"When You’re Dying You Explore Radical Medication"

Ten years ago a major shipping company based in Denmark called Nordana brought in a nonunion contractor to supplant union workers on the dock in Charleston, South Carolina. Not an uncommon event in the anti-union South of anti-union America, it was extraordinary enough at the port of Charleston that three locals of longshore workers, two of them black and one white, protested together, and one night in January of 2000, police attacked them with clubs, gas and racist slurs.

The next day the state attorney general filed felony riot charges against five members of Locals 1422, 1422A and 1771, calling for “jail, jail and more jail.” They became known as the Charleston Five, and around them was built a dramatic struggle that galvanized dockworkers and others from not only the US but around the world. In the end the workers won: the criminal case was dismissed; Nordana dropped the civil lawsuit it had brought against the locals and entered negotiations. The campaign to free the Charleston Five was relentless, driven as much by a hunger for racial justice and fury at the repressive machinery of the state as by conviction in the rights of labor and by a dose of fear.

Local 1422, the real object of the police and prosecutorial attack, is the largest, most powerful union in South Carolina, a black union which had been instrumental regionally in the fight against the Confederate flag and internally in the movement to reform the hidebound, undemocratic International Longshore Association, or ILA, which controls all dockers’ unions on the East Coast. I spoke to Local 1422’s president, Ken Riley, in Charleston in late February, after a week of events commemorating the struggle and hosting dockers from across the world for the fourth general assembly of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC).

[JoAnn’s stunning report on the “cargo chain”, as described at the recent February conference of radical dockworkers, is featured in our current newsletter, available by subscription. AC/JSC]

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI: From the perspective of ten years, what do you think was the most significant effect of the Charleston Five struggle?

Ken Riley: No one could have told us that night when we were out there fighting that this would have turned into something extremely good for the whole dockworkers’ movement, but it has. It opened up relationships between our local and the West Coast, which is key to the global movement of dockworkers. It opened up relationships with dockworkers worldwide. If it had never happened, I doubt that we would have heard about an IDC at this point. We were asked to come to its founding meeting at Tenerife in 2000, and our struggle became the IDC’s first campaign.

Our International was so stingy with information that until then we knew nothing about the world struggle. We were just in desolate land. When we learned that this was a movement for docker-to-docker support, regardless of the bureaucracy, regardless of what an International thought about a particular incident, that was so what we needed because our International was not supporting us. In the Liverpool dockers’ case [of the late 1990s, which prompted the IDC’s creation], their International was not supporting them, so the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) could not move. In our case, the AFL-CIO could not move because of our International, and neither could the ITF. In those situations a local could just be crushed. Just a year before we had formed the Longshore Workers Coalition, so this idea of rank-and-file solidarity within the IDC was music to us. We thought if this organization will let locals in, we were in; and they did and we were. So we became one of the original signatories to the IDC charter.

For the local, some of the members understand the importance of the struggle, but the turnover in our membership has been significant so a lot of the new people do not fully understand yet; we’re trying to get them to that point. A lot of others do understand and realize that we have to be there for others. Coming out of the struggle we set up a defense fund for other people, so whenever we hear the call, we’re rolling.

I wonder if you see lessons there for the members of ILWU Local 30, the borax miners of Boron, California, who were locked out in January by Rio Tinto after refusing to accept an outrageous concessionary contract. The IDC delegates just passed a resolution pledging full support for the workers, and Jack Heyman of ILWU Local 10 made an impassioned appeal that the world’s dockers refuse to handle scab product. (It’s an amazing quirk that the miners are members of the longshore union; it makes me think all workers ought to join longshore unions to get around restrictions on secondary boycotts.) But whatever workers of the world might do to assist, do you have any thoughts for the miners themselves?

