Charleston, S.C., port shutdown blocks ship loaded with Walmart textiles

Charleston, S.C., Dec. 20  — At 6:00 a.m. today, more than 25 community members and union members from across South Carolina and North Carolina held an informational picket in front of the Wando Terminal of the Port of Charleston. This protest helped bring attention to the ship being docked that morning — the Maersk Carolina  — which held goods from a factory in Bangledesh where at least 112 workers had been killed last month.

After noticing the picket on the way into work, rank-and-file members of the International Longshoreman’s Association decided to honor the picket line and not unload the cargo, effectively shutting down the entire port for nearly two hours and resulting in the loss of millions of dollars. More than 20 workers joined the picket line, rather than entering the port.

“Our position is one of sympathizing with this cause. We saw picket signs and we reacted appropriately. That is what union people do!” said Leonard Riley, rank-and-file dock worker and member of ILA Local 1422 during the rally. “My hats off to my brothers in ILA Local 1771 and ILA Local 1422 who are over there in the parking lot and are not on the docks. That is the obligation that organized labor has to these struggles.”

On Nov. 24 workers, mostly women, at the Tazreen textile factory in Bangladesh — who were making clothes for Walmart, Russell and other major multinational corporations — were burned to death after being locked into the factory before a fire. With more than 600 Bangladeshi workers dying in factory fires in the last eight years, and despite a prior statement, Walmart is still contracting with this factory that has inadequate protections against such workplace dangers.

Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, often making no more than $37 per month to $45 per month. Walmart is the world’s largest purchaser of textiles made in Bangladesh. The retail giant has refused to accept any responsibility for the fire or pay any compensation to the victims’ families, and is claiming that labor practices are the responsibility of their subcontractors. They make the same argument about horrible labor practices in subcontracted warehouses inside the US.

“Southerners On New Ground is a southern regional LGBTQ organization that stands with workers internationally, but especially here in the South where there is a history of exploitation and slavery,” stated Jenna Lyles, South Carolina statewide field organizer for SONG, during the picket. “We feel it is important for queer people to be in labor struggles. We are absolutely in solidarity with this struggle.”

A solidarity letter to the demonstration from the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity reads in part: “It is shameful that Walmart, the world’s largest employer, would try to avoid responsibility and any attempt to prevent a fire like this from happening again. Your action obstructs their attempt to ignore this tragedy and reaffirms the need for them to confront the industry’s issues in an honest way. You are helping to hold them accountable!” (Read the entire letter on workers.org)

The same ship had docked at the Port of Newark in New Jersey on Dec. 18. Occupy Wall Street and many other community organizations called a picket that morning, which was attended by nearly 100 people. The Department of Homeland Security was able to move people away from the worker entrance, so the picket line was not noticed by the workers. Yet the picket still sent a very important message and helped inspire folks in Charleston.

The Port of Charleston and Newark are major entryways for profits for the wealthy corporate owners and the 1%. Cargo ships carrying goods from factories overseas dock and are unloaded there. Then the goods are sent out to rail transfer stations, warehouses, and onto trucks before people find them on the shelves at the stores. The Port of Charleston moves an average of more than $161 million in commerce each day, according to the South Carolina Ports website. (tinyurl.com/cexg3ca)

Such labor actions — connecting community activism to workers’ organizing that follows the supply chain — can have tremendous power over the major multinational corporations, which are reaping super-profits from super-exploitation abroad and horribly low wages and union busting inside the U.S. Many lessons have been learned from the valiant actions of communities, the Occupy movement and the rank and-file members of the International Longshore Workers Union on the West Coast, which held several port shutdowns in 2011 and has a longer history of political strikes compared to the East Coast.

Coastwide strike looms for longshore workers

This action is also particularly significant in light of a looming coastwide strike on the East Coast, from Maine through the Gulf of Mexico, as a result of an impasse in contract negotiations between the International Longshoreman’s Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX). The current contract expired at the end of September and was extended until Dec. 30.

According to the ILA website the key battles facing ILA President Harold J. Daggett, as he continues to lead negotiations against the USMX, are the Master Contract Wage Scale and preventing a cap on Container Royalty. Other issues not yet resolved include the eight-hour guarantee and the seven-man lashing gang.

“It is regrettable that USMX has engaged in misleading rhetoric and scare tactics during the time they should have been negotiating with the ILA,” said Daggett. “They put more effort into their media statements than in preparing contract documents. It’s not surprising since they invest in building new ships at nearly $200 million each, but don’t put a dime on the table in negotiations to compensate ILA members who helped them accumulate their riches.”

Leonard Riley told the crowd on Dec. 20 that “it is quite likely that we will be in the same position as you with signs on the picket line come Dec. 30 as you know we are fighting for a fair contract with the employers. In my humble opinion, this is a good dry run. We are sending a message that we will stand up for what is right! ” (tinyurl.com/c9wafto)

Community and union members at the picket declared their support for the workers should they face a strike. Keith Ludlum, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208 at the Smithfield Pork processing plant, told the picketers: “I just wanna tell my brothers of the ILA that we are from Tarheel, N.C. and if you got problems down here, then we got problems. And we are gonna come and we are gonna help.”

As part of the Southern Human Rights Organizing Conference, workers organizations, unions and supporters from around the South met as the Southern Workers Alliance from Dec. 7- 9. They resolved to support the longshore workers for a victorious strike and negotiations.