The Labor/Black Fight to Organize the American South

charleston five
Defend the Charleston Five! Longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000).
click on photo for article

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Charleston hospital workers waged long and bitter struggle for recognition of their union in 1968-69. 

Gastonia 1929: left-led black and white textile workers in labor revolt faced vigilantes, National Guard, legal frame-up.


October 2001 
K-T Clay Workers Fight for Union

South Carolina Clay Miners Appeal for Solidarity

OCTOBER 4 – For 20 months, workers at the Kentucky-Tennessee Clay Company have been waging a bitter fight to unionize the company’s mining and processing operations in Langley, South Carolina. With three open-pit mines and an extensive processing plant, the Langley site produces kaolin, a clay widely used in construction materials, ceramics and paint. In this small company town near the Georgia state line, the K-T Clay workers are fighting for union rights in the same Deep South state that is the scene of the “Charleston Five” labor defense battle. Like the Charleston longshoremen’s fight against union-busting and racist repression, the K-T Clay workers’ struggle shows the need for an all-out labor offensive to organize the South, where bosses wield a virtual anti-union dictatorship under the banner of the “right to work” and the “open shop.” Ever since the K-T workers’ union won a representation vote over bitter opposition from the company, management has flatly refused to negotiate or even discuss a union contract.

The Langley mine is part of the far-flung business empire of the Imerys corporation, which acquired Kentucky-Tennessee Clay in February and is one of the world’s most powerful mineral processing firms. Headquartered in Paris and with operations in France, Britain, Belgium, Italy and New Zealand, the company also has plants in Mexico and across the southeastern United States. Two years ago, Imerys faced protests from European unions when it sought to bust the union at its Sylacauga, Alabama plant. Despite heavy-handed intimidation tactics like outfitting hefty anti-union leafleters with T-shirts proclaiming “Goon Squad,” the company suffered a setback in Sylacauga this February, when it was forced to sign a union contract there.

Hard-Line Management Tramples Workers Rights

Yet up until now, the company has managed to keep its union-busting campaign at K-T Clay in South Carolina out of the spotlight. If it gets away with this anti-labor attack in a small Southern town, it will be emboldened to go after workers elsewhere. It has already come out that Imerys wants to shut its large warehouse in Ravenna, Italy, in the center of that country’s extensive tile industry; this may be only the tip of the iceberg. In the recent wave of international acquisitions by industrial conglomerates, a frequent tactic has been to “consolidate” by buying up plants and then shutting down entire units.

Against attempts to surround them with a wall of silence and isolate them from their brothers and sisters around the world, K-T Clay workers are appealing for international workers solidarity. In an interview with The Internationalist, their union leader Myron Renew told how 20 months of firings, harassment and pay cuts have failed to break the Langley miners’ will to fight for their union rights. The mine bosses “act like overseers on a plantation” and try the age-old tactics of divide and conquer, threats against union supporters and blatant favoritism towards anti-union elements, but black and white workers at the mine are standing fast in their determination to win a union contract, said brother Renew, president of Local D-598 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers’ affiliate United Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers. “We need assistance and solidarity from workers at Imerys plants everywhere, and other workers too,” he emphasized.

“It all started in late 1999, when the company fired 16 people at the same time as they tried to downgrade wages to $8 an hour,” says Renew. 

“Most people at the mine only make about $11 an hour, and the company tried to bring the pay even of skilled workers – who have a big pay gap from the rest – down towards a poverty level.... Meanwhile they had been working people 12 hours a day seven days a week, for three years. Guys were getting sick and hurt, but the insurance is terrible. Not many folks working at $11 or $12 an hour can afford to pay $3,500 out of pocket for medical care.” 
In contrast, the unionized Dixie Clay plant across the street pays $3-$4 more per hour and has much more affordable health care. “It was clear that the only way we could survive was to get a union in,” Renew recalls. 

As soon as a union organizing campaign got underway in December 1999, the arsenal of phone threats, informers, firings and intimidation was unleashed against the K-T Clay workers. A union supporter was fired in January 2000, others were “rolled back” to lower-paying jobs and anti-union employees were hired to vote against the union. On 15 March 2000, when the union recognition vote was held, the company held a tire raffle with a big “Vote No” sign at the polling site – but the union won the vote, and three fourths of the workforce is now signed up with Local D-598. Renew told The Internationalist:

“The day after the election, the mine supervisor, who was later promoted to plant manager, said he would do everything he could to decertify the union.... They were so mad about losing the union representation vote, they fired our union trustee Pat Scott and another union man, they laid off five pro-union workers, they carried out a whole wave of demotions and they took our union vice president, Brother Odell Glover, and myself to federal court.

