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These Rights Make Us Strong


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 sedition.

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 Constitution.

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."

• • •

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.

"To an unprecedented degree, the Act sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security ..."

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 other circumstances.

"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 Constitutional Rights.

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.


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The USA Patriot Act creates a new federal crime — "domestic terrorism" — with a broad definition, including "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws" if they "appear to be intended . . . to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." Such vague language could be interpreted by some federal officials as legal justification to treat citizens engaged in legitimate political dissent as criminals.

Demonstrations and marches could be interpreted as acts intended "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation." "Acts of civil disobedience," says Chang, "even those that do not result in injuries and are entirely non-violent could be construed as ‘dangerous to human life’ and in ‘violation of the criminal laws.’" For example, union members protesting globalization in defense of their jobs could find themselves branded "domestic terrorists" — and made to pay the price.

"It’s precisely the vast scope of USA Patriot that makes it a threat to the law-biding"

"Damage to property now qualifies as terrorism in some cases, whether human life and limb was endangered or not," according to Emile Schepers of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. The potential abuse here, says Schepers, is that "People could be accused of involvement in terrorism because some property was damaged in a labor action or street demonstration. This opens the door to agents provocateurs who often do such damage in order to discredit protesting organizations."

Also, says Chang, "political activists and the organizations with which they associate may unwittingly find themselves the subject of unwanted government attention in the form of surveillance and other intelligence-gathering operations. The manner in which the government implements the Act must be carefully monitored to ascertain whether activists and organizations are being targeted selectively for surveillance and prosecution based on their opposition to government policies."


Critics say the USA Patriot Act attacks Americans’ privacy in several ways.

The Fourth Amendment guards Americans from unreasonable search and seizure; warrants are to be issued only on probable cause and describe "the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." For years, the measure of "reasonable" has been the "knock and announce" rule: police knock on the door of the place to be searched and give notice. The purpose of this procedure is to guard against mistakes and excess: Is the address correct? Does the search conform to the warrant?

Section 213 of the USA PATRIOT Act changes this by authorizing "sneak and peek" searches. Under a ‘sneak and peek’ warrant, FBI agents can secretly break into homes, remove objects or plant incriminating evidence — legally. The provision allows the FBI to delay notification of execution of a warrant until after the break-in. People can’t challenge the legality of searches they don’t know about.

Under Section 215 of the Act, the FBI will be able to seize "any tangible things," including sensitive personal records, only by claiming they are needed for investigations related to "international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." The person or organization subjected to such a seizure does not have to be suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.

'"Sneak and peek": the person or organization does not have to be suspected of any wrongdoing ...'

Dempsey and Cole say "The implications of this change are enormous," for these reasons:

"Previously, the FBI could get the credit card records of anyone suspected of being a foreign agent. Under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI can get the entire database of the credit card company. Under prior law, the FBI could get library borrowing records only by complying with state law, and always had to ask for the records of a specific patron. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can go into a public library and ask for the records on everybody who ever used the library, or who used it on a certain day, or who checked out certain kinds of books. It can do the same at any bank, telephone company, hotel or motel, hospital or university — merely upon the claim that the information is ‘sought for’ an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."


PATRIOT loosens the already not-so-tight restrictions on domestic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Where FISA allowed secret searches of homes only for counter-intelligence purposes, Section 218 allows physical searches and wiretaps with the claim that "a significant purpose" of an investigation involves foreign intelligence. "Section 218 gives the FBI a green light to resume domestic spying on government ‘enemies,’ a program that reached an ugly apex under J. Edgar Hoover," Chang asserts.

The Act expands the government’s ability to spy on Internet communication. "Section 216 authorizes the government to install its new Carnivore or DCS1000 system, a formidable tracking device that is capable of intercepting all forms of Internet activity, including email messages, web page activity, and Internet telephone communications," explains Chang. "Once installed on an Internet Service Provider (ISP), Carnivore devours all of the communications flowing through the ISP’s network — not just those of the target of surveillance but those of all users — and not just tracking information but content as well."

The law reduces the rights of non-citizens, who are threatened with mandatory detention and deportation by engaging in a broad range of political activities associated with groups designated by the Justice Dept. as "terrorist organizations." There is no judicial review; the non-citizens punished are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. "The revocation of due process rights of non-citizens represents a danger of revocation of such rights for all of us," says Schepers of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.

However serious the threat of international terrorism may be, Americans may well wonder how much our liberties can be abridged before the terrorists, for all practical purposes, can claim victory.


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