By Barney Blakeney
On any given day you might walk into the International Longshoremen Association union hall at 1142 Morrison Dr. in Charleston and see scores of longshoremen milling about as they wait to be called up to work loading and unloading ships. But you also may see hospital workers, fast food workers or social activists conducting meetings in one of the conference rooms. On a weekend night, it may be the site for a banquet of wedding reception. More than a union hall, the facility is as much a center for labor as for other activities.
During a typical week four or five advocate groups might hold meetings at the union hall. And over the course of a year, various organizations hold major functions in its large convention hall. The ILA Local 1422 union hall has become known throughout the region and across the state as ‘The House of Labor’.
Local 1422 President Kenneth Riley said the union’s move to the new facility in 2001 after being displaced by construction of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge provided an opportunity to facilitate the union’s increasing role as advocates for labor and social activities. As the union grew in strength and influence, it didn’t take long to recognize it also had responsibilities, Riley said.
“While we were striving, other workers were being hammered. It wasn’t difficult to recognize we needed to be involved in their struggles. The new hall was designed to provide meeting space for others fighting the fight for social and economic justice. It was an opportunity for us to open up to the community. Sharing our resources a small investment,” he said.
Riley’s brother, Leonard, has become the face of the union’s community activist component. He doesn’t hold an office in the local union, but is its unofficial community liaison person. He’s also become a leading figure in many of the activities.
Long days that include working on ships as a longshoremen and attending meetings that go on long into the nights, Leonard Riley explained his untiring work as a light that projects the benefits enjoyed by the union onto others who don’t get their fair share of the pie.
“We’re organized labor. This is what we believe in. Ultimately, we’re only as strong as the weakest link. So it’s to our advantage to assist groups like the nurses, the Carolina Alliance For Fair Employment (CAFE), fast food workers seeking higher wages, municipal employees and the S.C. Progressive Network. And because it’s all connected, it transcends labor into social activism with groups that represent various causes.”
Local activist Keiran Taylor said, “The union’s starting point is the economic well-being of their members – their wages and working conditions – but that’s just a starting point. ILA 1422 is committed to social movement unionism, or the idea that a trade union needs to be concerned about all the issues affecting working people in the region. That vision has led them to serve as host to Occupy Charleston, Black Lives Matter, citizenship classes for immigrants as well as dozens of left-wing reform organizations.”
Chris Nelson, an organizer for local hospital workers said through its sharing of resources, the ILA has done wonders by making their union hall a place where groups can meet. “It’s a house of labor, a refuge,” she said.