Riley: I went out there to the Mojave Desert. It’s not enough to just see it, go to a rally and go back home. I said, Send me the posters and material. We will send money; we will do everything to elevate that struggle the way we did with the Charleston Five. But their own internal organization will also have to elevate it. If you’re not sold on a struggle and actually establish in your own mind that Listen, I don’t care how long it takes, we cannot lose this thing, stay in there, keep developing ways to move forward; if you don’t internalize that and make it real personal to you, you’re not going to get the victory you desire.

I’ve learned all these things as I go back and read how people have analyzed our struggle. I didn’t know what to do at the time. It was my first term in office as president, facing election in a few. One thing I knew: whatever it took, that’s what I had to do.

Now I hear Bill Fletcher [formerly education director of the AFL-CIO but at the time acting on behalf of the Black Radical Congress] say that key to the victory was my role, because you can have all this outside support but you still need someone leading the charge. When I saw those 600 families out there from Rio Tinto, their eyes still had some gleam in them because of all the support. But I thought, Don’t be fooled by this, because it’s going to take a whole lot more. People can get excited: oh, this one passed a resolution. What does that mean? Does it mean you’re going to take action? Does it mean you’re going to raise money? Does it mean you’re going to be thinking, brainstorming, coming up with ideas of what to do? I looked out there and thought, Oh, I hope these people don’t get let down.

I knew what was inside of me ten years ago, because I thought, We will be finished if these guys go to jail, if the state succeeds in crushing the largest, most powerful union in the state. And just personally I thought, Who would follow me again? You got these guys to go out there, and now they’re in prison. So I had so much riding on it that I could not afford to lose.

I learned so much about what it takes to win. I told the group that was assembled in Palmdale, California, where we had a maritime meeting before we went out to the mine for the rally, Why isn’t there more pressure? Why isn’t there a war room session? For the Charleston Five we had a war room session every week, 3 o’clock every Tuesday, Eastern Standard Time. I don’t care where in the world you are, you better be on the phone. Bill Fletcher ran that thing like a military general. If the general gives out an assignment and you take it, you better not be on that phone next week without having done it. When you call in, Who is it? Good, glad to have you on. So-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so are on too. If we couldn’t establish who you are, click, everybody off the phone. We’re done. Next week.

There was constant analyzing, adjusting to what’s coming out in the media, adjusting to what the attorney general is doing, adjusting to how the ILA reacted, adjusting to what the AFL-CIO was doing. Someone would say, Can we get a meeting with the local in Houston or in wherever? It was constant, constant strategizing. You’re bouncing thoughts off each other: that gives me an idea; I’m going to try this.

And I think that’s what we have to do, especially in these test cases. I know we have the ability to break Rio Tinto, I know it. But again, too, I hear leaders now always concerned about being crushed by getting sued. But getting sued is not always a bad thing. There’s something called the right of discovery, and you can subpoena anything and everything. You get to depose people. You get tooled up. You know more.

What else did we learn from being sued? Hit them on their own soil. We learned in deposition that after the Spanish dockworkers refused to load the Nordana and the news got into the media in Denmark, this son of the CEO of the company, which always presented itself as socially responsible, went to the lawyer and said, You have brought shame on my family. We wanted cost savings, but not this way. Get your so-and-so, so-and-so over to the United States and get this right. They had to come back to the table. So take it to Denmark, take it to the media wherever they are based, because that’s where they will be hurt.

That assumes there is somebody in a company that actually has a conception of himself or herself or his family as being somehow elevated. But if you say, “Look, they’re busting us at the knees,” there are plenty of companies that will just say, “Well, that’s what we do.”

Riley: Sure, the lesson though is to find the soft spot and push. It will not be the same for every situation, but if you do the research — because we were constantly searching, constantly trying to figure out how could we do damage — if you’re looking for the spot, you’re going to find the spot.

Same with the money. Is it expensive on a local to defend against a lawsuit? It was expensive on us, but guess what? Because we all shared in it, it wasn’t a burden on anybody. Yeah, the corporation had their resources where they could sue us, but we had the world labor resources collectively.

