Longshoremen shut down S.C. shipping terminal in protest over deadly fire at Bangladesh Walmart supplier

By Kerry Taylor

Longshoremen shut down the Wando Welch Shipping Terminal at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina for nearly two hours today to protest the arrival of the Carolina Maersk, a containership bearing Walmart clothing made by the 112 Bangladeshi workers who perished in a Nov. 24 factory fire. Members of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Locals 1771 and 1422 honored a picket line of about 50 protesters as dozens of truck drivers and other workers also turned around upon being informed of the work stoppage.

After union attorneys advised the longshoremen to return to work, Local 1422 member Leonard Riley told the protestors that the ILA was "standing up for what's morally right and what's legally right." He described their brief strike as "a responsibility that organized labor has to these kinds of struggles" and suggested that it was "a dry run" for a possible coast-wide strike on Dec. 30. "We will look for you to be there when we hit the line if we have to," Riley said.

Protest spokesperson George Hopkins of Charleston told reporters that the protesters hoped to make "consumers fully aware of the high price of cheap clothes." He called the fire at the Tazreen factory "an avoidable tragedy" and he urged Walmart shoppers to demand that the company accept responsibility for the fire, respect the garment workers' basic human rights, and recognize the rights of all Walmart workers to organize.

In a solidarity statement read at the protest, Bangladeshi labor leaders applauded the South Carolina strike. "To disrupt the movement of goods today proves workers’ inherent power within the supply chain," wrote Babul Akhter of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. "In acting in solidarity you are showing the potential of this power to work across the world and confirming that we are all in this fight together."

In 2000-2001, the Charleston longshoremen were at the center of a successful international campaign to defend several of its members, who faced long prison sentences for their alleged participation in a picket line riot.

(Kerry Taylor is a board member of the nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies, which publishes Facing South, and an assistant professor of history at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.)