Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

David Armstrong

NASSCO Conviction – A Dangerous Precedent

First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 6, No. 32, September 2-8, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

EROL Note: This article is from a syndicated column, “American Journal,” published in many campus newspapers. The Workers Viewpoint newspaper began running the column in 1981.

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Perhaps it was the death’s head tattoo on his arm that should have tipped them off to Ramon Barton. Or maybe the fact that the South African-born drifter was an avid reader of Soldier of Fortune, the magazine for rightwing mercenaries. Instead, three San Diego union activists decided to trust Barton, who passed himself off as a tough-talking union man at the shipyard where they all worked. As a result, the activists have been sentenced to prison on a charge of conspiring to plant a bomb, in what prominent defense attorney Leonard Weinglass calls “the first important political case of the 1980s.”

Ramon Barton turned out to be a company spy who illegally infiltrated the militant Iron Workers local at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO). Perhaps more importantly, Barton – who surfaced as the prosecution’s star witness at the recent trial – was also an FBI informer. He was paid, according to sworn testimony, from $5,000-$7,000 to spy on the union. Barton admits this, but claims he went to work for the Feds only after the NASSCO 3, as they are called, plotted to bomb an electrical transformer at the shipyard.

The three unionists – Mark Loo, Rodney Johnson and David Boyd – tell it differently. They describe Ramon Barton as a classic agent provocateur – a big, loud, threatening man who himself suggested that union activists attack company officials and urged them to bomb the transformer. According to the defendants, Barton supplied the parts, the operations manual – a book he ordered from Soldier of Fortune entitled The Poor Man’s James Bond – and a constant, provocative presence, urging violence against the company.

For a while, Boyd, Loo and Johnson went for it. Then, they began to have second thoughts about the bombing. Finally, they said it was no-go. But by then it was too late. The three were arrested as they attempted to ditch the pipe-bomb they had built, on Barton’s initiative and expertise. Two of them were arrested in Barton’s van, which had been wired for sound. Barton’s body, too, was wired, and his discussions with the three were secretly tape-recorded.

Attorney Weinglass points to a mysterious 25-minute gap in the 30 hours of tape – precisely where his clients told Barton they weren’t going ahead with the bombing – as evidence that the tapes were tampered with, ala Watergate. Weinglass also charges that the defendants’ political beliefs were the real reason for the trial. Johnson and Loo are members of the Communist Workers Party, which has successfully led organizing drives in San Diego, North Carolina and elsewhere.

The defense also underscored dangerous working conditions and arbitrary company policies as causes of chronic worker discontent with NASSCO. The company’s San Diego shipyard is the biggest and most profitable yard on the West Coast. It also pays the lowest wages and has one of the nation’s worst safety records. Last September, two NASSCO workers suffocated to death on the job. Worker protests were met by the firing of 27 workers, while NASSCO paid all of $2,400 in fines for the two deaths.

On June 6 of this year, Loo, Boyd and Johnson were convicted on the conspiracy charge. They were given six-month sentences by a federal judge who described Ramon Barton in court as “a reprehensible character.” Rather than being cheered by the light sentences, however, the defendants are vigorously appealing the verdict. “I’m not so much worried about what will happen to me,” Rodney Johnson said after the sentencing. “I am concerned with the precedent the verdict sets.”

That’s what makes the NASSCO case particularly important. In a time when the entrapment tactics of Abscam are winked at by the courts, and President Reagan pardons two high FBI officials convicted of illegal break-ins, the NASSCO decision represents a further erosion of civil liberties. “It is our belief,” said Weinglass, who helped defend the Chicago 7 on conspiracy charges 11 years ago, “that this case may well set the legal precedent defining the extent to which the courts will sanction the illegal acts of government agents.”

While the guilty verdict against the NASSCO 3 is being appealed, Rep. Ronald Dellums (D.-Calif.) is calling for a Congressional investigation of the FBI’s sub-rosa role in the case. At present, Loo, Johnson and Boyd are free on bail; however, they are also unemployed and faced with prison for making a bomb they did not explode, part of a conspiracy they insist was hatched in the fertile brain of a government agent provocateur.

And the provocateur? He has landed a job in a shipyard in Louisiana, where another organizing drive is underway. Union activists spotted Barton in the yard one day, a curious, energetic newcomer with a striking death’s head tattoo on his arm.