Why Unions Should Work to Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act was hurriedly passed unanimously in Congress and signed by President Bush barely six weeks after the September 11, 2001 hijackings and mass murders. It was supposed to be a "9/11 bill," i.e., it was sold to Congress and the US public as a way to repress Al Qaeda and its allies. However, the USA PATRIOT Act is not specifically directed at Al Qaeda. On the contrary, its definitions of "terrorist activity" and "terrorist organization" are so broad that it criminalizes anyone who is politically active and travels/ communicates/sends money across national borders to further their politics.

Cold War legislation, at least, had a specific target: Communism. Although much of this legislation was later rejected as unconstitutional, at least the targeted group was relatively precise. With the USA PATRIOT Act, however, the target, "Terrorism," is not a specific ideology; it is a political tactic that, when defined the way it is in the PATRIOT Act, virtually every political ideology can (and has) used. It is a slippery notion one person's "terrorist" is another's "freedom fighter." As the Center for Constitutional Rights' Nancy Chang wrote, the USA PATRIOT Act's definition of terrorism is "couched in such vague and expansive terms ... it may well be read by federal law enforcement agencies as licensing the investigation of political activists and organization based on their opposition to government policies. It also may be read by prosecutors as licensing the criminalization of legitimate political dissent."

The USA PATRIOT Act should be repealed for that reason alone, but labor unions have a special interest in joining the fight for repeal: they will be some of the main US victims of the USA PATRIOT Act. The creation of vaguely defined crimes like "domestic terrorism" can and will be applied to unionized workers, citizens and non-citizens alike.

Immigrant workers have become the backbone of the rejuvenated unionization movement in the 21st century, supplying much of the grassroots energy. Many of the union militants in the US have been involved in the worldwide struggle against globalization. Among immigrant workers, there is hardly a politically-active person in the so-called "Third World" who has not participated in either a strike, demonstration, riot or insurrection against structural adjustment programs, World Bank-dictated privatizations and "new enclosures," NAFTA, GATT, the WTO or IMF devaluations that took place between the mid-1980s and today. Many have been hounded out of their countries because of their militancy or because of the general impoverishment that followed the imposition of structural adjustment. These workers have not arrived here defeated. They have brought to the US an enormous experience of struggle that promises to form the basis of the revival of trade union militancy.

In response to this reality the AFL-CIO reversed its almost century-long hostility to organizing immigrant workers in the late 1990s. It has taken the unprecedented step of supporting a demand for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Many of its organizing drives are directed at and led by undocumented immigrant workers. But many of them have been involved in anti-globalization struggles from the numerous insurgencies in South and Central America, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the numerous anti-IMF/World Bank uprisings in Africa. Similarly, solidarity groups here, including the Green Parties with their attack on sweatshops in Free-Export zones abroad, the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and IMF, and the biopiracy schemes of the WTO have created many ties with unions and other grassroots organizations resisting globalization throughout the planet. How many of these organizations now fit into the vague definitions of "terrorist" or supporters of "terrorism," according to the USA PATRIOT Act? According to the Attorney General of the United States, most of them!

Consider the unusually broad definitions the USA PATRIOT Act stipulates. For example, it creates the federal crime of "domestic terrorism" that covers "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws," if they "occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the US" and they "appear to be intended ... to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." This definition can easily include almost any picket line or minor demonstration skirmish that occurs in the context of a strike against a factory, office, or army base or at a demonstration protesting government policies, e.g., the announced privatization of US government services involving almost a million workers.

In fact, the definitions in the Act stretch far beyond standard meanings even in this contested field. Thus "terrorist activity" encompasses any crime that involves the use of a "weapon or dangerous device (other than for mere personally monetary gain)" while the phrase "engage in terrorist activity" includes soliciting funds for, soliciting membership for, and providing material support to a "terrorist organization," even when that organization has legitimate political and humanitarian aims. Picket signs have been claimed by the authorities as "weapons" or "dangerous devices," as have other innocuous demonstration equipment (chalk, penknives, antiwar pins).