How much did you end up getting for the defense fund?

Riley: From the ILWU alone it must have been over $400,000. At the victory celebration they gave us a check for $176,000. The Canadians [in ILWU] sent like $30,000. The retiree group sent $25,000. We were getting checks from every little auxiliary, the boatmen’s union, everything. Then there was, like, $25,000 from the UAW, $25,000 from the transport workers of Norway. When I started going to these international conventions I would leave there with no less than $25,000.

Then the ILA started trying to divert the money to New York, and a lot of it we never saw. They still owe us $325,000. At the Labor Day parade in New York the Saturday before 9/11 the Carpenter’s local had built this huge boat with a canvas over it. The boat was named The Charleston Five, and every contingent that marched by put money in the boat. That money never got to us; it went to the International. But I watched this: in the boat, in the boat, people dropping money as they passed by. Those things you never forget.

You know, we in labor made a conscientious effort going back decades to set aside money for Washington, for politicians, but there’s no set-aside money for a fight. We ought to cut that check off. Forget about the political activity for a while. Let’s get back to what we do. We always thought if we got a seat at the table, if we got an entrée to the legislator we’d be better off. But what? After decades of pumping billions into these campaigns — it must be that by now — we’re worse off than we were before. We’ve lost jobs. We’ve lost union density. The laws are still against us.

So let’s rethink our investment. If we start pulling the money back from the politicians while at the same time building our numbers, they’re going to get the message. We can’t outspend corporate America, so forget about it. We can out-organize them. We’re afraid of being sued, of being attacked, of being isolated, because that’s what they’re doing to us. But if we budgeted — if all these unions and local federations and state federations and international federations had that money ready to fight, to educate their members and support the workers affected and put together the war rooms and send the flying squads where they need to go, we could win again, we could rebuild, we could retool.

The only money that we as a local union never have to search for is the money to give to politicians, but for the programs that are essential to what we do, we always have to raise money. That’s crazy. Let’s forget about COPE for a while, let’s do a fight fund check-off or whatever you want to name it. And let the AFL-CIO, which talks about putting 30 percent to organizing, advocate that kind of set-aside, however small it might be.

I was surprised that when we finally dragged our International into this thing and they wanted to get active, they said, Well, we just can’t give the money the way the West Coast did; we don’t have it like that. So we said, Man, why don’t you set up a fight fund. We’re already giving one-tenth of 1 percent into the COPE check-off, why not have a check-off up and down the coast of one-tenth of 1 percent for a national fight fund so that when these kind of struggles come up again we can give the money that the West Coast gave? And that’s when I realized how wealthy our COPE fund was, because they said, No, man, one-tenth of 1 percent is too much; we got money we can’t even spend in the COPE fund now

One-tenth of 1 percent of everybody’s wages, we just spew money to politicians, and we’re not even hittin’ it, because you know how money works; we’re puttin’ in and puttin’ in, and money generates more money; it’s self-sustaining. So, dang, to have that kind of money available for union action. I think that’s got to be the way forward: if we all put in a little, it will add up to a lot, and when you need it you get your return.

I was so struck when Bjorn Borg said his involvement with the Charleston Five was one of the proudest moments of his entire career. Here he is, the leader of the Swedish dockers, and this campaign, which was amazingly important to me too but which I had imagined as a small thing in the course of labor history, is one of the signal moments of his life.

Riley: Right. We had so many people out there pushing around our case. I think about it, and I’m still blown away.

And in Charleston you just had a lot of those people, from international maritime unions, here for the general assembly of the IDC. How do you assess that meeting?

Riley: It was the best that we have had in what we accomplished. First, there was the commitment to the longevity and growth of the IDC. And then Charleston will be remembered as a historic assembly because it is the first time we had the leadership of the IDC and the leadership of the ITF in the same room. And we left there with a resolution to support each other, not to say we’re going to merge institutionally; no, but as workers we are one, two divisions but we are one. That’s so significant.

