By Kari Lydersen
In These Times
February 3, 2011
Union workers at the
a Wells Fargo Bank in July 2009 to be calm and civil.
They had already talked with local
and made it clear they "had no beef," in UE Midwest
director Carl Rosen's words, with the police or the
municipality, but wanted to make a statement about the
bank which was cutting the plant's financing.
So when the day of the protest came, workers and their
supporters were surprised to see a heavy and relatively
combative police presence. At the time they didn't know
what to make of it, and figured maybe Wells
pressured the department to come out in force.
The plant was organized by the United Electrical Radio
and Machine Workers of
which eight months earlier had carried out the famous
Republic Windows occupation. Protesters heard a police
officer say the FBI had alerted them that "terrorists"
were coming to
reps didn't believe it.
"It seemed fantastical that the FBI would be interested
in us," said Rosen. It wasn't until more than a year
later that they understood what had happened.
The union members coming from
day included Joe Iosbaker, who, as it turns out, was the
target of an ongoing FBI investigation that became
public in September 2010 when agents raided his home and
the homes of 13 other labor and anti-war activists in
As described in a statement adopted by the UE's general
executive board at their national meeting January 27-28,
union leaders now believe the FBI had been spying on
communications of Iosbaker and other activists, and
Chicagoans' plans to go to the protest.
Iosbaker is an executive board member and chief steward
of SEIU Local 73 in
activist in general. He directly participated in the
UE's Republic Windows and Doors occupation.
A number of unions and labor groups have passed
resolutions or made statements condemning the FBI
investigations as a violation of civil rights and free
speech. The UE statement points out how the FBI's
actions not only targeted activists for their anti-war
views, but also as a side effect infringed upon the Quad
City Die Casting members' right to peacefully protest
regarding their own situation.
"We're supposed to be living in a democracy, and a
democracy means elections, but also the ability of
people to speak out about issues they're concerned
about, whether popular or unpopular," Rosen said.
"People need to have a right to address their grievances
to the government and the public at large-that's what
our members were doing. They'd conferred in advance with
the local police so everything could run smoothly and
minimize the resources of the local police."
He added that the FBI, rather than taxpayers, should
have been billed for the overtime or extra staff
resources utilized by the
Rosen noted that even "under the wild speculation that
any of these folks that they`re investigating did
something improper with someone overseas," it was
unnecessary and inappropriate for the FBI to have called
the local police. "They're labor activists, one thing
you do as a labor activist is practice solidarity,"
Rosen said. "Nothing could have indicated these people
would in any way pose any danger here."
Iosbaker and other people targeted by the FBI think the
investigation stemmed from their involvement in protests
around the 2008 Republican National Convention, and
expanded to focus on their solidarity work with
is specifically targeting labor activists, but
nonetheless the investigation could affect labor
"Right now the main focus of repression is the anti-war
movement and international solidarity work," Iosbaker
says. This was likely "a bleed-over from an operation
they had been doing deep undercover on the anti-war
movement," he added, noting the
protest was publicized through the Fight Back! newspaper
listserv he helps maintain. "But this stemmed from that.
They disrupted a protest action organized by the UE.
They harassed and intimidated them."
As the UE statement notes, their members have a
particular interest in addressing civil rights
violations and overzealous FBI surveillance, since the
union was a target of anti-Communist counterintelligence
and covert repression in the McCarthy era.
The UE statement says
Our own union's history has taught us that
infringement on basic freedoms is a matter of life
and death to the workers' movement. During the "red
scare" of the late 1940s and the 1950s, the combined
forces of the corporations, the federal government,
both major political parties, the media, and
opportunistic business unions nearly succeeded in
destroying UE and crushing progressive trade
Because of the persecution that our union suffered
and barely survived in that era, we in UE have a
continuing obligation to speak out forcefully
whenever civil liberties are endangered by political
hysteria and repression.
Last September, it was revealed the UE was among about
200 civil rights, women's rights and labor groups spied
reported to local law enforcement on groups they
considered terrorist threats. When the operation was
exposed it created widespread outrage and
Gov. Ed Rendell demanded the program halted.
Rosen and Iosbaker said continued publicity and
expressions of support by labor activists and others is
important to make sure the FBI doesn't over-reach and
violate civil liberties as part of the "war on terror."
"The lessons of history are that when people don't speak
up about the civil liberties of others being taken away,
more civil liberties get taken away from more and more
people," Rosen said. "The sooner and the louder that
more people speak out, the more likely it is these
things will stop and we'll get that element of democracy
The statement from the UE concludes
From the Industrial Workers of the World's (IWW)
fight for free speech in the 1910s, to the major
labor-inspired civil liberties court decisions of
the 1930s, the labor movement has often been in the
forefront of defending the right to speak and
protest. Unionists have understood that without the
ability to speak out, union efforts would be