The USA Patriot Act: A Bastion for Scoundrels, A Menace for Labor


Across America, there’s a slowly growing realization that our constitutional birthright was disregarded last October, when both houses of Congress and the president joined together to make the deceptively named USA Patriot Act the law of the land.

Legal experts say that the passage of the massive 342-page law guts our revolutionary civil protections we call the Bill of Rights. No longer, they fear, can ordinary citizens and residents expect that their rights to freedom of religion, speech, and peaceful assembly will be always protected by the law; no longer can they expect that their homes and belongings will always be legally protected from unreasonable search and seizure; and no longer can they always expect that due process will protect them from faceless accusers, kangaroo courts and cruel punishment.

Nancy Chang, a senior attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, has written, “To an unprecedented degree, the [USA Patriot] 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.

“The Act enhances the executive’s ability to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence, places an array of new tools at the disposal of the prosecution, including new crimes, enhanced penalties, and longer statutes of limitations, and grants the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) the authority to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism for lengthy, and in some cases indefinite, periods of time. And at the same time that the Act inflates the powers of the executive, it insulates the exercise of these powers from meaningful judicial and congressional oversight.”

Some legal scholars hold that the USA Patriot Act rivals the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which proscribed criticism of the government and virtually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press. Under those laws, prominent journalists were tried, and some were convicted. Fortunately, popular anger fueled the election in 1800 of a new congressional majority, which in time repealed the remaining Acts that had not lapsed.

Historians note that that the 1798 Acts were nominally enacted for one purpose, the marshalling of anti-French sentiment- but were utilized to suppress domestic criticism of government officials. Civil libertarians today warn that the USA Patriot Act, nominally conceived as an anti-terrorist measure, may well be used, as were the so-called sedition laws, for reactionary purposes against any ordinary citizen or resident protesting government policies.

A new crime of “domestic terrorism”

The American Civil Liberties Union states, “The law also creates a new crime of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The new offense threatens to transform protesters into terrorists if they engage in conduct that ‘involves acts dangerous to human life.’

“Members of Operation Rescue, the Environmental Liberation Front and Greenpeace, for example, have all engaged in activities that could subject them to prosecution as terrorists. Then, under this law, the dominos begin to fall. Those who provide lodging or other assistance to these ‘domestic terrorists’ could have their homes wiretapped and could be prosecuted.”

Clearly, it’s not a stretch to expect that ordinary workers on strike to defend their living standards and working conditions might be prosecuted under the USA Patriot Act as “domestic terrorists,” and not entitled to traditional constitutional protections. The Washington State Labor Council’s August convention recognized the danger to labor posed by the USA Patriot Act as undermining labor’s right to organize and to “fight anti-immigrant attacks and other union-busting tactics” by the government.

Certainly, nearly 11,000 West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), should feel that they might feel the iron heel of the USA Patriot Act. They have already been warned, they say, by high-ranking federal officials that attempting to strike or even slowing down in strict conformity with safety regulations and time-honored work rules could not only trigger the hated Taft-Hartley Act but could result in the indefinite militarization of the docks.

In response, the San Francisco Labor Council in late August adopted a resolution stating that the labor council delegates “strongly condemn any attempt by the government, at any level, to introduce troops or otherwise intervene in the contract dispute between the ILWU and the employers.”

No one should think that taking away workers’ right to strike can’t happen here. Time after time, our basic rights and liberties have been violated despite the Constitution. The mass incarceration of Japanese, American-born or not, during World War II by President Roosevelt; the McCarthy-era black-listing of seamen, teachers, and others; the murderous attacks on Black Panthers, and the on-going mass arrests of Middle-Eastern immigrants are just a few of the constitutional violations that testify to the readiness of the nation’s ruling circles to violate our basic constitutional protections.

Should the government get away with virtually taking away the dockworkers’ right to strike, it seems more likely than not that the government would not stop there. That conclusion is suggested by the fact that since President Harry Truman, a Democrat, first used the Taft-Hartley Act to force workers back on the job, Republican and Democratic presidents have used the infamous act 32 times, with the Democrats leading the Republicans, 23-9.

The count might be higher, but some workers, seeing what happened to others, accepted concessions without a fight.

By the way, a year before Taft-Hartley was enacted, Truman urged Congress to authorize him to draft into the armed forces (it was peacetime) rail workers he falsely said were striking against the government.

Washington unions censure national AFL-CIO

The 400,000-strong Washington state labor council has formally called on John J. Sweeny and the AFL-CIO to campaign against the USA Patriot Act. Moreover the council urged the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to oppose the U.S. government’s open-ended “war on terrorism” and to take actions to pressure the government to stop the war.

The labor body said that the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support for the war has led to the “callous withholding of solidarity from labor’s working-class and poor allies in other countries”

At the same time, the outspoken state labor council lambasted the AFL-CIO leadership for its present “uncritical support for this profit-driven war [that] has derailed labor opposition to increased military expenditures, corporate subsidies, and government spying and provided political cover for Democrats to jump on the anti-terrorism bandwagon.”

In 1934, the shipping bosses, backed by the widest business interests and countless office-holders around the San Francisco Bay, attempted to rob the dockworkers of their right to strike. Only the mass resistance of thousands of workers in the streets turned back the attack by cops and National Guard and protected the their right to strike and the rights of other workers.

The labor writer Art Preis, in “Labor’s Giant Step,” attributed the dockworkers’ epic victory to the strikers’ recognition of the principle of class solidarity that does not shrink from mobilizing “the great mass of the working populace to active, militant defense of the picket lines.”

Today, organized labor may be facing its most challenging job, protecting the right to strike. Some say the spirit of 1934 is dead at the highest reaches of the labor officialdom. If so, then we must look forward to fighters and leaders from the ranks to match the challenges that corporate America has in store for our nation’s workers; for we must not surrender.

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