at the same time, the murder of an unarmed Black man, Walter Scott, something that has been happening in South Carolina for nearly 400 years.

THE CAUSATION of those two things are linked. They are joined at the hip. They grow out of disrespect for human beings--especially minority human beings.

Boeing has the responsibility to treat people fairly. The workers building the 787 should be paid the same dollar as they earn at the 787 plant in Washington state. The labor is the same.

And the unions have to step up. Oftentimes, union leaders are smitten by the CEOs. They turn their backs on the rank and file and, subsequently, the community. That's why reform movements are needed in the organization. A democratic union is a very, very dangerous being to Corporate America. They will fight for their rank and file, and they are going to be fighting on behalf of the community. They are fighting for fair treatment.

SPEAKING OF labor's outreach to the community, Local 1422 has had a long relationship with the Mexican and other Latino immigrants in the city. You allowed your union hall to be used as a consulate for the Mexican government.

THE WAY I grew up humbled me. I did some of the same things that migrants do. Because of that, I have a healthy respect for all human beings.

We started out having ESL classes, where some of our Mexican and other Latino brother and sisters could learn where the nearest grocery store and hospital was. We saw people needed that consulate to come in and get them ID cards, open bank accounts and file taxes. Hundreds and even thousands came through. We still have a good relationship to this.

This struggle is one we have to continue. The corporate world sees the minority as a bulls' eye--something to take advantage of. We have to forge a Black and Brown coalition that fights for equality.

We gave out some union cards to Latinos a few years ago. But at the time [the consulate services were set up], there were none. But it was the socially responsible thing to do. Labor must lead.

WHAT ARE the plans for the Days of Grace event?

ON SEPTEMBER 5, we will march to Emanuel Church and pause for prayer. Then we will continue to march and hear speakers. At 2 p.m., we will go into our strategic conference. We want to go from symbolism to substance. We don't just want flowers and money to be put in front of the church. It doesn't bring anybody back, and it doesn't change policy.

HOW HAS this struggle connected with the Black Lives Matter movement?

IF A movement is going to continue and survive, it is going to take new energy. Black Lives Matter has been such a revitalizing component. It includes newly graduated and college-age people who want to do something different. They are am energizing and important base.

I think there is still a lot they can learn from the established people who have labored in the fields of labor, social and economic arena. But there is a lot we can learn from them. New energy, new ways of thinking. They used technology as new weapons against oppression. I am excited, and welcome it.

When Dr. King was fairly new in what we now know as the civil rights movement, he suffered the same kind of ostracism that Black Lives Matters has. I say we welcome them and fight together.

Dr. King saw that labor had the power to mobilize people. That hasn't changed. The civil rights laws changed, but we have to return to organizing and championing the cause of the underserved.

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