When we first started to put this thing together for the IDC, we wanted to make sure we could get the ITF people here. In order for the ITF to come, Richie Hughes, the International president [of the ILA], had to give the green light. I found out that the people in London at the ITF were saying, If Richie doesn’t participate, we can’t participate. See that’s the difference between it and the IDC. That’s what we need to get away from, because people internationally they know the ILA is flat, missing in action, and they’re excited by our reform movement but they’re handcuffed by bureaucratic protocol. So I tried to reach out to the ILA. Donna [DeWitt, president of the South Carolina state federation] got on the phone to the AFL-CIO. Eventually we had Frank Leyes here, head of the ITF’s dockers division; we had Paddy Crumlin here, of the Maritime Union of Australia (ITF).

So we had discussions. Now, Paddy and “Big Bob” [McEllrath, president of the ILWU] — these guys can openly and fully represent their workers; I have to always qualify and say, I’m speaking only for Charleston — and when sensitive issues come up that might be a little offensive to the ILA they always say, “That’s your internal politics; we can’t get into it, y’all have to work that out.” I stopped both of them this week and said, “Let me tell you something, it’s no longer just my problem. It’s your problem, and it’s your problem.” No, no, no, no, no, no. I said, “Listen, you all are here to promote a global solidarity chain. How in the world do you all expect to accomplish that when you got a gaping hole on the East Coast of the United States, the largest trading bloc in the world?”

My International union is in collaboration with management against the ILWU. They’re depending on 2014 and the expansion of the Panama Canal. They’re looking to play that canal, divert ships. You see the problem here? This is a West Coast problem. I’m living with the politics; Richie and them can’t stop me. I’m in an independent local, and I’ve told them face to face, “We were a union when y’all came South in 1936, and we’ll be a union when you’re gone.” So the ILWU can sit there and take that approach if it wants to, but it needs to be putting pressure on the ILA to shoulder up, take its rightful place in this global movement. Because the ILWU can’t win otherwise. The East Coast is gonna be its cancer.

When I spoke at the West Coast convention in Seattle last May, Richie was there, Richie went before me. Ehhhhh. When I got up I said, We got to wake up to that canal, both the ILA and the ILWU. Everyone’s excited about it; they’re licking their chops on the East Coast, and the employers are laughing because they know they got leverage against the West Coast. It is time that we have a dockers’ conference in the United States, both East and West in attendance. We could meet in Vegas, anyplace y’all want to meet. We could close the doors and go in there and talk about the Super Bowl, but the message it would send to the employers… They’re going to wonder, What the hell is going on? Finally these cats are gettin together; that’s dangerous.

And when I called for that, the place erupted. But then the momentum was lost, because, you know, the West Coast has its own internal politics. And I’m thinking, you can’t even do this symbolically? Are you out of your mind? The goal is to get something done. Don’t get diverted. Keep the people’s agenda first, your ego last, and we will win every time. So come on, man.

It’s so frustrating observing organized labor from the outside, because some things are so obvious, people have to be smart enough to—

Riley: I tell my son, there’s one thing to be smart; there’s another thing to be wise. Wisdom is the principal thing. You have to know what you’re up against, and you have to know how to get to where you want to be. Sometimes it’s a straight line. Sometimes you have to go around this, go around that, avoid these minefields over here to get there. George Bush was president; he wasn’t a smart man. I like to sit and listen and observe, because I realize there’s a lot of people in union positions, they’re not smart; they’re not even wise.

You don’t have to be smart to lead, but if you’re wise you know you’re not smart. I’m not gonna perpetrate; I’m not gonna say I’m the big strategist, the intellectual, I’m not. But I know some things, and I want the best working with me. There ain’t but one guy gonna head an administration at one time, so if I surround myself with the best and they do a good job, it’s enough that it happened under my administration. I’m not smart enough to do it, but I’m smart enough to get the people together who can.

