As state legislatures convene around the country, right-wing politicians have introduced a number of bills aimed at curbing union power. Indiana lawmakers recently enacted a law making Indiana the 23rd right-to-work-for-less state in the US, and in Arizona, lawmakers will soon be taking up legislation to deny collective bargaining rights to public service workers. But South Carolina seems to be running the most aggressive race to the bottom.
Last year, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley kicked off her four-year term as the state’s chief executive by staking out a clearly anti-union position. “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the State of South Carolina,” Haley said.
This year state representative Bill Sandifer introduced legislation whose goal is to make South Carolina’s right-to-work-for-less law “the toughest in the country.” It would require unions to disclose every financial transaction and make public their membership lists. It would also raise fines for violating right-to-work-for-less laws from $100 to $10,000.
“This unwarranted attack is political grandstanding intended to shift the blame for our economic problems from policy makers to workers,” said Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, a union whose membership is largely African-American and which Bill Fletcher in Solidarity Divided describes as “one of the strongest union and African-American institutions in the state.”
Riley wondered why the legislature would consider such extreme measures considering that only 5 percent of the state’s workforce belong to unions, but he did note that longshore workers in Charleston occupy a powerful position with regards to the state’s commerce.
According to the State Port Authority, cargo moved through the Charleston port affects 280,600 jobs in the state and has an economic impact of $45 billion a year. Because of the ILA’s strategic position, it seems likely that one purpose of Rep. Sandifer’s bill is to bust the ILA.
Such a move could have serious consequences for the state’s economy. “Ninety-five percent of all containers shipped out of East Coast ports are required by contracts to be handled by union labor,” Riley said. “If you bust our union, you close the port of Charleston.”
Brett Bursey, director of South Carolina’s Progressive Network, noted that the same politicians who strongly oppose government intervention in business are now trying to impose harsh regulations on businesses that use union labor. Bursey also warned that if Sanders bill passes it could spark strife at the port.
It’s possible that some people who believe that it’s unjust to put corporate interests above the rights of workers might picket the port if Sandifer’s bill becomes law, Bursey said.
“My guys won’t cross a picket line,” Riley said.
Riley and Local 1422 have a history of protecting their own right to work. Back in 2000, ILA locals 1422, 1422A and 1771 picketed the port to stop the use of non-union workers by one of the stevedore companies.
South Carolina’s then-attorney general Charles Condon decided to bust the picket line and, he hoped, the union as well. He managed to convince local police departments to intervene. As a result, Riley and four other longshore workers were arrested for inciting to riot.
The charges were subsequently dropped after a legal-defense campaign brought the case of the Charleston 5 to national attention. The ILWU, which represents longshore workers on the West Coast, was the first union to throw its support behind the Charleston 5, but the national AFL-CIO soon followed suit. Riley toured the country explaining the union-busting nature of the charges.
As the facts of the case and underlying motives behind the arrests became more well-known, it became much more difficult to prosecute the five. Attorney General Condon compared the five to the 9/11 terrorists, but in the end, all the serious charges against them were dropped. Furthermore, the ILA signed an agreement to use union longshore workers with the company whose original decision to use non-union workers sparked the protest.