A case for political action

President George W. Bush heads the most viciously anti-worker, anti-labor administration we have seen in a long time. He and his corporate backers are hell-bent on blocking any new advances for labor and on rolling back existing labor rights.

Last year’s use of a Taft-Hartley injunction against the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) in the name of “national security” is but one example of Bush’s readiness to use the force of the state against labor. So, too, was the stripping of 170,000 federal employees of their unionization rights under the pretext of enhancing “homeland security.”

Yet another illustration was the performance of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao at the February meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council where she launched into a vicious attack on the International Association of Machinists for alleged corruption, clearly signaling that unions were fair game for government snooping, investigation, and intimidation. “In all my years … I’ve never seen a secretary of labor who’s so anti-labor,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters at the time.

Labor, Bush clash on many fronts

Organized labor and the Bush administration will continue to clash on several vitally important matters:

s The economy. Every aspect of the Bush economic program represents a danger to the interests of working people, and thus economic issues top labor’s challenge to the Bush agenda.

s The rights of immigrant workers. Organized labor has correctly seen the organizing of immigrant workers, be they with or without papers, as essential to its own growth and survival, and the necessity of the legalization of the undocumented so that organizing can proceed without their being intimidated by management because of their legal status.

The Bush administration has pulled out of talks with the Mexican government on this subject, even as it steps up attacks on the foreign born across the board. It has barred non-citizens from working at airports and cracked down hard on the undocumented.

In response, several unions have launched large scale mobilizations in defense of immigrants’ rights such as last year’s SEIU-sponsored “Reward Work” campaign and this fall’s projected Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride, initiated by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. Both show the priority the labor movement has assigned to this issue.

s Peace. The Bush administration’s “preemptive war” doctrine, along with the shift of federal spending from domestic needs to the military, threatens the interests of working people in fundamental ways, and thus will motivate labor to step more and more to the forefront in the antiwar movement. Labor opposition to the Afghanistan war was small-scale, but picked up steam with the buildup to the war with Iraq. The emergence of the U.S. Labor Against the War coalition, with its call for a Labor Assembly for Peace to take place in Chicago on Oct. 24-26, is a development of profound historical importance.

Labor and civil liberties: some background

When government went after the foreign born in 1919, organized labor was the real target. In the period immediately following the First World War, the Russian Revolution and postwar unemployment produced a “Red Scare” in ranks of the ruling class worldwide.

President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, used tactics not unlike those of Attorney General John Ashcroft to go after foreign-born union agitators as “Bolshevik terrorists.” But the Palmer raids and the other repressive measures taken by the Wilson administration and its successors did not just target the foreign-born, they were used to stop undermine 1919 steel strike, for example, thus hurting both native born and foreign-born workers.

So, too, with the McCarthyism of the 1940s and ’50s. Although the Hollywood persecutions and blacklist got much of the headlines, they were not motivated by the fear of “communist” ideological influence in film scripts, but by the post-war upsurge in the ranks of labor.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee postured about hunting down spies and subversives. But their real prey were left-wing labor activists and leaders. McCarthyism destroyed whole unions (such as the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers portrayed in the film “Salt of the Earth”) and did so much damage to the labor movement that it did not recover, even partially, for a generation.

Today’s assault on freedoms

And so it is today. Under the Bush administration, constitutional rights and civil liberties are once again under vicious attack. New, repressive instruments are being forged that can and will be used against unions and union members.

Consider a few aspects of the USA Patriot Act, a law that poses great dangers for labor. The Patriot Act created the new category of “domestic terrorism.” It defines “terrorism” as actions that are intended “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” This definition is so vague and broad that all sorts of acts by union members both here and abroad – nonviolent picket lines, demonstrations, rallies, civil disobedience and strikes – could conceivably be characterized by the government as acts of terrorism punishable by law. Resisting the boss becomes “terrorism.”

Under this pretext, unions and union activists could be subjected to an array of surveillance, wiretaps, detention, seizure of assets and denial of due process rights.

Nor is that all. As some labor activists have noted, the draconian measures available to a repression-minded government under the Patriot Act might combine with the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Controlled Organizations) Act that allows prosecution based on association with any organization that is believed to be harming someone else’s economic interests through illegal pressure tactics.

