New laws in the US and Canada, and new use of existing laws, seek to limit protests by workers and consumers. This trend is of concern to advocates of many kinds, and unionists in particular.
Old Strategies, New Laws
While a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (so-called SLAPP suits) is not a new strategy, advocates are concerned about increasing legal barriers to public dissent, demonstration, advocacy and journalism. Fear of defamation litigation can squelch freedom of speech for activists and journalists, but it also can affect workers who have grievances about their employers—and unions that run public campaigns—just as new laws against protests crop up around the country.
In Oklahoma, the governor signed a new law with harsh penalties for pro- testers who “trespass” or “tamper” with infrastructure, as well as penalties up to a million dollars for organizations that “conspire” with said protestor. Oklahoma is one of 18 US states that have seen new legislation introduced this year, in the wake of a new wave of disruptive protests around environmental, civil rights, and union conflicts. “In the old days some folks used to jump the fence,” said Oklahoma AFL-CIO President Jim Curry. “But it hasn’t been like that for a long time. We are experienced picketers, and always make sure we have our captains,” and they hope that by following the law they’ll protect unions from ramifications.
In Minnesota, the state AFL-CIO opposed a bill to penalize demonstrators who block highways. In Arkansas, lawmakers proposed criminalizing “mass picketing.” Proposed legislation in Washington State would make “economic disruption” a felony, the sponsor of the legislation calling protests “economic terrorism.” In fact, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights noted its concern in March at the trend.
In one high-profile example that crosses the US-Canada border, Resolute, a Canadian company, is suing Greenpeace in US court over its campaign against the company’s logging practices in Canada. Resolute alleges that the environmental advocacy organization is a criminal enterprise engaged in the “dissemination of disinformation, extortion and other tortious and illegal conduct” in order to raise funds.
Unlike new and proposed legislation that would escalate penalties, SLAPP charges are old strategies, which is why 28 states—including Georgia, where the Greenpeace suit was led—and the District of Columbia have anti-SLAPP laws designed to protect people’s right to speak out. Ontario passed anti-SLAPP legislation in 2015. The logging company is evading those protections by using a law used to prosecute the Ma a, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This, too, is a tactic unions have seen before.
Smithfield Foods, Inc. also used the RICO Act to go after the United Food and Commercial Workers amid the workers’ right to organize Smithfield, a pork processing plant in North Carolina. The workers ran an effective public campaign against the company, reached a settlement and successfully formed their union.
Targeting Individual Workers
In Greenpeace’s suit, several workers who run the group’s forest campaign were named—and served directly with papers.
“It can be intimidating to be personally named in a fat lawsuit,” said Rolf Skar, Forest Campaign Director of Greenpeace USA, in an online video recently released by Greenpeace.
“You’ve got piles of legal papers, you wonder about what’s this going to mean for me, when am I going to have to show up in court, what does this mean for my future? That sort of thing. And 300 million dollars kind of hanging over your head.”
Skar said that he feels Resolute is trying to intimidate nonprofits with fewer resources and others who want to speak out.
“This is all about snuffing out and silencing dissenting voices. And when you do that, you erode public discourse, free speech. And when you do that, you endanger the very heart of our democratic society,” he said.
Labor groups, including the National Nurses Union, joined a public state ment against the suit, which said, in part, “Attempting to persuade US courts to label environmental advocacy as a criminal enterprise sets a dangerous precedent. [I]t also threatens the basic right to free speech...”
Veteran labor activist Chris Aikin offered the following advice to union stewards and activists:
“Be there and be loud with a broad coalition of community members,” when you have a fight to take public.
See the big picture: “These are big-stakes fights and while laws and politics may change, our basic commitment to democracy in the workplace and in our country do not,
Aikin said. And, lastly,
Know the laws, but don’t be intimidated.