I hear other labor leaders say, “I finished high school.” Okay, then act as though you finished high school. There are trained minds to help you. You can apply the street tactics, put it all in a pot together. I surround myself with the best lawyers available, but there’s a time when I say, “Wait a minute. You’re looking at it from a purely legal standpoint; from a labor leader’s standpoint it’s not gonna work. Your job as my attorney is to counsel me to fully understand the consequences if I go left, if I go right. Once I understand, the decision is mine. If I get in trouble, get me out.”

So you have to balance all these things, and you cannot be afraid to tell whomever — I don’t care how smart they are — “On this one, my gut, my heart, my mind tells me something different. I’m going this way.” As long as you understand, then you can intelligently weigh. But if you don’t understand, then you’re not making a decision weighing everything.

There are unions that inherited a great legacy, but what are they doing to build upon that legacy? I always go back to my Bible teaching. You may have heard that parable of the talents. This one guy is given the talent and he just buries it. And he tells God, I didn’t want to lose it. And God says, You fool! If I’m left with an inheritance, my job is to multiply it, you know. That’s what drives me every day. I’ve got to leave the local better than I found it. But now I see there’s a crisis and I don’t get this sense of urgency from a lot of union leaders. It’s urgent that we turn this thing around now. These corporations are getting stronger; they’re controlling governments.

Zico Tamela from the South Africa transport workers union was making the point that people always talk about how powerful capital is: we can’t win because capital is so powerful. When hasn’t it been powerful? he said. So the question is what are the right strategies now to confront it? I look at this global cargo chain that you and others in longshore talk about, and it is a system of shipping and distribution that has so many weak points potentially, but it also seems so well coordinated. So how does labor close that gap between the possible and the actual? How do you exploit the fragility of the system?

Riley: There can be no globalization without trade, and there can be no trade without transportation. That’s the truth, and it’s not rocket science to figure out a strategy. There are more of us than there are of them. Education, ground campaigns, pooled resources. The people power we have. The money power we have, pension funds, the potential for leveraging that stuff. What we’re lacking is vision, leadership, will.

I’m a man of faith, and I pray, “God, give me the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David, the patience of Job.” Solomon asked David before he died, You had a great kingdom. What do I do? David said, Be strong in solitude; do the right thing even when no one’s watching you. Be courageous in decision-making. Honor the Lord thy God. Those three things. And I got that message just before the confrontation that led to the Charleston Five. Driving to work, thinking about what I had to do, the radio was on a Christian broadcast and I heard that. And, man, by the time I got to the hall I was ready.

Now I’m thinking, this model of disrupting a system in the interests of justice has been around forever. We just got to perfect it, and we got to have people willing to do it. And we got to see it. Again, the Bible: where there is no vision, the people perish. If the labor movement is going to realize the full potential of its strength, at the center will have to be those of us who control transportation, protected by all others. We can impact other struggles because of where we’re positioned. If we begin to shut down ports in defense of someone on the perimeter, and governments start to act against us, then everybody else in labor acts: hands off those in transportation. It’s militant, it’s ambitious, but we don’t have any other recourse.

Right now, though, there is no plan for that conference you talked about in Vegas between the East Coast and the West Coast, right? There is no plan for coordinated defense or action even in the United States, let alone the world. Is there any connection between you guys and the railroad workers? You guys and the truckers?

Riley: That’s what’s got to happen. Jim Spinoza [the former head of the ILWU] made some of those connections, right before the 2002 lockout. He called me to help with strike preparation up and down the West Coast educating people, talking about the value of community involvement, etc. And then when they were about to begin contract negotiations, Spinoza wanted the employers to know they were not negotiating in a vacuum. He brought me from the East Coast, Frank Leyes’ predecessor from the ITF; he brought in Hoffa, the guys from the unions that control the tugboats in the Panama Canal; he brought in the Japanese dockworkers’ union, a couple of others. And we were all sitting around the side when they were at the table. He said, Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you all to some people. So it was like, I got rail, I got trucks, I got the Panama Canal, I got the East Coast, I got the internationals. You all ready to bargain?