Further, in the area of international labor solidarity, a union could be accused of providing material support to foreign labor organizations designated as “terrorist” by the State Department.

And now comes ‘Patriot Act II’

The Bush administration is not yet finished with its attacks on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. On March 7, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that the Department of Justice is developing what has come to be called “Patriot II,” tentatively titled The Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. Patriot II goes well beyond the USA Patriot Act to include the following shocking items:

s The government would give itself the right to effectively revoke the U.S. citizenship of people it accuses of consorting with terrorists and deport them. This would include not just non-citizens, but U.S. citizens as well, both born and naturalized. One clause of the draft legislation states that people could be deported even to areas without an organized form of government (Antarctica? The moon?).

s The power of the attorney general to deport the foreign born without due process would be increased even more. Essentially, he would be able to simply declare that any non-citizen is a security threat and throw them out of the country without further ado.

s Existing court orders limiting political spying by police would be abolished. This would unleash local police for wholesale abuse of constitutional rights against organized labor and everyone else. Recent experiences with dockworkers in Charleston, S.C., show that local authorities, given these powers, would be able to use them to further the interests of employers and employer-linked political forces.

s Public access to information about dangerous conditions in industry would be severely restricted, under the pretext of not allowing potential terrorists to have such information. Unions and environmentalists would also have trouble getting such information and government whistle-blowers who released such information to the public could be prosecuted.

Mounting a fightback

If these attacks on the Constitution are to be defeated, the first step is to build a firewall strong enough to stop any new legislation from being passed. Patriot Act II has, by the very nature of its proposed measures, given the game away to major sectors of the U.S. public, and they are voicing their opposition. In response, Attorney General John Ashcroft has made a nationwide tour, stumping for its support, and President Bush used the Sept. 11 anniversary to plug for the passage of such repressive laws.

Patriot Act II can be stopped, but not without hard work and struggle.

Secondly, it is not too early to be fighting to repeal the USA Patriot Act (‘Patriot I’). This effort is already well underway. To date, more than 160 city and town councils, plus three state legislatures (Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont) have passed resolutions calling for the defense of the Constitution and the repeal of the USA Patriot Act. Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland, San Francisco and Denver are among cities that have approved such resolutions, while Chicago and many others are working on similar resolutions. These resolutions can all be read on line at www.bordc.org.

Labor’s defense of freedoms

The dangers of Patriot Acts I and II has not gone unnoticed in the ranks of organized labor. The AFL-CIO has deplored the legislation as well as the Homeland Security Act, and unions are adopting their own resolutions. Not surprisingly, the ILWU was among the first to act. In an article in the November 2001 ILWU Dispatcher, Washington Representative Lindsay McLaughlin invoked the fighting history of his union to point out the dangers the Patriot Act. He wrote:

“The first President and leader [of the ILWU] for 40 years, Harry Bridges, was an immigrant. The government tried to deport him. It tapped his phone, locked him up and tried to destroy the ILWU and the movement it represented. But after a couple of decades of harassment and court battles, justice prevailed. If the government had had these new ‘anti-terrorism’ police powers at its disposal during his trials, does anyone believe Bridges and the union would have prevailed? The attorney general will use this law to get rid of immigrants with political views he doesn’t agree with. Count on it.”

And this before Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the ILWU that it was undercutting the war against terrorism by its stance in negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to send troops to control the docks!

Several unions, along with a wide range of civil liberties organizations, are co-sponsoring a conference on defeating the Patriot Acts set for Oct. 16-18 in Washington, D.C.

The San Francisco Labor Council named a committee to study the issue. Committee members consulted with civil liberties experts and issued a detailed report on the ways in which these laws can and will be used against organized labor if they are not stopped. The concluded:

“The proposed Patriot Act II, coupled with the Patriot Act I and RICO, creates the legal architecture for a police state in the United States. The purpose of this legislation is to allow for U.S. global expansion unhindered by organized domestic opposition. These laws and proposed legislation are clearly intended to prevent resistance to U.S. corporate control and allow preemptive attacks on those organizations and individuals the government considers a threat.”

Emile Schepers is the program director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. He can be reached at pww@pww.org