Charleston's Longshoremen: Organized Labor in the Anti-Union Palmetto State

By Poliakoff, Eli A. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Charleston's Longshoremen: Organized Labor in the Anti-Union Palmetto State


Poliakoff, Eli A., South Carolina Historical Magazine


I

SOUTH CAROLINA VIES WITH NORTH CAROLINA AS THE LEAST-- unionized state in the nation. Recent surveys put union membership no higher than 4.1 percent of the workforce, considerably below the South's average of 6.9 percent.1 Union-sponsored work stoppages in South Carolina are practically nonexistent, consuming .0002 percent of working time.2 State political and business leaders have consistently worked to prevent the development of a strong labor presence in the Palmetto State. Yet since 1869 organized Charleston longshoremen have overcome South Carolina's racial dynamic and anti-union sentiment to maintain economic, political and social influence unsurpassed in the state's labor community. From its earliest days this predominately African American union has enjoyed significant links with local political and business elites, many of whom looked upon the union favorably. Through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and after, Charleston longshoremen used solidarity forged by racial prejudice to disarm anti-union pressures. Their successful interaction with a southern mix of race, class, politics and anti-union sentiment has produced a unique South Carolina institution noted for its longevity and influence.

Charleston dockworkers first organized during the economic and political upheavals following the Civil War. In 1867 local longshoremen walked off the docks to protest low wages, demanding a 50 cents daily increase. Four days later, shipping companies conceded to "pay the difference demanded by the wharf laborers." In January 1868, 200 to 300 longshoremen stopped working and demanded an additional 50 cents a day; after failed efforts to break the strike, shipping companies again increased wages.3 Emboldened by these successful actions andby a sympathetic Reconstruction state government, Charleston dockworkers organized the Longshoremen's Protective Union Association (LPUA) in mid-1868, and obtained their legislative charter from the South Carolina General Assembly on March 19, 1869.4 The LPUA soon initiated "an unprecedented outcropping" of successful strikes and work stoppages.5 With each successive protest, the LPUA became bolder, and its profile in the community grew through newspaper articles and word of mouth. When shippers did not adhere to the LPUA's September 1869 wage and hour demands, the longshoremen again walked off the docks. Within a week the shipping lines conceded, increased wages and overtime pay, and designated specific working hours. LPUA leaders scored a major victory when shippers agreed to a closed shop, as a result of which all dockworkers would have to be union members.6 The LPUA had a monopoly on waterfront labor after only six months of official existence.

The LPUA became increasingly aggressive in confronting the waterfront business community. In 1873 the LPUA blocked all entrances to a wharf whose shipping line paid a below-union wage scale. Charleston's Democratic mayor finally convinced the shipping line to accede to the union wages.7 At its height in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the LPUA's 800 to 1000 members dominated dock labor, intimidated waterfront businesses, and kept a high profile through media coverage and its leadership of local labor.8 In 1875, the Charleston News and Courier described it as the "most powerful organization of the colored laboring class in South Carolina."9

The union's high profile and influence led to political involvement.10 Its organizational meetings in the summer of 1868 were held at a local state senator's church. Local Republicans offered to counsel the LPUA during the 1869 strike. Union leaders defended dockworkers from Democratic coercion while aligning themselves with Republicans. In November 1869, the LPUA went on strike after a white union longshoreman was fired for Republican Party involvement. After a 300-member union meeting and four days on the picket line, the man was re-hired as the union urged the shippers to "withdraw all discrimination.

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