The rights we enjoy today have seldom been secure from the greedy grasp of the rich
and powerful. That’s a theme running through labor history like a bloody thread, from broken strikes to broken unions.
Early unions were prosecuted as criminal conspiracies, despite the constitutional
rights of free speech and association. Militant miners in eastern Pennsylvania (the "Molly Maguires") and leaders in
Chicago’s movement for shorter working hours (the Haymarket Martyrs) were framed, found guilty and hanged. When injunctions didn’t
break strikes, the National Guard did.
In cities and towns across the nation, union organizers could face jail (or worse) for
attempting to speak to groups of workers. Some states enacted "criminal syndicalism" laws tying union organization to
One night in January 1920, police seized 10,000 immigrant workers, most of them active
union members, and threw them into jail. More than 3,000 were deported.
Except for a brief interval, local police departments and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation have spied on union activities.
In the 1990s court decisions tightened restrictions on the rights to pass out union
leaflets in the workplace, shopping malls and at plant gates. At this moment, the Bill of Rights seldom follows workers into the
workplace, without the presence of a strong union.
The "ism" that supposedly justified these abridgements of civil liberties
has varied — anarchism, communism and now terrorism. The horrific crime of Sept. 11 perpetrated by a terrorist gang is offered as
justification for a "war against terrorism" which threatens to sweep away the exercise of rights guaranteed under the
As delegates to more than one UE convention have concluded, "Attacks on civil
liberties are not minor infringements on the rights of a few extremists — instead they affect a vast cross-section of Americans
involved in labor unions, peace organizations, and church groups. The chilling effect of these denials of our democratic freedoms
sharply curtail 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."
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American freedom is under threat.
The threat from terrorists seems obvious. But less obvious — or perhaps less discussed — is the threat to
our liberties from an overzealous government.
Recent legislation could have a chilling effect on unions and the growing movement against corporate
globalization. That’s because under the new anti-terrorism law, there’s a thin line between constitutionally protected protest
and the new crime of "domestic terrorism." Right now, no one knows where or how government will choose to draw that line.
For years, a few anti-union Congressmen tried to criminalize picket-line incidents. The new anti-terrorism law
may do just that — as well as allow a new government invasion of privacy and legalized dirty tricks against honest citizens
engaged in political action critical of official policies.
The USA PATRIOT — the United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept
and Obstruct Terrorism — Act became law Oct. 26 after being rushed through Congress with unusual speed. Essentially a set of
proposals from the White House, the massive 342-page bill received no committee debate or public hearings and little floor debate.
In the House, a special procedure barred amendments.
There’s reason to believe that few Members of Congress actually read the contents of the bill. The outrage
over Sept. 11, the compulsion to do something, eased the way for legislation that would have likely sparked controversy under most
"Some measures in the omnibus act make sense," say attorneys James X. Dempsey and David Cole in their
book Terrorism and the Constitution. "These include provisions ensuring adequate personnel on the northern border, some
provisions strengthening the laws on money laundering, some provisions intended to break down institutional barriers that had
limited the share of information between law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies, and provisions intended to improve the
processing of visas. Some of the expanded electronic surveillance provisions would also have made sense had they included
appropriate limitations and judicial controls."
But the scope of the USA PATRIOT Act goes way beyond such commonsense provisions. The Act grants new powers to
the executive branch, with little Congressional scrutiny or judicial control. "To an unprecedented degree, the Act sacrifices
our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating
vast new powers in the executive branch of government," says Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney for the Center for
The law infringes both First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and political association and Fourth
Amendment rights to privacy. Some Americans profess lack of concern about expanded government powers or curtailed liberties,
reasoning that since they’re not terrorists they have no need to worry. But life and law are not always that simple. The Sherman
Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was enacted to counter monopolistic companies but was first used against unions. It’s precisely the vast
scope of USA Patriot that makes it a threat to the law-biding.
"The Administration’s blatant power grab, coupled with the wide array of anti-terrorism tools that the
USA Patriot Act puts at its disposal, portends a wholesale suspension of civil liberties that will reach far beyond those who are
involved in terrorist activities," says Chang.