It’s not every day that an American labor union gets investigated for possible ties to two of the world’s most lethal terrorist organizations. But Chicago’s Service Employees International Union Local 73 isn’t an everyday union. Last September 24, FBI agents raided residences in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan of more than a dozen radical activists in an effort to connect them to the Hamas (Gaza and the West Bank) and FARC (Colombia) guerrilla movements. Two of the occupants were SEIU Local 73 chief steward and executive board member Joe Iosbaker and former local board member-steward Tom Burke. Neither they nor anyone else has been arrested. But as the case unfolds, questions have arisen over the possibility of involvement not only by the activists, but also by elements of the Chicago-based radical network that nurtured President Obama’s political ambitions.
National Legal and Policy Center about a half-decade ago released a lengthy report documenting how unions in this country have drawn increasingly close to the most extreme elements of the antiwar Left. The report, “Common Cause with America’s Enemies: How Labor Unions Embraced Antiwar Extremism” (see pdf version), which I authored, emphasized that opposing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is not subversion in and of itself. Many patriotic Americans object to the wisdom of sending U.S. soldiers to occupy those countries as part of the fight against Islamic terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The monograph distinguished between the “loyal opposition,” which opposes U.S. policy, and the “disloyal opposition,” which opposes U.S. interests. In other words, the disloyal opposition is more than simply against the war; it is against the very notion that the U.S. has legitimate interests anywhere in the world, whether pursued through war, diplomacy or trade. And it often acts upon that conviction in suspect and at times criminal ways.
Service Employees Local 73 is in the latter camp. Representing some 30,000 public service employees in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, the union is one of the largest labor organizations in the Midwest. Like any union, it seeks to maximize the interests of its members. But its leaders are also intensely political. Delivering good contracts is part of what leaders see as a far larger challenge: eliminating capitalist injustices against workers and “people of color” everywhere. And as the United States presumably is the de facto leader of global capitalism, racism and colonialism, they see the pursuit of social justice as requiring alignment with armed anti-American “liberation” movements. Joe Iosbaker, an employee at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Tom Burke, a stay-at-home dad and former custodian, are familiar with the intricacies of SEIU Local 73. Their pending grand jury testimony, should they ever get around to providing it, may reveal a good deal about the working relationships between “progressive” organizations here and organizations abroad that they support.
Federal officials are trying to determine whether they and a dozen other subpoenaed activists, mainly in Chicago and Minneapolis, have provided financial or other material support for armed revolutionary movements. “The warrants are seeking evidence in support of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation into activities concerning the material support of terrorism,” remarked Steve Warfield, spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis field office. The feds aren’t getting any cooperation, least of all from SEIU Local 73. The union, part of an ad hoc group calling itself the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, recently published a resolution in support of Joe Iosbaker and his wife, Stephanie Weiner (herself an AFSCME member). The statement denounced “these arbitrary and capricious FBI raids” and called upon President Obama “to order an immediate investigation into the circumstances, motivation and propriety of the judicial and police intimidation of our members and others.” Local Secretary-Treasurer Matt Brandon, in a video posting on YouTube, explicitly defended Iosbaker and Burke, who at least twice, most recently this past January, have refused to appear in front of a Chicago federal grand jury.
Let us leave aside the fact that refusing to respond to a grand jury subpoena is a felony. The feds have some valid reasons to be concerned. A few of those reasons point toward one Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network (AAAN). Mr. Abudayyeh’s apartment in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood was one of the targets of the FBI September raids, though he was not at home at the time. A U.S. citizen and the son of Palestinians, Abudayyeh joined AAAN in 1999 and has served as executive director since 2003. Long suspected as a front for Hamas, the nonprofit group, founded in 1995, made headlines last December at its 15th anniversary dinner. The esteemed guest speaker at that event was longtime White House press doyenne Helen Thomas, who had resigned under pressure from Hearst Newspapers a half-year earlier following her rather tactless statement that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to Poland and Germany.
Abudayyeh isn’t a political shrinking violet either. Here is one of his recent statements:
The U.S. and Israel will continue to describe Hamas, Hezbollah and the other Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations as “terrorists,” but the real terrorists are the governments and military forces of the U.S. and Israel. The vast majority of the world sees and understands this, and is in full support of Lebanese, Palestinian and worldwide resistance to Israel and the U.S.’s naked aggression, war, imperialism and occupation. As we have seen in Iraq, where the resistance is standing up to U.S. power, the U.S. military is not indomitable.
