Right-Wing Hoaxster's Attack on Labor Educators Is Defeated

A Missouri labor educator was vindicated Monday after almost losing his job in an attack by notorious right-wing hoaxster Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart’s outfit was responsible for the deceptive videos that got Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod fired and that took down the national community organization ACORN.

After a vigorous campaign by the United Association for Labor Education, the University of Missouri-St. Louis backed down from its initial statement to Don Giljum that he would not be rehired next semester. The chancellor noted that, upon examination, Breitbart’s videos “were definitely taken out of context, with their meaning highly distorted through splicing and editing from different times within a class period and across multiple class periods.”

Breitbart’s target was a course taught by Giljum, an Operating Engineers business manager who’s taught labor ed classes since 1989, along with labor educator Judy Ancel. According to Breitbart’s website, the two spent the spring semester teaching union members how to gain power through violence and intimidation. In a now familiar technique, the evidence for the grand conspiracy was two seven-minute videos, deceptively edited and remixed snippets taken from more than 18 hours of classroom video-conference tapes.

The videos cut away context and patched statements together from weeks apart to turn probing academic questions into semi-endorsements of violence. Youtube viewers could watch Giljum seamlessly change shirts between sentences.

Twisting Words and History

In fact, Breitbart edited the classroom videos to literally put words in the instructors’ mouths.

In one section, Ancel explains how neoliberal governments use crises to “shift power dramatically.” This lecture was actually in an entirely different course. But Breitbart inserts the sentence into a lecture on union contract campaigns, so it looks as if Ancel advocates unions causing a crisis.

In another section, Giljum told Labor Notes he said, “Labor can’t deny its violent past in response to the repression that was perpetrated on it. It’s hard to say that was not appropriate at that time; it might have been. I don't believe those tactics are going to work today and I think they would do more harm than good.”

Breitbart snipped out the words in italics.

Ancel and Giljum co-taught the class on “Labor, Politics, and Society,” during which they asked students to examine why labor’s past was so violent—among many other subjects. It’s a standard topic in any exploration of the American labor movement.

Breitbart reverses the history of who was responsible for the violence, though. Violence has been used overwhelmingly against workers: labor historian Joshua Freeman says that throughout U.S. labor history, about 700 strikers have been killed by mercenaries hired by the bosses, state militias, and the police—the most workers killed in any industrial country.

Ancel released a statement, saying, “At no time did my co-instructor, Don Giljum, nor I advocate violence. There’s no doubt that Breitbart’s attacks are politically motivated, part of a broad agenda to weaken unions and the public sector as well as public education.”

Seen This Before

Breitbart had announced his intentions on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show April 18, saying, “We’re going to take on education next, go after the teachers and the union organizers.”

Breitbart’s big claim to fame is the ACORN set-up, where two young conservatives tried to con the organization’s staff into helping them set up a business front for a prostitution ring.

ACORN staff contacted police after the two visited, but mix together deceptive editing, video of an outlandish pimp costume added after the fact, and the echo chamber of right-wing media—and a media firestorm broke out that burnt away ACORN’s funding and collapsed the organization within weeks.

Prosecutors confirmed that ACORN staff didn’t break any laws, but that was never the point. The manufactured controversy alone was big enough to bury the nation’s largest community organization.

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Breitbart’s hoax factory operates on the premise that if you throw enough dirt, something will stick. He’s tried the same tactics on NPR, Planned Parenthood, Senate Democrats, and the NAACP and Shirley Sherrod, an African-American Department of Agriculture employee.

YouTube eventually removed Breitbart’s videos, which appeared to violate YouTube guidelines, and he continued to post more. They were posted without permission of those pictured, including students, and apparently are the property of the university. Click here for interviews posted May 4 with students who were pictured in the videos. Students played a key role in pressuring the university to respect their privacy rights and to retain Giljum.

Ironically, some of the commenters on Breitbart’s Big Government site advocated violence themselves, against “every liberal dirtbag on the street/campus etc.”

Muted Response

Reactions in the labor movement were mixed. Herb Johnson, Missouri AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, said he was “incensed that we have scoundrels who go out and character-assassinate good people in our community.”

He called Giljum “a great trade unionist” but said the federation was not yet planning to issue a statement supporting the two, preferring not to “fan the flames” and “just cause more reaction.”

Instead, Johnson said, the executive board passed a resolution “that we never have and never would endorse any kind of violence for any reason whatsoever.”

The attorney for the Missouri AFL-CIO, Ron Gladney, called Giljum’s international union and asked officials there to pressure him to resign from his local and international positions, which they did.

Giljum resigned, despite the fact that he had announced back in January he would be retiring May 1—just days away.

According to Giljum, Gladney argued that the incident might cause Missouri Republicans to take up a right-to-work bill, which they had till now avoided.

The national AFL-CIO jumped in to help defend the two teachers, and the American Association of University Professors issued a statement. The United Association for Labor Education, which includes educators both at universities and in unions, led the defense, with a Facebook page, statement, petition, and letter to the university.

UALE Vice President Helena Worthen pointed out that discussion of labor history and tactics is exactly “the kind of thing people talk about in labor ed classes: what do we have to do in order to turn things around? This happens in political science and history classes all the time.”

UALE member Steven Ashby of the University of Illinois said, “It’s no coincidence this attack comes in the wake of the biggest workers’ upsurge in 30 years, in Wisconsin.”

The goal of labor education programs, Ashby said, “is to educate and assist workers to build stronger unions. The right wing would like all labor studies programs wiped out because they want all unions wiped out.”

Ancel said Monday that faculty and student supporters in St. Louis would be holding a forum Wednesday on academic freedom and “they'll turn it into a celebration with Don.”