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The Whistle-Blower As Deep Mole

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There's an intriguing idea in circulation based loosely on the turn-of-the-century union practice of "salting" a workplace. Salting consists of union activists secretly hiring into an anti-union shop in order to promote unionism from within. It's a technique that was fairly common prior to passage of the Wagner Act (1935), and though not widely publicized, is still used today.

Union organizers standing outside a Wal-Mart store, diligently passing out pro-union pamphlets to employees, don't stand much of a chance of making their case, not with all the mandatory anti-union propaganda that the under-paid and under-benefited Wal-Mart employees are regularly exposed to. Plus, management has surveillance cameras set up in the parking lot to ferret out any union organizers looking to indoctrinate employees.

But picture a Wal-Mart store "salted" with AFL-CIO activists who are able to approach their fellow employees individually and on the sly, and show them all the advantages of joining a labor union. Without management people attempting to demonize the labor movement at every turn, it becomes a whole other deal.

The intriguing idea we speak of is to "salt" places like chemical plants, insurance companies, defense plants, Wall Street firms, pharmaceutical labs, police departments, etc., with designated, pre-programmed whistle-blowers for the sole purpose of exposing illegal or unethical activities. Relying on home-grown, "accidental" whistle-blowers isn't enough. They will forever be outgunned and outmanned.

As we all know, despite laws "protecting" the garden variety whistle-blower, he or she is almost always met with retaliation or ignominy. It's a risky venture. Moreover, whistle-blowing is usually a byproduct of employee disillusionment or outrage, which, even in extreme instances, can be readily neutralized by fear of job loss. With their economic futures at stake, people are more apt to simply look the other way than "turn traitor." It will be totally different with trained cadres doing this work.

Indeed, the word "whistle-blower" is probably unsuitable for our purposes, since, basically, what we're talking about is hiring spies. And the idea of utilizing spies is far from original. Animal rights groups have successfully "salted" meat processing plants and "factory farms" for years.

In fact, animal rights people have been so successful in exposing inhumane conditions, not only have companies required employees to sign versions of "loyalty oaths," but some states have even passed laws against do-gooder spies, which on its face, seems preposterous. A state passes a law making it illegal for a person to become a cop in order to expose rampant corruption in a police department? Really?

But instead of a handful of PETA people working at a chicken plant in Arkansas, what if it were expanded a thousand-fold? What if there were thousands of idealistic people across the country infiltrating companies and institutions that were engaged in mischief? An infiltrator reporting a pharmaceutical company's fake test results. A defense contractor overcharging the taxpayers. Racism practiced by a police department.

While one can understand making it illegal for a "spy" to pass on company secrets to a competitor, it's hard to reconcile punishing someone for wanting to expose malfeasance. In the 1950s you would be praised for spying on Communists; in the 1960s, you would be praised for spying on the Ku Klux Klan. What's the difference between that and spying on a Wall Street firm that seeks to screw over the American public?

David Macaray is a labor columnist and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).