The Iron Heel Revisited

Spying on grannies in Sacramento who were planning to “mark Mother’s Day urging the Governor and Legislature to support bringing California National Guardsmen home from Iraq by Labor Day”; doing undercover surveillance at a union rally for health care in San Francisco and prompting police to fire “less-than-lethal” weapons at anti-war protesters and longshore workers in the port of Oakland — this is the veiled face of the “war on terror” exposed in a just-released American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report.

The report, The State of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of Political Activity in Northern and Central California, written by Mark Schlosberg documents the trampling of constitutional rights by various government agencies, the F.B.I., the Department of Defense, the State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, the California National Guard, at least one Sheriff’s Department and several Police Departments.

Ominously, the ACLU states, “If history is any guide, the stories documented in this report represent only the tip of the iceberg.” Perhaps these kinds of government interventions explain, in part, why organizing efforts for an end to the wars in the Middle East and for workers’ rights at home have difficulty in achieving a modicum of success.

In the case of the grandmothers’ protest against the war, along with Code Pink and Gold Star Families for Peace, the press office of Governor Schwarzenegger sent an email warning to California National Guard brass, including Robert J. O’Neil, head of a new “intell” unit called the Information Synchronization Knowledge Management and Intelligence Fusion Program. It’s touted as a “one-stop shop for local, state and national law enforcement to share information.” When the San Jose Mercury News exposed the monitoring of the protest, the Guard tried to nip criticism by inviting the peace groups to tour its facilities.

This PR ploy blew up in their faces when Code Pink members photographed a poster in Guard offices of General “Black Jack” Pershing who, during the U.S. imperialist conquest of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, quelled a Muslim rebellion in 1911, by slaughtering 49 insurgents with bullets soaked in pigs’ blood. The poster asks: “Maybe it is time for this segment of history to repeat itself, maybe in Iraq? The question is where do we find another Black Jack Pershing?”

After a public outcry, the poster was removed and the Guard’s Fusion program dismantled. However, it was revealed in State Senator Dunn’s investigation of the Guard that similar domestic spying operations exist around the country. And undoubtedly in California other government agencies will continue the Guard’s surveillance.

Workers—Under the Gun

When Safeway employees in Southern California voted to strike over health care issues in 2003, workers across the country organized actions in support the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). In Los Angeles, longshore Local 13 shut down the port and held a solidarity rally with other unions to raise money for the largely Latino strikers. In Northern California a group of religious leaders planned a pilgrimage to the home of Safeway CEO Steve Burd in Contra Costa County to hand deliver postcards supporting the striking workers.

On January 23, 2004, two men identifying themselves as deputies from the Homeland Security Unit of the County Sheriff entered the union offices in Martinez asking about the pilgrimage. The following day UFCW officials at a strike solidarity rally in San Francisco spotted the same sheriff’s deputies in plainclothes at the rally. After continuous prodding by Art Pulaski, Secretary-Treasurer of the California Federation of Labor, the deputies admitted their pernicious undercover role. Said Pulaski, using homeland security justification to monitor union activity “is sending a chilling and intimidating message to all of us.”

“Port Security” in the Imperial State’s Homeland

Nowhere is the bipartisan nature of the “war on terror” more apparent than in the April 7, 2003 police attack on peaceful anti-war demonstrators and longshoremen in the port of Oakland in which more than 50 were injured by wooden dowels, concussion grenades, tear gas, motorcycles and rubber bullets. The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (CATIC), set up immediately after 9/11 by Democrats, Governor Gray Davis and State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, sent a warning before the anti-war demonstration that there could be violence. CATIC spokesman Mike Van Winkle even equated terrorists with protesters, creating a volatile atmosphere in which cops were armed with riot gear and prodded to shoot.

Even after police videos of the demonstration showed police firing without provocation, refuting the police version that demonstrators threw objects at the police, still, Democrat Mayor Jerry Brown backed the cops as he does today in his quest to be California State Attorney General, the “Top Cop”.

Hypocritically, it was Brown who, in 1997, participated in a picket line in support of fired dockworkers in Liverpool, England which blocked traffic in the port, his ostensible reason for backing the police attack this time. The difference: in 1997 Brown needed labor credentials in his bid for mayor. Now, he needs to portray a “law and order” image and get financial contributions from the global corporations. Earlier this year the City of Oakland settled out-of-court for some $2 million in damages without admitting any wrongdoing.

The ACLU report places much of the blame on the present loss of civil liberties on the government’s overzealous response to fighting terrorism after 9/11 and the bountiful rewards doled out by the Department of Homeland Security. In the nascent days of the “war on terror”, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) bore the brunt of government coercion, first exposed here in the pages of Counterpunch (27 June 2002 Strikers as Terrorists? Ridge Calls Longshoremen’s Chief). Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and then-Homeland Security Czar Ridge telephoned ILWU President Jim Spinosa to warn that any job actions on the West Coast docks during contract negotiations would pose a threat to national security and be met with an ironclad military occupation of the docks.
Such heavy-handed threats clearly played well with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the group representing international shipowners, stevedore companies and terminal operators with whom the union had been negotiating. When the PMA shutdown every port on the Coast 3 months later by locking out longshore workers, the Bush administration saw no such threat to “national security” and eagerly followed the employers lead by invoking the slave labor Taft-Hartley Act at the request of California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein. ILWU officials called the concessionary contract borne from this double whammy a “victory” simply because the union survived the struggle.

