On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston Five [Buy Now]

By Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger

Monthly Review Press, 224 pages, $17.95

When 660 police officers charged striking dockworkers near the International Longshoreman’s Association hall on a chilly January night in 2000, it was perhaps the most dramatic confrontation this city has seen since the cannons fired on Fort Sumter.

This is the story of ILA Local 1422, the overwhelmingly black union and the most powerful black organization in South Carolina, and how the forces of global trade and homegrown racism nearly destroyed it.

It’s also a powerful insight into the way politics and business work together in S.C., often to the detriment of democracy and economic development.

Like dockworkers everywhere, ILA 1422 had taken a beating in recent decades as international shipping industry had gone to “containerization,” eliminating tens of thousands of high-paying union jobs.

On the tumultuous night in question, a number of heads were cracked by flailing night sticks, including that of Local 1422 president Ken Riley. There were also five arrests out of the 150-odd ILA members who were on strike.

This is a story you won’t get in any public school history books or any downtown history tours. It’s the story of black people standing up to the white establishment. It’s the story of demagoguery and political manipulation. It’s the story of South Carolina brought into the 21st century.

In every great saga there is a hero and knave.

The hero is this story is Ken Riley, the president of ILA 1422, a man who transcends his humble background and bearing to become the embodiment of his union’s will to survive.

The knave, of course, is Charlie Condon, the state attorney general who thought he saw in this alignment of racial animus and corporate overreaching the perfect configuration to launch him into the Governor’s Mansion and beyond.

This book only confirms what a ruthless and dangerous little demagogue Condon was. (One assumes his career is now in the past tense, after he suffered embarrassing primary defeats in his campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.)

Erem and Durrenberger tell this complex story with clarity, unraveling the twisted threads of S.C.’s ugly race relations, corporate thuggery and religious zealotry, explaining how those great social forces converged in an effort to strangle ILA 1422.

This is an important work of American labor history.

There will be a reception for the authors and a book signing of On the Global Waterfront at ILA headquarters, 1142 Morrison Drive, Feb. 9, 4-7 p.m. The public is welcome.