“They made up false charges of vandalism and intimidation against the union. They stepped up the anti-labor propaganda and had members of the maintenance crew wear anti-union stickers. They got so dictatorial that they even tried to ban workers from talking or gathering together on their breaks.” 

K-T Clay/Imerys management has used the company’s enormous resources to bog the Langley unionists down in endless court fights, turning even “favorable” rulings by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) into a dead letter while using the board’s dismissal of some charges by the union as a springboard for stepped-up harassment at the workplace. In August the Langley plant manager, accompanied by three supervisors, confronted union president Renew in the plant’s clay-bagging department, where a federal inspector was testing for dangerous dust levels. The manager yelled “You are not the miners’ representative” and ordered him off the floor. “This is my plant, there is no union here,” the same manager stated previously when firing union trustee Scott. Now, reports Renew, “the operations manager just told some workers here, ‘You have to be able to stand on your head and chew peanut butter if I tell you to.’ That’s the kind of attitude we’re up against.”

Miners Face Dangerous Conditions, Management Abuse

For K-T Clay workers, safety is a crucial issue. The company has been written up repeatedly for safety violations by federal inspectors, workers have been seriously burned and injured by falling pieces of equipment, and there are dangerous extremes of cold and heat from the huge burners used to dry the clay.

“At the processing plant, we have real heavy equipment like conveyors, augurs, slicers to slice up the clay. In the mining operation we have heavy four-wheel John Deere tractors, with three-pan pullers behind them. There’s a dangerous situation with the track hoes where the truck drivers actually back their dump trucks up an embankment, get on the track hoe, load their own dump truck, climb back the embankment and get in their truck, working 11-hour days with a lot of fatigue, and one of the walls could give way. In fact, there were five accidents last year in a period of six to eight months. Two dump trucks collided, a track hoe sank, a tractor-trailer and a bulldozer collided, a tractor was wrecked. These are just some of the kind of safety problems we’ve seen here.”

“We have a three-man union safety committee, but the company completely ignores it,” says Renew. Companies’ blatant disregard for workers’ lives was demonstrated yet again by the death of 13 coal miners in gas explosions on September 23 at the Jim Walter Resources (JWR) Blue Creek No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama. Officials at JWR – which had been repeatedly fined for safety violations at its mines – ignored workers’ warnings of dangerous methane levels. A crucial demand for miners and all other workers is for union safety committees with the power to stop dangerous work.

K-T plant management has insisted that vote or no vote – and despite official certification of the union victory by the NLRB – they do not recognize the union at the Langley mine. While the labor bureaucracy pushes faith in the labor board, together with the Democratic Party, the experience of the K-T Clay workers underlines that workers must rely on their own class power and solidarity, not on the bosses’ parties and government agencies. (In fact the NLRB exists to subordinate the labor movement to the dictates of the capitalist state.) Union president Renew says:

“We have a president in this country who got elected by one vote – in the Supreme Court – and gets right into office while workers voted for a union twenty months ago and still can’t get a contract. If we approached politicians from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party about our situation here at K-T Clay, I believe they would shun it. Those parties don’t represent the working man or woman. What they do represent is the corporate interests that are taking everything away from the workers here and all over the world.”
In a state heavily dominated by right-wing Republicans, labor officialdom has repeatedly turned to the Democrats, only to be kicked in the teeth by this capitalist party (see “Defend the Charleston Five!” in The Internationalist No. 10, June 2001). The Internationalist Group emphasizes that the labor movement must break from the Democrats, Republicans, and all the bosses’ politicians. The workers need their own party, one that fights for all the exploited and oppressed the world over, to take power away from the capitalist owners and put it in the hands of the international working class. 

“An Injury to One Is An Injury to All”

Local D-598 is calling on unionists and supporters throughout the area to fill the courtroom at the County Council Building in Aiken, South Carolina, at 10 a.m. on October 17, when they will be facing the company’s latest legal challenge to the union’s right to represent K-T Clay workers. As the old labor motto says, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Ever since the March 2000 vote, K-T Clay management has flatly refused to negotiate with the union; not a single bargaining session has been held. Imerys’ upper management is portrayed as enlightened by social democrats in Europe, “where the company has emphasized ‘social partnership’ with unions,” as the Brussels-based International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) noted in a protest against the company’s previous union-busting drive in Alabama. Such appeals for harmonious class collaboration never stopped any company’s ruthless drive for profits; their only purpose is to try to fool workers into believing labor and capital can be “partners.” Imerys has reiterated that it fully backs its representatives in Langley in the face of repeated letters and protests from the workers there.

