Why we need a Charleston revival


There is more to the southern charm of Charleston, South Carolina than first meets the eye. This harbour city’s namesake the Charleston dance has spread throughout the world.

During the prohibition years of the 1920s the Charleston became an international dance craze and has stuck with us decade after decade. The dance was used to mock supporters of prohibition and it celebrated a time of rebellion. Dancing its shuffle steps with wild abandon showed that you weren’t scared of authority.

The beat, which some say, was first heard from Charleston dockworkers, has a distinct rhythm.

It was on the docks that I met Ken Riley, inspirational state union secretary and African-American leader of the Charleston Five. After he graduated from college Ken followed his father and grandfather to the wharfs.

Unionised docks from Australia to the USA have been the scene of brutal attacks on workers which have brought out some of the largest demonstrations of international solidarity between working people. Regardless of nationality, race or creed.

A Norwegian freight company hired non-union workers to unload their cargo. One night over 100 workers protested a scuffle broke out and the police responded with a baton charge and firing gas shells. Five men were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after a fight broke out on the docks and faced up to 10 years in jail. The heavy-handed charges meant they spent over a year under house arrest.

On the night of the protest Ken was hit in the head by a rock, with a bleeding gash to the head he drove himself to hospital, and was not arrested hours later when the police rounded up the workers.

He was able to lead an international response and expose the politically motivated actions of the attorney general who would not give the workers a fair hearing. Thousands of wharfies around the world refused to unload the freight company’s cargo and with mounting political pressure the case was settled with a fine.

Indeed nearly every political, religious and labour leader I speak to in Charleston has a story of arrest. Fighting for civil, political and workers rights runs through the veins of this state.

Local US congressman Jim Clyburne told a group of T-Mobile USA call centre workers how he had met his wife when she shared a hamburger with him through the bars of his jail cell, after he organised one of many civil rights marches and demonstrations as a student leader in the 1960s.

Today in South Carolina the protest lines are not found on the docks or on campus. They are found outside call centres with hundreds of workers housed in faceless suburban business parks.

South Carolina is a ’right to work’ state — a misnomer of a phrase, as the laws limits union representation of workers. It does does not guarantee workers a job or fair wages and conditions.

T-Mobile USA is one company that uses fear and intimidation to scare workers away from union representation. At its call centre in Charleston workers exposed brutal local management methods.

In one T-Mobile centre staff were forced to wear a dunce cap when performance measures slipped to humiliate them.

Deutsche Telekom, a German multinational telecommunications company, owns T-Mobile, a company respected in Germany but behaving badly in America. In an exchange organised by their unions, German workers from Deutsche Telekom spent last week in Charleston meeting their call centre co-workers from across the Atlantic.They were shocked.

Deutsche Telekom is held in high regard in Germany, workers and their unions have a seat on management boards. Collective bargaining is seen as a positive part of the culture of productive companies.

Tomas Lenki, a Berlin based call centre worker told me that he felt betrayed and lied to from the board of Deutsche Telekom.

Over the past year, numerous stories of attacks on workers rights at T-Mobile have been to the board of human resources. Workers in Germany were told they were isolated cases and the behaviour had stopped.

What Tomas saw in Charleston this week in first hand conversations is in stark contrast to what Deutsche Telekom told him about how management treats workers.

Global workforces now mean that international companies like Germany’s Deutsche Telekom or America’s Walmart along with thousand’s of others can’t hide. Workers and their unions will expose unfair treatment of people.

It’s time to show authority that workers won’t let this happen.

Let’s all dance the Charleston.