Abudayyeh believes he is being targeted for his views rather than for any criminal wrongdoing. His attorney, Jim Fennerty, shares this conviction. “The government’s trying to quiet activists,” said Fennerty. “This case is really scary.”
The Arab American Action Network might not be violent, but it is kind of scary, too. It’s working overtime to undermine American sovereignty and rule of law. An unapologetic enthusiast for open borders, AAAN supports public aid for illegal Arab immigrants in high schools to defray tuition in colleges and universities. The group’s indignation over even minimal immigration law enforcement, especially where Arabs are concerned, knows no bounds. In December 2005, for example, AAAN and other Arab ethnic organizations composed a letter to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (himself a virtual shill for the open borders lobby), denouncing a New Mexico-North Carolina joint initiative to deny driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. AAAN termed the measure “a bigoted attack on Arabs and Muslims.”
SEIU Local 73, however, might well be serving AAAN interests. Former local board member Thomas Burke has acknowledged that he was served with a subpoena requesting records of possible union payments to Abudayyeh’s group as well as to two groups on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the latter also known as FARC. The subpoena included a request for “items relating to trips to Colombia, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian territories of Israel.” While admitting he toured Colombia eight years earlier with members of an oil workers union in that country, Burke insisted he was not involved in transferring union or other financial resources to terrorist groups. He explained: “We pretty much all know each other. We barely have money to publish our magazine. We might write about (revolutionary groups) favorably, but as for giving them material aid, nothing.” Local 73 chief steward Joe Iosbaker and his wife, Stephanie Weiner, also deny involvement in terror enabling. “We aren’t doing anything differently than we have in 20 years,” said Weiner.
These denials may well be true. And surely the individuals issuing them are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Yet one has to ask: Why are the individuals under investigation bent on stonewalling federal grand juries? Could it be that what they know would implicate certain higher-ups? A good way to approach this possibility is to look at a few of the organizations allegedly coaxing sympathy and possibly donations from Iosbaker, Burke and the others.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). When antiwar radicals, including Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, demonstrated at rallies across the U.S. in protest of the FBI raids in September, some of the leaflets passed out at that event were in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s no great surprise. Great radical minds, such as they are, think alike. Founded in the wake of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, the PFLP for more than four decades has operated as a headline-making Middle East terror organization. The group retooled itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement at its 1969 convention, and since has cultivated ties to radical organizations the world over.
Though waning in influence, the PFLP is far from extinct. Under founder Dr. George Habash (1926-2008), a Palestinian nationalist raised as a Christian, the PFLP quickly made a name for itself. The group in 1970 was behind the hijackings of four Western airliners over the U.S., Europe, the Far East and the Persian Gulf, plus the bombing of a Swissair jet that killed 47 people. Two years later, the PFLP recruited gunmen from the Japanese Red Army to attack Lod (now Ben-Gurion) Airport in Tel Aviv; the assault left more than two dozen persons dead. Moderation – even the perception of it – is not for the PFLP. Its leaders completely ceased relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in September 1993, once the news broke that “moderate” late PLO leader Yassir Arafat signed the Oslo Peace Accords with the U.S. and Israel. It since has relocated in Damascus and certain Palestinian Authority-administered areas.
Hamas. Larger and even more dangerous than the PFLP, Hamas, an acronym for the Arabic words for “Islamic Resistance Movement,” is similar in beliefs and tactics, even though the two have been locked in a bitter power struggle lately. Hamas began in 1987 as an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force behind the recent overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Hamas is committed to violence. It has been responsible for thousands of rocket attacks on southern Israel; has actively recruited, trained and dispatched suicide (i.e., mass homicide) bombers; and planned the “humanitarian” Gaza Flotilla incident of last May 31 intended to provoke a violent showdown with Israeli authorities (it succeeded). Heavily funded by Iran, various Arab governments, and several Islamic “charities,” Hamas took over the Gaza strip that adjoins Israel and Egypt in a violent June 2007 coup, deposing the PLO-affiliated Fatah organization. Though barred from operating here in the U.S., Hamas has front groups who do its public relations work, most visibly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
FARC. This Colombian guerrilla organization is an acronym for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. With an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 armed combatants and several thousand additional supporters, FARC was founded in 1964 as the military wing of that country’s Communist Party. It specializes in extortion, kidnapping, bombings and assassination. FARC was responsible for the hijacking and kidnapping of a Colombian senator from an aircraft in February 2002 and for the mortar attack on the Presidential Palace in August of that year, the site of then-President Alvaro Uribe’s inauguration. In that latter attack, 21 residents of a nearby low-income neighborhood were killed by stray rounds. It is true that Colombia has been beset with civil war since the mid-Sixties. And its far-Right paramilitary terror units have proven to be every bit as vicious as the Leftist factions – and heavily immersed in drug trafficking with Colombian cartels. But that reality constitutes a weak justification for supporting FARC. Combating tyrants of the Right shouldn’t necessitate showing solidarity with tyrants of the Left.
Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO). For sheer rhetoric, this Chicago-based organization is the match of any radical organization, here or abroad. They’re not exactly terrorists, but they’re not the sort of people who mourn the damage that terrorists do either. And they can get downright riotous when they’re in the mood. Significantly, Iosbaker and Burke are members; indeed, Iosbaker is co-chairman of its Labor Commission. Here is how FRSO’s website describes its program:
The Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) is a revolutionary socialist and Marxist-Leninist organization in the United States.
We stand for the right to self-determination up to and including secession for the African American nation in the Black Belt South.
While rejecting Zionist claims on Palestine and white supremacist claims to a white southern nation or northwestern nation, we do acknowledge that fact that the most advanced section of the Black liberation movement, from the 1800s on, have demanded a Black Republic in the South.
There isn’t much equivocation here. Nor does Iosbaker mince any words. Back in March 2009 he entered this post on the FRSO website: “Perhaps uniquely among left forces in labor, FRSO has a strategy to step by step transform the unions, beginning by uniting the ‘militant minority’ among the rank and file as we call it; a phrase borrowed from the great U.S. communist, W.Z. Foster.” And the group isn’t hesitant about putting words into action. Among its achievements, the FRSO helped organize the violent demonstrations designed to disrupt the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. These were no mere “protests.” Rioters on various occasions smashed windows, threw garbage into the streets, threw cement bags onto buses from highway overpasses, took down orange detour road signs, punctured car tires and threw bottles. At one point, during the mass march to the convention site a group of anarchists started a trash bin fire and blocked an intersection.
The political network surrounding Service Employees Local 73 also has some disturbing linkages to power at the highest levels in this country. While Hatem Abudayyeh currently heads the AAAN, its co-founders are Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor of Arab Studies and former PLO operative, and his wife, Columbia University Public Affairs Assistant Dean Mona Khalidi. In 1994, AAAN, not quite up and running, received a $40,000 seed grant from the Woods Fund of Chicago, a private nonprofit radical philanthropy which went into operation that year and whose charter executive board included future President Barack Obama. In 1999, unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers became a board member. During 2001-02, the Woods Fund bankrolled AAAN with two grants totaling $75,000. In 2003, Obama, a close friend of Mr. Khalidi (the latter has admitted to raising funds for Obama’s unsuccessful 2000 run for Congress), toasted Khalidi at his going-away party. The Los Angeles Times reportedly had in its possession during the 2008 campaign a videotape of the event, but refused to release its contents. Rashid Khalidi, significantly, also is a board member of Movement for a Democratic Society whose board members over the years have included Weather Underground terrorist Bernardine Dohrn, and former SDS leaders Tom Hayden, Alan Haber and Carl Davidson. He also sits on the advisory board of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which joined forces with Code Pink, United for Peace and Justice and other groups to support the Gaza Flotilla. As he has termed Israel a “racist” state, that makes sense.
A skeptic might say that any number of unions in this country are on the far Left, but operate within the law. Sympathizing with terrorists doesn’t automatically mean collaborating with them. That’s true – which is why the Justice Department would like certain individuals to answer some nagging questions. For decades, terrorism has operated as an elaborate and clandestine world network. Its participants may not like or even know each other. They have their falling outs. But they are united in a common purpose of bringing down what they see as instruments of social oppression. Under an “antiwar” guise, supporters, whether central or peripheral players, are committed to overthrowing capitalism and governments (especially ours) supportive of capitalism. They habitually claim “persecution” whenever they are investigated. Unions, regrettably, are part of this coalition. In Chicago, one of them may be supplying aid.