Union workers at the Quad City Die Casting plant in central Illinois expected their planned protest outside a Wells Fargo Bank in July 2009 to be calm and civil. They had already talked with local Rock Island police 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 Fargo had pressured the department to come out in force.
The plant was organized by the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the same union 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 Rock Island for the action, but union 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 Chicago in solidarity that 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 Chicago, Michigan and Minnesota.
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 called the Rock Island police to tip them off about the Chicagoans’ plans to go to the protest.
Iosbaker is an executive board member and chief steward of SEIU Local 73 in Chicago, and an outspoken labor 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 Rock Island police that day.
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 Palestine and Colombia. Iosbaker said he doubts the FBI is specifically targeting labor activists, but nonetheless the investigation could affect labor struggles like Quad City Die Casting.
“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 Quad City Die Casting 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 unionism.
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 upon by Pennsylvania’s Homeland Security office, which reported to local law enforcement on groups they considered terrorist threats. When the operation was exposed it created widespread outrage and Pennsylvania 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 back.”
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 crushed.