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Defend Our Civil Liberties

The Obama administration has been marked by a war on whistleblowers, secret interpretations of law, lack of accountability for past administration officials who broke the law, elevation of Bush administration officials who signed off on torture and unconstitutional surveillance, and a continuation and expansion of a massive surveillance state.

UE has warned for years that when the government is given powers of domestic surveillance and “counterintelligence,” it can and will use them against ordinary, innocent Americans, particularly those who speak out against government policies, and especially those who represent a credible power base, such as the labor movement. We saw this during the McCarthy period in the 1940s and 50s, when the combined forces of the federal government, big business, and their business union co-conspirators nearly destroyed the UE and progressive trade unionism. We saw this more recently when labor activists who organized protests against the 2008 Republican convention were targeted by the FBI, resulting in local police being directed to disrupt a peaceful protest by UE Local 1174 members in the Quad Cities and eventually in FBI raids at the homes of the union activists seizing their political and personal papers but apparently finding nothing to merit prosecution.

Documents made public by Edward Snowden reveal that the FBI and NSA are sweeping up the telephone, email and internet use data of virtually every person in the U.S., and holding onto that data for at least five years. Meanwhile, the FBI continues to conduct thousands of investigations each year called “assessments” which require no evidence or even suspicion of criminal conduct, but which allow agents to infiltrate meetings, conduct round-the-clock physical surveillance, use informants, and dig through a target’s trash. According to the FBI, less than 5 percent of those assessments uncover criminal activity but dossiers created on the innocent targets are kept for 20-30 years. Not surprisingly, many of these targets are Muslims or progressive activists, including union organizers.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down to the point where they are no longer cash cows for the military-industrial complex, those corporations have set their sights on the homeland. It’s been estimated that 30,000 drones will be in operation within the U.S. by 2020. Civil liberties and privacy advocates are fighting for strict rules governing private, military and corporate use. The FBI has already begun using drones to conduct surveillance on U.S. persons, but the agency has not yet written its privacy policy for drone use. Those same corporations are lobbying for a massive buildup of military and law enforcement along the border.

None of this will protect us from future events like 9/11. The problem was not a lack of information but the failure to analyze and act upon existing information. The government obsession with gathering information on non-terrorist political opponents means there are fewer resources to combat real crime, including terrorism.

In 2011, the Occupy movement swept the country, a dynamic grassroots movement to confront corporate power. As the movement grabbed the public imagination and garnered widespread support, federal, state, and local police stepped in, closely communicating and coordinating with the banks and corporations to discredit and repress the movement. Police used excessive force against protesters, conducted mass arrests, and infiltrated groups with agents provocateur. State legislatures and city councils quickly passed laws forbidding camping specifically to shut down Occupy. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the crackdown was coordinated and intended to stifle the First Amendment rights of the protestors.

Bosses try to instill fear in workers during union organizing campaigns – that is the kind of fear that the government has tried to spread across society as a whole. People may avoid anti-globalization rallies if they know they are under government surveillance. A union member will think twice about voicing their outrage on a picket line if they know they could face trumped-up terrorism charges. Fewer people attend organizing meetings if they suspect that someone in the room could be a police agent.

In 2006, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was passed, creating special protections for ‘animal enterprises’ (businesses that use or sell animal products), and criminalizing protest activity aimed at these enterprises. Since 2010, dozens of “Ag-gag” bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, promoted by American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The bills are designed to prevent whistleblowers from exposing animal cruelty on farms or slaughterhouses. In 2013, other industries have wanted in on the action and several states have seen legislation introduced that prevents undercover investigations and whistleblowing that would expose unsavory or illegal conduct of any kind at a range of industries from the mining, fracking, and logging industries to nursing homes and restaurants.

In 2010, the FBI raided homes and subpoenaed before a grand jury ten trade unionists and 13 other peace activists in the Midwest. The Justice Department used laws prohibiting “material support” for terrorist organizations as a pretext to attack those who speak out on certain foreign policy issues and organize fact-finding missions  Two years have passed, ample time for the government to fully investigate any allegations of criminal conduct, yet the investigation and the chilling effect on political freedom continues. The people subpoenaed suffer under a cloud of unresolved government accusations and fear of criminal charges, which unjustly impairs their right to be politically active and criticize government policy. It’s well past time for this investigation to end.

