Charleston, S.C. — People from the West Coast and across the country traveled to Charleston, S.C., to attend the ninth biannual Southern Human Rights Organizers Conference (SHROC) on Dec. 7-9. The conference was held in a hall belonging to Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents thousands of dock workers on the East Coast.
It is also home to most of the Charleston Five longshore workers — members of ILA Local 1422, four African-American and one white — who were arrested in January 2000 on trumped-up charges stemming from a protest over union busting. Due to tremendous mass solidarity with these workers in the U.S. and worldwide, the charges were finally dropped in November 2001.
SHROC, first inaugurated in 1996, has been held in various Southern cities such as Oxford and Jackson, Miss.; Miami; Atlanta; Memphis; Houston; Durham, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Charleston. An estimated 300 conference participants traveled from these cities as well as from Chicago; Greenville, Miss.; New Orleans; San Antonio, Texas; Boston; New York; Jersey City, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; and Columbia and Greenville, S.C.
While a great number of the participants were of African descent, there were also whites, Latinos/as, Indigenous and Palestinian activists. Two of the activists represented the inspiring Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
With the theme “Forging the Path to Victory — Solidarity Across the Global South,” the main goals of the conference included bringing together activists to discuss social issues and develop strategies for building a movement for human rights in the Deep South; strengthening labor, youth, civil rights and anti-war organizations; and deepening global outreach and unity with the exploited and downtrodden.
Whether it’s catfish workers in Mississippi, immigrant domestic workers in Miami, environmental justice activists fighting pollution in North Carolina, low-wage workers fighting for dignity, or youth fighting police terror, SHROC helped to give voice to these important struggles and many more locally, statewide and around the world.
The conference was dedicated to the memory of Trayvon Martin, the Black youth murdered Feb. 26 by a racist vigilante in Florida; Samuel Hammond Jr., Henry Ezekial Smith and Delane Herman Middleton, Black students killed by racist police in 1968 during a desegregation struggle at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.; and the late Septima Clark, a long-time civil rights activist born in Charleston.
‘Changing what’s possible at MUSC’
A major issue dominating the three-day conference was the struggle of predominantly African-American medical assistants at the Medical University of South Carolina. Some 54 of these medical workers have been illegally dismissed for filing justified grievances against this private medical college’s intolerable working conditions, low pay and racist attitudes on the part of management.
A number of these assistants, demanding nurse’s training, attended the conference to share their stories. SHROC organizers called a direct action in front of MUSC on Dec. 8. A picket line of about 200 activists chanted for a couple of hours, while some of the impacted medical workers stood across the street cheering them on.
The main theme of the protest was “Changing what’s possible at MUSC.” Along with “No justice, no peace” and “Ain’t no power like the power of the people cause the power of the people don’t stop” was “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now, workers are on the move.”
This struggle was likened to the historic 1969 hospital workers’ strike against MUSC led by the 1199 union in Charleston. The strike, which lasted 113 days, was initiated by hospital aides, who won an increase in pay and better grievance procedures. The gains were short-lived, however, due to South Carolina being, then and now, a state that adheres to right-to-work-for-less laws that undermine union organizing, including the right to collective bargaining, which also affects the MUSC 54.
Leaders of ILA 1422 are participating in current mediation talks with the MUSC administration on behalf of the 54.
The opening of the conference included round-table strategic discussions on the criminalization of youth of color by the police and society in general; winning rights for excluded workers; and the continued building of the Southern Workers Assembly, which held its first meeting in early September in Charlotte, N.C., following the March on Wall Street South.
Plenary sessions, which were all connected to building a strong, united Southern human rights movement, focused on views about the 2012 presidential elections; present struggles being waged in South Carolina and other parts of the region; U.S. slavery built on theft of Native lands in the U.S. and the relationship to the worldwide capitalist market today; the global supply chain as key to human rights empowerment; and the lessons and victories for local and regional mass campaigns.
Topics during concurrent breakout sessions centered on combatting discrimination; seizing the airways and building community FM radio stations; waging war on prisons for profits; exposing U.S. policies on immigration and building solidarity; women’s rights are human rights; tactics for achieving racial justice; moving forward with a Southern Regional People’s Assembly; and organizing a U.S. Labor Party.
Solidarity messages were presented throughout the conference by Clarence Thomas, International Longshore Workers Union Local 10; William Camacaro, Venezuelan Circle in New York; General Consul Jorge Veloz, Venezuela; Sarah White, Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights; and Monica Moorehead, Workers World Party.
SHROC solidarity with longshore workers
Another major highlight of the conference was the keynote address given by Kenneth Riley, president of ILA Local 1422. Riley, also the first African-American president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, was introduced by his brother, Leonard Riley, also a leader of this struggle-oriented local, which is well-known and respected in the Charleston community.
Ken Riley spoke of the need for unity and solidarity among all workers, organized and unorganized, throughout the South and the world. The ILA is currently in contract negotiations with shipping bosses over the epidemic of outsourcing dock worker jobs. If a decent contract is not reached by the extended deadline of Dec. 30, there is a real possibility of an East Coast longshore strike that will impact shipping from Maine to Texas.
A resolution in solidarity with longshore workers was adopted at SHROC that reads in part: “The negotiations between the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) representing longshore workers on East and Gulf Coasts and U.S. Maritime Alliance representing the employers of the shipping industry which is due to expire on Dec. 30, 2012, have reached a critical juncture.
“As the economic crisis has left millions of U.S. workers unemployed, employers are proposing technological changes at a pace that will increase the unemployment and deepen economic and social crisis for working people.”
“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Southern Human Rights Organizers Conference stands in solidarity with the ILA in its negotiations for a fair contract for its more than 14,000 members representing thousands more families and communities who will be affected by the contract.
“That SHROC will build solidarity committees and actions especially in the East and Gulf Coast cities where the 14 main ports are located;
“That SHROC calls on unions, worker and community and faith-based organizations to pass resolutions in support of the ILA in its efforts to gain a fair contract;
“That SHROC calls on all unions, worker and community and faith-based organizations and supporters to send emails to U.S. Maritime Alliance Chairman and CEO James A. Capo, email@example.com, calling on them to negotiate in good faith and to protect jobs for working people. Send copies of emails to James A. Capo to SHROC at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
SHROC founder Jaribu Hill told Workers World, when asked about the significance of this conference: “In 2008, during the SHROC IX, we celebrated the election of the first African-American president. At SHROC X, we came together to strategize to make uncompromising demands on behalf of the 99%. We will tell President Obama that we will not remain silent to allow his or any other administration to ignore our just cries for real equality and inclusion. We can and we must stand in solidarity with dock workers, hospital workers, catfish workers, formerly incarcerated workers and Walmart workers from here to Bangladesh. The struggle will and must continue.”
For more information, go to southernhumanrights.org. See a video of sound bytes of the conference at http://tinyurl.com/amzlevv.