During the employer lockout, some dockworkers carried picket signs reading the “war on terror is a war on workers”. Port security measures are jettisoning civil liberties over the side as surveillance cameras are mounted not only in the dock area, but in some workers’ breakrooms as well. And “port security” has become a euphemism for militarization of the waterfront, where some 750,000 port workers are being required to undergo intrusive background checks, having little to do with “terrorism” and pay $139 for an electronic ID card in order to work.

The union-controlled hiring hall, the power of the union, won after 6 workers were killed by police in the 1934 West Coast maritime strike and founded on the principle of an equal distribution of work, is in jeopardy. Now the government, like Johnny Friendly, the mobster bully in the film “On the Waterfront”, says it will determine who works and who doesn’t. Prison records, past psychological problems or activist politics could mean cement shoes for waterfront workers’ rights.

The planning meeting to march back to the Oakland docks to reassert “free speech” rights one month after the bloody police attack was infiltrated by undercover cops according to Deputy Chief Jordan. Raising the spectre of agents provocateurs, he stated before the OPD’s Board of Review, “…we’d be able to gather information and maybe even direct them to do something that we want them to do”. It is not unreasonable to assume that in a climate of fear generated by the 9/11 attacks and fomented by the “war on terror”– where repressive legislation like the USA Patriot Act and the Transportation Security Act are rubber stamped by Democrats and Republicans — that the right to free speech, (demonstrations, rallies, and picket lines) and freedom of association (the right to join a union) could be banned in the ports.

IRON HEEL REDUX

The ILWU played a principled role during the witchhunting McCarthy period, defending workers against waterfront screening and offering workers purged from other maritime unions a safe haven. Although it was targeted by the government and redbaiting union officials in both CIO and AFL unions, the ILWU, to its credit, opposed the U.S. war against Korea, and has taken the same stance on every imperialist war since.

Today, business unionist ILWU officials are cut from a different cloth. While the official position of the ILWU (decided by a delegates’ vote at the 2003 union convention shortly after the military invasion) is opposition to the Iraq war and for immediate withdrawal of troops none of the ILWU’s International officers has implemented that rank-and-file decision by speaking out at anti-war rallies. Moreover, they buy into the “war on terror” and “partnership” with the bosses like the rest of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win union bureaucrats. The mantra they chant, “we’re the first line of defense” in the ports, actually aligns the union with employers and the government, while exposing the union and its hiring hall to attack from the back.

Ironically, the ACLU of Northern California was born in San Francisco during the 1934 maritime strike when waterfront workers were under deadly attack from police, the National Guard and anti-communist vigilantes. This well-researched ACLU report meticulously identifies recent government acts of repression. However, their conclusion reads “inadequate understanding of privacy laws and protections for political activity, and a profound lack of regulation” have led to governmental abuses. The report recommends “reforms for law enforcement surveillance activities”. Its liberal, myopic view blinds readers to the reality that the imperialist state is a racist apparatus of class repression, not changed or controlled by “a few good laws”. FBI’s COINTELPRO program actually killed radicals like the Black Panthers not just “disrupted political organizations”. And while the report lists the FBI’s campaign to “neutralize” Martin Luther King, it is silent on the government’s hand in the murder of Malcolm X. The American road to empire is littered with bodies.

Early on, the ACLU report cites the 1976 Church Committee findings that the U.S. government has “consistently used law enforcement agencies to investigate and stifle political dissent.” That Senate committee found a pattern of abuses dating back to 1936. Actually, state repression of working class radicals is evident with early 1900s anti-syndicalist measures directed against the Wobblies of the Industrial Workers of the World, and through the imprisonment of railroad union leader Eugene V. Debs, opposed to the First World War, Tom Mooney and leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Minneapolis Teamsters in the run-up to WWII. The report skips over the McCarthy period, perhaps, because the ACLU participated in that political cannibalizing of the workers movement.

No, we don’t need more legislation to control police activities. What’s needed are intransigent defiance of unjust laws and mass mobilizations against the war, racism and repression.

That’s what stopped the war in Vietnam and won civil rights at home. In that vein, ILWU Local 10 submitted a resolution to the union convention in May for a one-day strike against the war calling on the rest of the labor movement to join in. Unfortunately, union bureaucrats scuttled the motion in committee before it could reach the convention floor for debate and a vote.

La lutta continua.

JACK HEYMAN, a longshoreman who works on the Oakland docks, was one those assaulted by police in their attack on the April 7, 2003 anti-war protest in the port. He has organized dock actions against apartheid and in support of Mumia abu Jamal. For the video documentary of the Oakland police shooting anti-war protesters and longshoremen April 7, 2003 “Shots On The Docks”.Send $20.00 check or money order to: Labor Video Project, P.O. Box 720027San Francisco, CA 94172. Jack can be reached at jackheyman@comcast.net.

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Jack Heyman (jackheyman@mac.com) is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee www.transportworkers.org and a retired longshoreman who writes on labor politics and history. 

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