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Charleston 5 support fired UAW strikers

Published Mar 16, 2008 8:11 PM

A March 4 community event here for the Freightliner 5—members of United Auto Workers Local 3520 who were fired after leading a strike—highlighted support the five are getting from other militant unionists in the South.

Ken Riley, President of ILA
Local 1422, gives encouragement
at Freightliner 5 meeting.
WW photo: Dante Strobino

After the workers refused to accept the company’s concessionary contract and initiated a strike on April 3, 2007, Freightliner bosses fired five members of Local 3520’s bargaining committee—Robert Whiteside, Allen Bradley, Franklin Torrence, Glenna Swinford and David Crisco—along with six other workers.

The contract had 22 articles with no tentative agreement and 86 unsettled sub-issues relating to health and safety. Among the concessions was a two-tier wage structure, which pays newer workers far less than their seniors.

The other six got their jobs back after signing “model employee” agreements; one was subsequently terminated.

Kenneth Riley, a dockworker and president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422, gave encouragement to the 50-plus Freightliner workers at the meeting. Local 1422 is home of the Charleston 5—workers who were put under house arrest in 2000 for leading a picket in Charleston, S.C.

Community support for labor

At the meeting, many spoke about organizing in the South and the need for community-labor support groups. In 2007, North Carolina and South Carolina ranked 50th and 48th, respectively, in union density in the U.S.

Riley spoke about the Charleston 5’s successful campaign after they faced conspiracy charges for leading a picket line at which more than 600 cops attacked 150 workers. Without being convicted of any crime, the Charleston 5 were then put under house arrest for almost two years.

“It was not until we got the community involved that things changed,” Riley said. They rallied churches, community groups and students. The case became an international campaign where trade unionists threatened to go on strike if the five were convicted. In the end, they were freed and given a fine of $100 each.

Local 1422 is “one of the largest and most powerful union locals in the state with the nation’s lowest rate of unionization,” stated Riley. “State troopers attacked the longshore workers only days after an historic march on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, at which 47,000 people demanded that the Confederate battle flag be taken down from the South Carolina State Capitol.

“Local 1422 is a largely African-American local, a very important segment of the Charleston community. It is significant that we are under attack because we are living proof that unionization is the best anti-poverty program ever created.”

Workers at Freightliner are finding ways to build a similar campaign. The Freightliner 5 recently returned from a tour of the Midwest and West Coast to gain support for their efforts.

Many Freightliner workers also participated with 7,000 others in the “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” (HKonJ) march in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 11, which marched on the North Carolina Legislature for the second year in a row. The HKonJ People’s Assembly has a progressive 14-point platform that includes livable wages, collective bargaining for public workers, ending the Iraq war, civil rights enforcement, better education and addressing chapters of racist history in North Carolina. Local People’s Assemblies are being organized throughout the year across the state.

Solidarity is key

“In a ‘right-to-work’ state, with only 3 percent of employees unionized, it is extremely important for the community to rally behind the workers to improve their lot in life. ... When these workers are able to attain these goals, this betters the community as a whole,” said Glenna Swinford, one of the Freightliner 5.

“Solidarity is more than just a word, it is actions. Solidarity is when people come together with one common goal, to undo the wrongs and build a movement for justice for all.”

To learn more about how to support the Freightliner 5, visit justice4five.com. Strobino is an organizer with UE. The UE Eastern Region recently passed a resolution supporting the reinstatement of the Cleveland 5 and encourages other locals to do the same.