Defend Our Civil Liberties

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.

Civil liberties are under attack. States are passing laws aimed at silencing protest. Police respond to peaceful protests decked out in military gear designed for war on a battlefield. The FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to spy on nonviolent social movements, often under the guise of “counter terrorism.” The Justice Department continues to use the Espionage Act, which was originally used to jail labor leaders like Eugene V. Debs for their opposition to World War I, to jail whistleblowers. As information about torture, extrajudicial executions, or mass surveillance is made public, the U.S. government responds by pursuing those who made the information public, branding their actions as being on par with those of spies and saboteurs.

While threats to civil liberties have existed no matter which party was in the White House, Donald Trump has ramped up these attacks. Trump has made clear he is intolerant of dissent. His administration has tried to muzzle public employees who disapprove of his policies. Trump has called the media the “enemy of the people.” He has praised torture, surveillance, and stop and frisk. Trump has appointed a key figure in the U.S. torture program head of the CIA. He has praised police brutality and called for an expansion of the death penalty. With Trump at the top, the green light has been given at all levels of government to attack basic democratic rights. 

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. Corporations trying to defend their profit margins have been behind a number of these civil liberties abuses. Big business has pushed for laws to criminalize those who protest them or expose their misconduct. They hire private mercenary firms, modern day successors to the Pinkertons, who work with law enforcement to stamp out protest. When Walmart learned about protests being organized in support of striking workers, they reached out to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. 

The most basic civil liberty is the right to live without fear of being harassed, beaten, or killed. African Americans and other people of color are disproportionately targeted by police and are much more likely than white people to be victims of police harassment and violence. The abundant and growing audiovisual record of law enforcement officers using excessive force against people of color when stopped for traffic or other minor civil infractions documents that race remains a major factor in depriving people of their civil liberties. Movements against police brutality, mass incarceration, and racism, such as Black Lives Matter, have been able to win some gains in recent years. The FBI has responded by distributing a threat assessment to law enforcement across the country claiming that opposition to racism or police brutality is likely to lead to violence against police.  

An increasing portion of Americans oppose the death penalty, and a growing number of states have abolished it. 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, including the Haymarket martyrs, Industrial Workers of the World leader Joe Hill, immigrant labor activists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the coal miners known as the Molly Maguires. Tom Mooney, who spoke to an early UE convention, and the legendary Big Bill Haywood, were spared the death penalty only after massive campaigns to save them.

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


  1. Opposes any change in the law that would further undermine our right to defend the interests of working people, specifically including changes designed to make picket-line activity subject to federal prosecution;
  2. Urges all locals and members to support organizations such as Defending Rights & Dissent, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers;
  3. Demands Congress investigate revelations of political spying and disruption by the FBI and other federal agencies and pass legislation definitively outlawing these practices;
  4. Opposes any laws designed to limit the right to protest;
  5. Demands the end of use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers and journalists;
  6. Calls for legislation to protect our civil liberties in the workplace, including:
    1. Prohibiting random or blanket drug testing in the workplace;
    2. Banning telephone and internet monitoring of employees;
    3. Further restricting the use of lie detectors and other surveillance technologies in employment;
  7. Calls for the rescinding of the Trump Administration’s new overly broad Hatch Act guidelines, which are designed to chill the constitutionally-protected speech of public employees;
  8. Opposes preventive detention 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;
  9. Demands Congress reform the process for placing groups on terrorist lists to ensure that they have sufficient notice and a meaningful opportunity to respond to charges;
  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 crime” 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 and an end to mass incarceration.