This was at the bargaining session?

Riley: Right. That was his weapon. Well, you know, the employers used the Bush administration as theirs. This was right at the beginning, though; we sat there for a while, and then they asked us to leave, but that was a powerful statement.

Maybe the reason for the lockout.

Riley: Well, so that’s vision, but then you’ve got to follow through. You’ve got to show the employers that you’re serious. They know that we are fragmented. They study us. And even more so now when big banks and insurance companies are putting billions into buying up waterfront interests. But we can match their power because we got something they don’t have: our labor. They have been able to turn working people on working people because we’re not organized the way we should be. We have to have a comprehensive plan.

On the subject of plans, it was impressive how many people were at the IDC meeting, but there are so many problems, and two sets of problems, really. The Europeans and Americans are worried about automation; the countries of the Southern Hemisphere are worried about privatization and just awful conditions and low pay and coups. So how do you make solidarity real? How do you come together on a plan, despite such a divergence in your immediate particular concerns, to shift the balance of power?

Riley: That’s where the vision and the leadership and the courage come in. Listen, if I was a general right now, like General Bill Fletcher, I would say, Everyone leave the table; we’re going underground. When we’re negotiating and the other side is not giving in, you know what I do? I don’t argue. I say, Okay, I’m gonna stop. We walk away; we remain quiet.

The quiet kills them. They don’t know which way I’m gonna pop up. They know I’m gonna pop up. They don’t know where, they don’t know when, and they don’t know how. We’ve got to revamp — the AFL, everyone. There’s got to be folks willing to leave the table. Screw the politicians; we’re going to re-collect, we’re going to assess our resources together, educate ourselves, come up with a plan. And when you’re absent from the process, absent from the table, they don’t know what’s getting ready to erupt. They know these cats are now getting serious.

With Costa Rica right now, how do you handle the government just replacing the entire union leadership? You put pressure on the people that are going in there with the ships. I don’t care what kind of government it is, they got to make sure that commerce moves in and out of the country. If dockworkers tell Maersk, if you carry a ship into there we are going to hit you everywhere, what are you gonna do? You gonna sue Charleston? We’re gonna hit you there. You got enough money to sue us globally? Sue us globally — and try to get your work done. You’re going to bring the military into Costa Rica? You better bring it in everywhere else. There’s not enough people to do it. How you going to protect your borders if all your people are occupying the ports? What we do has to be so radical.

People say, That just seems so big. It’s not. The ITF has been around forever. They have contacts everywhere. The IDC has been around for ten years. To be successful you don’t need all, as long as you got the majority where it matters. But, again, you got to be able to see it.

Sometimes I think, Am I just being naïve? Am I simplistic? When I came to the union I heard about solidarity and collective action, and this thing ain’t hard. It ain’t hard, Bob and Richie, and Hoffa in the middle and whoever we got on the rail. It’s not hard. If the box can’t get to the rail, we don’t need the rail. If Hoffa don’t want to play, forget Hoffa. He can’t get nothin’ if there’s nothin’ comin’ onto the shores. The trucking business would be cut by two-thirds, because the US is not producing anything anymore, so what are trucks gonna be hauling?

So we don’t need all. Get the ones we need. The others will eventually come along. And once we demonstrate that strength one or two times, three times, sooner or later, they gonna get it. When those letters from international dockworkers unions started coming into the state of South Carolina, to the Department of Commerce, saying South Carolina’s commerce is about to be interrupted if this Charleston Five issue isn’t settled, that’s what got their attention. A bunch of black guys holding picket signs and such: that don’t change a thing.