The definition of "terrorist organization" is even more problematic. "Terrorist organizations" are those named on a variety of lists of put out by the State Department and other federal agencies. But the USA PATRIOT Act takes that a giant step further, defining "terrorist organization" as a group of "two or more individuals, whether organized or not," who engage in "terrorist activities" as vaguely defined above. A non-citizen can be deported if s/he provided material assistance to, solicited funds for, or solicited membership for an undesignated "terrorist organIzation" even prior to the enactment of the Act! Today it may be okay to do something or be associated with someone or some organization, but tomorrow the US government may decide to go after that person or entity and apply "anti-terrorist" sanctions for that association retroactively.

The decision to frame the definitions of the Act so broadly was neither necessary nor accidental. After all, an act could have been written that aimed directly at Al Qaeda, for example, or to a specified set of organizations (say those on the State Department's "terrorist list"). The actual definitions simply make any immigrant involved in the class struggle around the planet in the last couple of decades, whether in the US (say in solidarity work with people "back home") or in the Third World (in anti-structural adjustment uprisings), vulnerable to arrest and deportation.

The USA PATRIOT Act is clearly meant to stop or, at least, slow political energy between the Third World and the US and make everyone, but especially immigrants, be more cautious, if not downright paranoid, about any involvement with labor struggles and anti-globalization movements that include other immigrants. In fact, since the Act's definitions are so broadly drawn, every activist is now "under suspicion" and targeted.

Moreover, if immigrant workers are neutralized, next it will be the US citizen workers who will be targeted and who will be left to defend them? This is especially true for unionized workers of color who are US citizens. Recent events make it clear that in the end, attacks on immigrants end up being attacks on communities of color. For example, African-Americans are now being stopped and checked for immigration status. Police are using the new "anti-terrorist" laws to detain "suspicious" people of color and bring them to the police station for investigation.

The USA PATRIOT Act must then be countered by the organizations that are being attacked by it: the labor unions. The possibility of increasing the power of unions in this period is based on the new immigrant worker base. The intimidation of this base undermines the future of any expansion of the formal contractual freedom of every worker, as well as his/her freedom to strike or organize to better their conditions. Similarly, the future of union international solidarity is rooted in the free flow of information and the organization of workers from across the planet. The Act is aimed at putting embargoes around struggles by labeling them "terrorist." The union movement requires the freedom to circulate struggles against globalization for its own survival. We must demand that the Act be repealed as a top priority. The leadership of the AFL-CIO cannot prevent the USA PATRIOT Act's "collateral damage" by waving white sheets from its bunker with the words "WE ARE NOT AL QAEDA!!!" written boldly on them for the pilots of the passing judicial stealth bombers to see.

Let our labor unions take their cue from the US workers in World War II who refused to be intimidated by draconian war-time laws, threats from the Nazis and Japanese imperialists, or the Stalinists in the leadership of their unions who opposed their job actions. Right smack in the middle of World War 2 they demanded wage increases, better conditions and control over production, and the end of speed-ups. They struck time and again against corporations trying to taking advantage of the war to maximize profits at the expense of the workers. There were more than 14,000 strikes involving almost seven million workers during the WWII. In fact, in 1943 and 1944 the number of workers involved in strikes in the US exceeded figures for all other years after 1916, except 1941. Nor were these were all small affairs outside of the "war industries." For example, in May 1943 50,000 Akron rubber workers went on strike and in May 1944 10,000 Chrysler workers went on strike at six Michigan plants. This was the greatest of "the greatest generation" and not surprisingly Tom Brokaw never breathed a word about these workers in his book by that name for they fought simultaneously against US capitalism, fascism and Stalinist collaboration with the corporations and suppression of workers' rights.

If US workers could refuse to be intimidated into giving up their rights and demands in the midst of a real, declared war against a tangible threat in World War II, then we need to do the same today. In the 1940s they resisted under the banner of fighting fascism at home as well as at the front. A similar is needed now, before it is too late. The beginning of such a campaign should be the call by organized labor to "Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act."

This article is written by George Caffentzis for "Green Politix," the national newspaper of the Greens/Green Party USA. For more information, please check out www.greenparty.org, or call 1-866-GREENS-2. It is distributed by the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party USA, which is launching the Brooklyn Bill of Rights Defense Committee. To join or to help support our work, please send contributions to the Brooklyn Greens, c/o Mitchel Cohen, 2652 Cropsey Avenue #7H, Brooklyn NY 11214, mitchelcohen@mindspring.com. Thank you.

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