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Government Surveillance of Activists and Labor Organizers Is Alive and Well

Recently revealed emails show that a wide range of public entities were used to police a California graduate workers strike. It’s part of a long tradition of government agencies spying on labor organizers and radicals — but now with cross-agency coordination and ever-expanding budgets.

Striking workers at UC Santa Cruz, February 10, 2020. @payusmoreucsc / Twitter

In February 2020, University of California–Santa Cruz graduate student workers refused to turn in final grades unless their demand for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to match the cost of housing was met. As the administration refused to meet this demand, the graduate student workers’ protest became a wildcat strike.

Emails recently obtained by Vice as part of a public records request reveal the lengths the administration was willing to go to to thwart the strike. Rather than meeting their demands, the administration worked with campus police, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the California National Guard, and the California Office of Emergency Services to police the strike.

These agencies also turned to the California State Threat Assessment Center, a “state fusion center.” Fusion centers are affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security and share intelligence between state, federal, and private entities. According to a 2012 Congressional investigation, fusion centers produce intelligence of “uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”

And fusion centers were not only the bodies sharing intelligence. Police also accessed the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal, an online intelligence portal run by the FBI.

The litany of intelligence-sharing bodies designed to link local law enforcement with federal intelligence is justified by government agencies as a response to the threat of terrorism and other serious crime. Yet a college seeking to silence its workers’ demands was able to freely tap into them.

The obtained emails show the discussion of “intel,” such as claims that intel shows that protesters are looking to escalate on a given date. The source of this intelligence concerning the plans of the striking workers is not apparent. Similar to “intel,” the emails also mention “social media monitoring”; both terms are referenced as sources of information, suggesting that “intel” refers to some other source than social media.

One of the most disturbing revelations concerns the use of military grade equipment. The emails show the UC Santa Cruz police received “friendly force trackers” from the state national guard, These trackers were originally developed for use on the battlefield to monitor US troop movements.

The precise use of the trackers is unclear. Vice indicated they might have been used to track the graduate workers’ pickets. The administration has claimed they were exclusively used to track on-duty police officers.

A particularly bizarre revelation from the emails involves the college’s concerns that Senator Bernie Sander (I-VT) would attempt to visit the campus.

Sanders, a democratic socialist who has throughout his political career championed the rights of working people, unsurprisingly tweeted in support of the graduate workers. In response to the tweet, an agent from the California Office of Emergency Services emailed the commander of the California State Threat Assessment Center asking him to verify or confirm the sitting senator and then–presidential candidate’s schedule.

Why? Because “intel” indicated Sanders may appear on campus. Again, the source of this intelligence is unclear.

These were not the only measures taken against the graduate student workers. To date, the school has fired striking graduate workers from their teaching positions. The graduate workers, who are part of United Auto Workers Local 2865, have filed an unfair labor complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Another graduate worker provided Salon with the recording of an interaction between him and a police officer potentially indicating he was being surveilled, and police have reportedly struck graduate workers with batons on picket lines.

A Long, Sordid History

The use of surveillance and intelligence gathering in breaking strikes is an old phenomenon in the United States. These practices have been occurring, sometimes with great violence, for centuries.

The university is a state entity, so it would make some sense that they would have access to government law enforcement and intelligence sharing centers, even if their use was an abuse of power. But it may not be only public institutions who have used governmental intelligence authorities to spy on their workers. After Walmart fired workers for protesting labor conditions, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), filed an unfair labor complaint against the mega retailer. (In 2016, an administrative law charged sided against Walmart and with the workers, ruling the firings were illegal. However, Walmart appealed the decision, and in 2019, the Trump NLRB sided with Walmart).

As a result of the complaint, Walmart turned over more than a thousand pages of internal documents in discovery. The world was given a candid look into Walmart’s anti-union efforts.

One shocking revelation was that Walmart at one point called the FBI for help. According to Bloomberg News, when Walmart “heard that members of the Occupy movement might join the protests at corporate headquarters, they began working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces.” In spite of multiple calls from activists and civil society groups for a Congressional investigation, it is still unknown what this collaboration entailed.

The FBI had already used its counterterrorism authorities to spy on Occupy. In fact, before the first protesters had ever gathered in Lower Manhattan, the FBI was not only keeping tabs on the movement, but also relaying that information to the New York Stock Exchange and private businesses.

Walmart didn’t merely have to rely on state actors. The company has its own global security division, which is headed by a former FBI agent. And when it first learned of the organizing effort, Walmart hired Lockheed Martin. While it is best known as a weapons producer, Lockheed Martin also has been “involved in surveillance and information processing for the CIA, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Pentagon, the Census Bureau, and the Postal Service.”

In the service of Walmart, Lockheed Martin monitored activists’ social media accounts. Lockheed Martin also monitored the movement of a “Caravan of Respect,” a group of workers traveling to Walmart’s annual shareholder meetings.