It’s the same with Wal-Mart. You can say “Don’t buy Wal-Mart” all you want, preach it till the cows come home; Wal-Mart’s gonna be boomin’. I can’t say to my neighbor, “Man, don’t shop at Wal-Mart.” He’ll say, “Well, that’s easy for you, Kenny; how much money do you make an hour? I’m only making $7.25.” So how you gonna tell all these poor people, “Don’t shop at Wal-Mart?” You want to get Wal-Mart’s attention? Stop the goods.

We have to get bold. We’re dying, and when you’re dying you explore radical medication because you’ve got no other choice. Maybe the medication will kill you, but the disease will definitely kill you. You have to get to the point where Martin Luther King was on that final night, when he said, “Like any man I would like to live a long life, but it really don’t matter to me now.” He had a vision. We are going to die anyway, so it really don’t matter; we have got to fight now.

One thing we as a people, black people, understand is struggle. When you struggle, sometimes you get immediate relief. But it might take five, ten years, and you know what? It might not even come in your lifetime, but we struggle anyway for someone coming behind. Martin didn’t live this, Malcolm didn’t live this, but they died so we might live this. And we can’t be at the point where it’s like, I’m just worried about my family, my comfort; I’m not going to go to jail. Because the other side doesn’t care about your or anyone else’s comfort. The other side is determined.

Absolutely. We spoke earlier about the automation at Rotterdam: the huge dock and all the moving equipment with no visible human presence, except on the ships and barges. You mentioned stopping the goods: clearly the other side knows its own vulnerability and is moving to minimize it. Let’s talk a bit about the workers’ vulnerability. A moment ago you said, Bob, Richie, it’s not that hard to get West Coast dockers and East Coast dockers to work out a strategy for the common interest. How hard has it been for the Longshore Workers Coalition just to reform the ILA to get the East Coast dockers’ act together?

Riley: That’s hard. The Workers Coalition is fighting for a democratic union, one man/one vote. I get to vote for the president of the United States; I can’t cast a vote for Richie. It’s delegate voting, and the leaders in New York set up the apparatus whereby they control it all.

Virginia is a Southern state, right? The industry, everyone in the country considers it a Southern state. The ILA considers it the North Atlantic, controlled by headquarters in New York. The Great Lakes: North Atlantic, controlled by New York. Masters, mates and pilots, a huge voting bloc, the single largest in the ILA: all of them North Atlantic. All the tugboat operators, second largest voting bloc: North Atlantic. Puerto Rico: big vote, lot of money, North Atlantic! It would take every vote in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast, and you still couldn’t beat them. You can’t even get the resolution to go to one/man one vote passed because it’s got to go through the convention, where you get one vote per hundred. I tell people, African-Americans in particular, if this were the situation in city, state and county governments, we’d have already filed a case with the Justice Department.

We have gone toe to toe with the ILA leadership and they don’t understand why we’re always angry. I say, Let me tell you something, you want to know what makes Kenny Riley Kenny Riley: I’ve seen this abuse in my neighborhood growing up; I’ve seen how we had to fight to get election districts redrawn to get fair representation. All the stuff you guys heard about civil rights, I lived it. I rode in the back of the bus. I drank from the black water fountain. I went through the side door of the theater and sat in the balcony. After living all that, I’m supposed to act as if I’m blind to what’s happening in the union? No, I didn’t come to the ILA to lay my civil rights at the doorstep.

When the Workers Coalition was first getting started, did you think you would still be beating your head against the wall ten years later?

Riley: Yes. It took ten years of effort to reform our local, because one thing the ILA uses extremely well is money and intimidation. They’re good at that. The positions pay very well, and folks like money, you know what I mean? It muzzles people; people can’t speak their heart. Because how can people look at this, know it’s not right and not do anything? The reason is in their account each month.

