During its two day meeting January 27 and 28, the General Executive Board – UE’s national leadership body – discussed recent attacks on the constitutional rights of antiwar and labor activists by the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, and other government agencies. The board unanimously adopted the following statement:
On September 24, 2010, the FBI carried out coordinated raids on the homes and offices of fourteen anti-war activists in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. During the raids, the FBI confiscated everything from computers and mailing lists to children’s drawings and photos of Martin Luther King.
Ten of the fourteen victims of the raids are union members in good standing. Many have years of experience leading the fight for labor rights. Joe Iosbaker, whose house was raided in Chicago, is chief steward at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the SEIU Local 73 executive board. Joe is a friend of UE and was active in support of Local 1110’s occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in December 2008. (He can be seen speaking at the plant in the UE video “Hasta la Victoria!” passionately shouting that while the banks got bailed out, “…we got sold out!”)
During the September 24 raids, FBI agents served subpoenas on activists, compelling them to testify before a grand jury in Chicago. Those called to testify are not allowed legal representation during their testimony. If they refuse to cooperate, they face imprisonment, jeopardizing their jobs, homes and families. If they agree to testify, they give credence to an illegitimate fishing expedition. All have refused to testify. Prosecutors have long misused the grand jury process to harass progressive activists. During the 1960s and 1970s, prosecutors used grand juries to distract and threaten activists in the movements against the Vietnam War and for civil rights.
These raids are part of an alarming trend to criminalize dissent in the U.S. Four days prior to the September 24 raids, the Office of the Inspector General of the United States revealed that the FBI has systematically and illegally spied on political activists; that FBI director Robert Mueller had lied to Congress about details of the surveillance; and that agents frequently confuse civil disobedience with “domestic terrorism.”
Such repression extends beyond the federal level. Other news reports last September revealed that the state of Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security had paid over $100,000 to a private “intelligence” contractor based in Israel – the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response – to spy on Pennsylvania organizations engaged in peaceful protest and other lawful activities. The state homeland security office issued over 130 bulletins to local law enforcement agencies reporting on lawful activities that it labeled as potential “terrorist threats” or “risks to homeland security.” The more than 200 groups targeted in these spy reports included churches, synagogues, peace, women’s and environmental groups, YWCAs, Jobs with Justice, and five labor unions – including UE. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell immediately halted this program when he learned of it.
Fear-mongering attacks on legitimate protest, in the name of “homeland security” and “counterterrorism”, have harmful consequences for unions. In 2009 UE Local 1174 fought bravely but unsuccessfully to prevent the closing of Quad Cities Die Casting, which was put out of business by Well Fargo Bank’s decision to cut off the company’s credit. One of the local’s actions that summer was a protest at Wells Fargo’s Rock Island branch at which some people planned to engage in civil disobedience by blocking traffic, to dramatize how the bank was blocking economic recovery. The union notified the local police of its plans, but when UE people arrived they found a massive police presence far beyond what the situation required. The police chief loudly complained that he’d been forced to overreact because the FBI had alerted him that members of other unions coming to support the UE action were “dangerous.” These supposedly “dangerous” people included Joe Iosbaker and other unionists who were later targets of the FBI’s September 2010 raids.
From the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) fight for free speech in the 1910s to the major labor-inspired civil liberties court decisions of the 1930s, the labor movement has often been in the forefront of defending the right to speak and protest. Unionists have understood that without the ability to speak out, union efforts would be crushed.
The defense of civil liberties has long been a high priority for UE. Our own union’s history has taught us that infringement on basic freedoms is a matter of life and death to the workers’ movement. During the “red scare” of the late 1940s and the 1950s, the combined forces of the corporations, the federal government, both major political parties, the media, and opportunistic business unions nearly succeeded in destroying UE and crushing progressive trade unionism. Because of the persecution that our union suffered and barely survived in that era, we in UE have a continuing obligation to speak out forcefully whenever civil liberties are endangered by political hysteria and repression.
A growing number of trade unionists are speaking out against these attacks on civil liberties. The convention of AFSCME Council 5, representing public employees in Minnesota, passed a strong resolution comparing these raids to past attacks on the constitutional rights of labor and civil rights movements. Central labor councils in San Francisco, Duluth, San Jose, and Troy, New York have also passed resolutions condemning the raids, as have a number of local unions.
THEREFORE, this General Executive Board of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), meeting in Pittsburgh on January 27-28, 2011, condemns these attacks on constitutional liberties.
We call on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to immediately halt these grand jury proceedings; to order FBI and Justice Department personnel to return all property improperly seized in last September’s FBI raids on peace activists; to order an immediate investigation into the circumstances, motivation and propriety of the judicial and police intimidation of union members and others; and to end the repression of peace, international solidarity and labor organizations and activists.
We further call on the United States Senate to investigate post-9/11 federal surveillance of labor, peace and other legitimate organizations and movements, and the use of expansive anti-terror laws to intimidate and criminalize peaceful dissent.