Despite company stonewalling, K-T Clay workers continue the struggle, holding regular union meetings and fighting for a contract, against poverty wages, the big pay gap between different sectors of workers at the mine, the lack of affordable health care, and the harassment and discrimination used by the company.
The fight for workers rights is inseparable from the fight against all forms of oppression and discrimination. This is clear as day in a state where the January 2000 police riot against longshore unionists in Charleston was bloody vengeance for a march of tens of thousands protesting the Confederate flag of slavery at the state capitol. K-T Clay unionists have come out in support of the Charleston Five, seeing an important parallel to their own situation. They are also closely following the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black journalist who has spent nearly two decades on death row in Pennsylvania as a result of a racist frame-up. Renew states:

“Mumia Abu-Jamal should be free, that’s what we believe. The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is an injustice. It is particularly serious since they’re trying to silence and execute this brother who is a journalist; people need to be able to write what they believe and say what their cause is. I’m also very concerned with this issue because I am completely opposed to the death penalty.”
Labor Solidarity Actions Needed Now

The power of international workers solidarity must be brought to bear in defense of the K-T Clay miners! Class-struggle solidarity actions on a global scale can be a powerful weapon against union-busting and anti-labor attacks. This is particularly crucial today, when as the U.S. government prepares to rain death and destruction on working people abroad, big business has unleashed mass layoffs against workers at home. 

“The workers are the backbone of all industries, they can’t be run without us,” stresses union president Renew.

“The workers, especially the lower and middle-paid workers, need to wake up and realize what the corporate decision-makers are doing to them. We need to form an international alliance of as many brothers and sisters as we can to resist the attempts to enslave a whole world of workers. Otherwise, we will all be ground down into poverty, we’ll all lose our jobs, our homes and all our rights, everything the working man and woman have fought for here and in all the other countries.”
To defend the K-T Clay miners and beat back union-busting attacks, unionists throughout the Imerys empire – backed up by class-conscious workers in other key industries – should use their power in coordinated actions (such as a one-day strike of all the company’s operations internationally) for victory to the Langley, South Carolina miners.

Similarly, a fight for strike action in all U.S. ports in defense of the Charleston Five is key today in the struggle to unionize the South. Such measures are clearly essential – the fact that the hidebound labor officialdom fears them like the plague testifies to the urgent need for a new, class-struggle leadership.
 The struggle of the Langley miners is one of a number of labor battles that have broken out in the Deep South in the recent period and which have been highlighted by the struggle to defend the Charleston Five. 

A victory in these struggles will deal a blow for hard-pressed workers and minorities throughout the region and beyond, many of whom work for companies that employ workers on several continents. Among these are the huge, non-union factories strung along the “industrial autobahn” on the I-85 corridor, which in South Carolina alone includes BMW, Michelin, Amoco, Fuji, Hoffman-LaRoche, Nucor, Bose and others.

A real fight to unionize these plants requires an all-out offensive headed by a class-struggle leadership that links the fight to organize the South with the struggle for black liberation and the defense of all the exploited and oppressed. Such a fight would unleash workers power from the  Charleston longshoremen to the hundreds of glass and clay workers in the Aiken and Sandersville areas, nearby Savannah River building trades workers, South Carolina’s 4,000 unionized Bell South workers and the IBEW power company workers. It should bring out the 1,000 Mack Truck workers in Winnsboro (who face the threat of a plant closing in late 2002) and their brothers and sisters in UAW-organized plants in neighboring Georgia, together with the countless overworked, underpaid working men and women at giant corporations throughout the region.

Pro-business union leaders talk about the goal of unionizing the South “some day” while fearing the powerful class struggle this would require. In a similar way, they pay lip service to international labor solidarity, but they cannot genuinely put it into practice since their ultimate loyalty is always to “their own” national capitalists. In contrast, for class-conscious workers, internationalism is a call to action. As we noted in our call for “Victory to K-T Clay Workers!” (The Internationalist, No. 11, summer 2001),  “The workers movement must come to the aid of these courageous fighters for labor’s cause, as part of a class-struggle drive to unionize the South.”

“What we’re fighing for are the basic rights and needs of all workers everywhere,” says union leader Renew. “We need the support of our brothers and sisters to win this fight.” The time is now for international workers solidarity actions for victory to the K-T Clay workers!

– Internationalist Group, 4 October 2001


The hearing on the case of the K-T Clay miners will be held at the Aiken County Council Chamber, 736 West Richland Avenue, Aiken, SC at 10 a.m., October 17.


Local D-598 President Myron K. Renew
258 Sand Rockway
Trenton, SC 29847 USA

or call brother Renew at (803) 641-1479.

Go to article on Defend the Charleston Five! Key Battle for Labor Rights and Black Freedom (June 2001)

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