The coalition has pushed resolution after resolution. We’ve used the apparatus that is available to us, but the machine is so entrenched. My goal initially was just to get member power, but they don’t care, because the members don’t vote for them. We had to go back to basics; we decided we’ve got to take over leadership of the locals. So now we’ve got Charleston. We’ve got Mark Bass in Mobile. We’ve got Mike Payne in Fort Lauderdale/Port Everglades. We’ve got Virgil Maldonado in Bayonne, New Jersey. If Eddie McBride hadn’t been unseated in Savannah… His successors, two of them: bought; money got ’em. If we still had Savannah, there would be a different ILA today.

Like I said to you before: we don’t need all to force a change. If we had five presidents, most of them African American, from five key ports we could say, Listen, if this, this and this don’t happen, in these five ports there will be repercussions. These five ports are gonna rise up; we’re gonna revoke check-off, we are not going to pay to New York anymore, and it’s going to cause a whole lot of problems, because right now our dues money goes to New York and almost none of it comes back to us. New York gets $25 million; Texas gets $8 miillion; the African American zone of the South Atlantic, we don’t control jack. Our marine council has a budget of $24-28,000. That’s not equitable.

Three or four years ago, when a position for International vice president on the executive council opened up, and the ILA was trying to get around Charleston, which was then the number two port on the East Coast, I told their attorney, “Do me one favor. Set me up a meeting with them [the International officers]. Tell them it’s going to be a leave-your-titles-at-the-door meeting. Whatever they ever wanted to say to me, call me a nigger, anything, this is gonna be the time, because I’m comin ready to do the same thing.” So we met in Houston, and I told them then, “Pass over South Carolina if you want to [for the executive council slot]. And then come to South Carolina and try to choose someone other than me. You are not going to believe what’s going to happen.” Well, they’re agitated: Are you threatening us? I just folded my arms. “I’m not threatening you, man. I’m just telling you. If you don’t believe me, try me.”

When they finally took the vote on the council it was 9-12, and I was voted in as a vice president. I never let them think they’ve given me something, cause if you ever let them believe that you’re going to be indebted, and then you got to help them with their agenda. It ain’t happenin’. It’s the people below me that got me there. Kenny Riley ain’t nobody without Local 1422. Kenny Riley alone, who’s he? People all the time say, “Man, you’re the Man.” I’m no Man; how can I be the Man? You know how long I been livin’ here? How long I been president of 1422 now, fourteen years? I been in this town 56 years. They didn’t know me before; when I’m done, they’re not going to know me then. I’m a realist; I ain’t nobody without that local.

So now I’m like the Marines: we need a few good men, a few good men controlling super-ports. Mobile is going to be the port of the future for the East Coast. The union says the five major ports in the South Atlantic are Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Tampa. That’s how the structure was set up since God knows when. The industry says the five major ports in the South Atlantic are Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Mobile.

Where is the deepest water in the South Atlantic? Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile. Where is the best rail in the South Atlantic? Norfolk, Savannah, Jacksonville, Mobile. Mobile makes the cut on every measure. We’ve got Mark Bass as president of the local now. Guess what’s the biggest port by volume in Florida? Mike Payne’s local in Fort Lauderdale/Port Everglades. Jacksonville is strategic because of the rail, but Fort Lauderdale is the busiest: the largest cruise ship port, the largest passenger terminal in the world is there. So Mike is controlling a key port. We’ve got to keep these guys in position, support them, surround them with the best.

If we can recapture Jacksonville… We just lost Jacksonville about a year ago. We’ve got more work to do because these guys drop off the scene as soon as they get voted out. It’s their despair. I got voted out before. You got to learn how to win and learn how to lose. I ran for president twice and lost. I ran for vice president twice and lost. I never missed a meeting. I never left the front row. So this is not out of reach. If we could get New Orleans. If we could get Houston again. We’ve had some of these ports before, just not all at the same time. If we can get a couple more again, we can change the ILA.

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. Her stunning report on the “cargo chain”, as described at the recent conference of radical dockworkers from around the world, meeting in Charleston, S.C. is featured in our current newsletter, available by subscription. She can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net




JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.