Sunday, February 21, 2010

Latest round-up of labor activity in the South: A Charleston celebration, a guilty plea in immigrant raid, and a contract for Memphis teachers

To the left is Ken Riley, president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C.

Let's take a look at some recent labor activity around the South:

CHARLESTON, S.C. - A two-day celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the International Longshoremen's Association victory over an anti-union attorney general and union-busting Danish shipping line will be held Feb. 25 and 26.

Called the "first major labor battle of the 21st century"--in a right-to-work state, no less--the dramatic January 2000 labor action pitted ILA Local 1422 against state troopers and local police who used helicopters, armed vehicles, patrol boats, and attack dogs to squash a picket line. The dockworkers were protesting a decision by the Nordana Shipping Line to break a 22-year-old relationship with the local by hiring nonunion workers. Why pay union workers $16.50 to $25 an hour when nonunion workers will do the job for $8 an hour?

Law enforcement authorities arrested several union members on riot charges that were later tossed. Enter then-South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, a politician cut from the same cloth as "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, Cole Blease, Cotton Ed Smith, and Strom Thurmond. Vowing "jail, jail, and more jail," Condon got a grand jury to go along with felony indictments against five longshoremen--who came to be known as the "Charleston Five". The five eventually served 18 months under house arrest before agreeing to misdemeanor rioting charges.

The union won its standoff with Nordana after a show of unity by fellow longshoremen in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The "battle" became a showcase of how international solidarity can be used to win victories for workers' rights. Local 1422 president Ken Riley emerged as not only a hero in Charleston but also a major reform figure in the ILA, a union long tainted by a history of corruption and ties to organized crime.

The Feb. 25/26 celebration will include the launching of a new organizing initiative in the South under the banner "Jobs With Rights Now!"

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - More than a year after the largest workplace raid by federal officials on undocumented workers in U.S. history, we're still waiting to see just how much the federal government is going hold Howard Industries to account for its role in the circumstances that led to the raid.

In December, company executive Jose Humberto Gonzalez pleaded guilty to a charge that he knowingly hired undocumented workers at the company's plant in Laurel.

As a result of the raid, federal agents sent hundreds of immigrant workers to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La., where they were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. Female immigrant workers arrested at the plant--many of them mothers with young children--were forced to wear monitoring devices on their ankles and forbidden to leave Mississippi.

Their crime? Working without proper documentation at a company that had already been fined for 54 safety violations. They helped make power transformers and voltage regulators, reportedly at wages much less than other workers, and many of them living in substandard conditions as a result.

Gonzales faced a 12-count indictment and pleaded guilty to one of the counts. That could put him in prison for up to five years. He has been the only company official charged with any crime. What about other Howard Industries officials who perhaps don't have Spanish surnames? What did they know and when did they know it? Who looked the other way? I'm not holding my breath for fresh indictments. This is a company known for its owners' gifts to politicians and that was so beloved by Mississippi lawmakers that they awarded it $31.5 million in taxpayer money in 2002 as incentive to expand its operations.

In fact, the state of Mississippi has a new law that penalizes companies using undocumented workers if those companies have public contracts. Whether Howard has faces such penalties or even has such contracts is uncertain, but one of the law's sponsors, state Sen. Lee Yancy, R-Brandon, says he has full confidence that Howard is doing everything it can to abide by the law.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Members of the Memphis Education Association have agreed to a new contract with city schools that won them a 2 percent pay raise with the guarantee of another 1 percent pay raise next year.

With the agreement, Memphis City Schools now has signed contracts with all seven of its workers' unions. The pay raise is smaller than in years past, but, given the hard economic times, Memphis Education Association leaders said they were happy to get it. Union membership totals more than 6,000.

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