 The Obama administration is endangering freedom of the press and government transparency with its aggressive leak investigations and vicious prosecutions of whistleblowers. The Obama Department of Justice has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (more than all other administrations combined). The administration’s treatment of Private 1st Class Manning has been especially severe. In a further attack on press freedom, in May 2013 it was revealed that the DOJ had subpoenaed the phone records of AP reporters and investigated a FOX news reporter as a “co-conspirator” in a leak case. These practices create a chilling effect for would-be whistleblowers, protecting those in power from accountability and exposure.

It is clear that the fight to protect and regain civil liberties must continue regardless of which party controls the White House.

A growing number of Americans also question the use of the death penalty. Why should working people who regularly express deep distrust of our government officialdom trust these same forces with the power to inflict the ultimate penalty of death? The question is especially crucial when a rising tide of evidence demonstrates our judicial system is stacked against those without money. When evidence such as DNA testing reveals death row prisoners are innocent, it confirms our justice system is fundamentally flawed. The question of capital punishment is historically of great concern to union members. On numerous occasions our government has framed and executed labor leaders. Among the more famous are the Haymarket martyrs, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leader Joe Hill, immigrant labor activists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the coal miners known as the Molly Maguires. Spared the death penalty only after massive campaigns to save them were Tom Mooney, who spoke to an early UE convention, and the legendary Big Bill Haywood.

Attacks on civil liberties are not minor infringements on the rights of a few extremists. Today they affect a vast cross-section of Americans. The chilling effect of denials of our democratic freedoms curtails political debate within the U.S., limits the ability of all citizens to make democratic choices for the future of our country, and thereby undermines our livelihoods and living standards.


  1. Opposes any change in the federal criminal code that would further undermine our basic rights to organize, strike, protest, demonstrate and otherwise defend the interests of working people, specifically including changes designed to make picket-line activity subject to federal prosecution;
  2. Urges all locals to actively defend the right to protest against government and corporate policies which hurt working people by working with and supporting organizations such as the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Defending Dissent Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Committee to Stop FBI Repression;
  3. Calls on public-sector locals to investigate and aggressively challenge any restrictions on their members’ civil liberties written into state law or municipal ordinances;
  4. Demands that Congress outlaw political spying and disruption by the FBI and other federal agencies, repeal the FISA amendment act, repeal or let sunset regressive parts of the Patriot Act, and pass legislation to roll back the worst excesses of the Bush regime by barring the use of secret evidence and restricting the use of the state secrets privilege and National Security Letters;
  5. Supports local initiatives to promote civil liberties by encouraging local governments to pass a Local Civil Rights Restoration Act 9 as part of the People’s Campaign for the Constitution and laws based on the First Amendments Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004 enacted by the Washington, DC city council, which recognizes demonstrations as critical to free speech and vital to democracy, and thus emphasizes negotiation and communication and prohibits preemptive arrests;
  6. Calls for legislation to prohibit random or blanket drug testing in the workplace as well as legislation to ban telephone and Internet monitoring of employees and to further restrict the use of lie detectors and other surveillance technologies in employment;
  7. Opposes President Obama’s preventive detention proposal and Justice Department policies that allow for closed hearings, secret evidence, refusal to name those detained, elimination of attorney-client privilege, and long detentions without bond without any specific articulated reason;
  8. Supports legislation to abolish preventive detention and re-establish the right to bail and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty;”
  9. Demands that Congress reform the process for placing groups on terrorist lists to ensure that they have sufficient notice and a meaningful opportunity to respond to the charges against them, with necessary checks and balances on executive discretion, while also reforming the prohibition on material support to protect free speech, association, peace building and the provision of humanitarian aid to civilians;
  10.  Supports legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, supports strong whistleblower protection legislation, and opposes efforts to intimidate or bar the press and other news media from reporting on government activities;
  11. Supports repeal of McCarthy-era “speech crimes” laws, including the Smith Act and the Subversive Activities Control Act and opposes exclusion of foreigners based on political beliefs or memberships;
  12. Supports the abolition of the death penalty.