Lockheed Martin may be a private company. But as a defense and intelligence contractor, it is deeply enmeshed with the increasingly privatized US security state — and has a powerful arsenal to turn on labor organizers.

A Revolving Door From Private Corporations to Law Enforcement

Lockheed Martin isn’t the only defense or intelligence contractor branching out to domestic political surveillance on behalf of corporate clients. TigerSwan is a company that “originated as a U.S. military and State Department contractor helping to execute the global war on terror.”

After progressive journalist Amy Goodman captured shocking footage of security guards attacking indigenous Standing Rock Water Protectors with dogs, Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, hired TigerSwan. TigerSwan turned its mercenary and intelligence capabilities on the protesters, monitoring social media, conducting aerial surveillance, and even infiltrating them.

One might think that TigerSwan’s work was done after the Water Protectors were evicted. Instead, TigerSwan, referencing how anti-Soviet jihadists from Afghanistan went onto to form al-Qaeda, warned of the threat from the “anti-DAPL diaspora.” With this justification, TigerSwan expanded its scope from North Dakota, spying on protests across the country including a Chicago anti-Trump protest organized by the antiwar group ANSWER.

TigerSwan was a private security firm paid by a private energy company to protect their interests. Revelations about TigerSwan came from documents leaked to the Intercept. But the Intercept also discovered through public information requests that local law enforcement, the FBI, and a DHS fusion center had all been receiving TigerSwan intelligence products. As part of the response to the protest, an “Intelligence Group” was formed. In addition to federal and state agencies (including the FBI), TigerSwan was a participant. At the same time, TigerSwan was being paid by Energy Transfer Partners for PR work.

TigerSwan was being paid to protect the public image of Energy Transfer Partners while spying on its opponents. And yet it was able to feed intelligence directly to law enforcement.

Chilling Ramifications

Corporate use of spies, especially labor spies, is hardly new. Multiple commentators have drawn parallels between TigerSwan and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the private detectives who became notorious for their use of violence, agent provocateurs, and other dirty tricks to prevent working-class people from exercising basic rights. Popular outrage was so strong that in 1893 Congress passed the Anti-Pinkerton Act, forbidding the government from contracting with private detectives. While Pinkertons were hardly the only labor spies, they still serve as a stand-in for the larger practice of police spying on and infiltration of labor organizing to this day.

The early civil liberties movement had radical roots, viewing affronts to the rights of workers to organize, including those by private companies, as a chief threat to free expression. By the early 1930s, decades of documentation by civil liberties groups led to growing calls for federal intervention to defend workers’ right to free speech. These calls eventually centered on a demand for a Congressional “Civil Liberties Committee.”

Bolstered by claims that US corporations employed “40,000 labor spies at an annual cost of $80,000,000,” growing outrage at violence against labor, and an increasingly strong civil liberties movement, the Senate would eventually authorize such a Civil Liberties Committee, headed by Robert La Follette, Jr, to focus on some of the most notorious areas of employer abuse: “espionage, industrial munitions, strikebreaking, and private police.” It would not only hear from workers who had faced severe deprivations of civil liberties, but corporations involved in union busting. In investigating GM, La Follette’s Civil Liberties Committee exposed the auto manufacturer had spent “$900,000 for industrial espionage in less than three years” and disclosed “company surveillance of William Green, Walter Reuther, sociologist E. A. Ross, and Assistant Secretary of Labor Edward McGrady.”

While the hiring of labor spies might be an old tactic, Lockheed Martin and TigerSwan both have their origins in the world of government military and intelligence contracting. As part of the Global War on Terror, use of privatized intelligence operations at the government level has massively expanded. As journalist Tim Shorrock has documented, intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA increasingly rely on private contractors for everything from analyzing intercepted communications to interrogating prisoners. Shorrock found that in 2007, 70 percent of the intelligence budget went towards private contractors.

The government’s privatization of war and intelligence is disturbing in its own right. But it also has particularly chilling ramifications for domestic blowback. Could this ballooning industry move beyond just the world of government contracting and find corporate paymasters? A Pinkerton-like agency, but with a background in NSA intelligence analysis, is a uniquely alarming prospect.

The UC Santa Cruz incident also shows the domestic creep of the War on Terror. Administrators were able to access fusion centers, specially created after 9/11. They also benefited from military-grade surveillance technology they received from the national guard.

Both public and private intelligence have partial origins in attempts to suppress domestic labor radicalism. Just as private detective agencies tried to foil strikes, some of the earliest police intelligence units were “Red Squads.” One of the earliest intelligence units of the FBI was its “Radical Division,” responsible for founding up leftists during the Palmer Raids. Since 9/11, intelligence-gathering has reemerged as the FBI’s top priority. Given that such intelligence-gathering has long been used to spy on leftists and labor organizing, this is bad news for civil liberties.

In the past, abuses like this galvanized civil libertarians to defend working-class free speech from the monied interests seeking to squash dissent. Those who purport to care about free speech should be no less concerned about our modern-day Pinkertons.