In the biggest global victory for workers in decades, thirty thousand unionists, and tens of thousands of students, environmentalists and human rights activists stopped the World Trade Organization in its tracks and sent its 133 Trade Ministers home in utter defeat. The Battle of Seattle has made it almost impossible for the WTO to take major new steps in the next few years to further drive down wages, working conditions and environmental standards throughout the world.
Before the week of protests and demonstrations, most workers in the US and around the world had never even heard of the WTO, but now the capitalist governments that run it and their thieving corporate masters can no longer work quietly in the dark to undermine workers and farmers everywhere. Seattle may well the first step in stopping and turning back a generation of losses for working people, a real turning of the tide.
This was the first major political protest by US workers in decades. Major unions such as the Steelworkers, International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) and a host of others mobilized thousands of their members. Over three thousand workers from Canada and delegations from many countries around the world also joined together to make their voice heard. Over 50 buses were paid for the British Columbia labour movement for workers and protesters to the WTO. West coast ILWU longshoremen shut down the coast for 8 hours, Seattle Taxi drivers went on strike on Tuesday November 30 and tens of thousands of workers throughout Seattle and around the country took off work to attend the demonstrations and meetings.
The protest was the most important linking up of the environmental movement and human rights movement with labour since the 1960s civil rights movement. It was the power of this alliance that brought the WTO down, uniting labour's numbers and organization with the daring, civil disobedience and broad-based support of students, environmentalists and other activists, whose actions allowed workers to cut loose from the attempts of union bureaucrats to keep the protests within bounds. It is this newly-forged alliance that will give workers the strength they need in every city in the country.
A Lightening Rod for World Mobilization
What brought this together as a lightening rod was the international meeting of the World Trade Organization. The WTO is the organization where multi-national corporations and their servants in governments come together to secretly map out how they will increase their control of the world's economy. The past round of trade negotiations and decisions organized by the WTO has led to massive privatization and deregulation of the banking, telecommunication and utility industries combined with massive cuts in education, housing and health care. The WTO ordered governments to eliminate environmental, health and safety regulations, and pressed them to cut back on any protection of workers in a race to cut the cost of labour to the bone. Collaborating with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank, the WTO pressured countries to go along with this economic agenda or face trade sanctions and huge fines.
The WTO is in reality controlled by the United States government with help from its major allies, Japan and the European Union. For small countries, it is part of an American-run world government. Because the WTO makes its decisions in secret, far from any possible democratic control, it has functioned as a way for corporations to win wildly unpopular policies that hurt workers in the United States as well. Don't blame us, say American politicians like Bill Clinton, the WTO forced us to do it!
The latest planned meeting was an effort to extend the WTO liberalizations toward the total elimination of all food and agricultural tariffs, a move that would benefit the giant US agricultural and food conglomerates while wiping out small farmers and agricultural workers around the world. It would create a new flood of unemployed coming out of the countryside and drive wages down still further. The resistance of not only underdeveloped countries to this expansion of the WTO but even of major economic partners, who face their own protests back home, was evident even before the WTO met. A new round of trade negations would have inevitably led to more attacks on workers directly as well as more privatizations, more gutting of social services, more wage cuts.
'WTO Must Go' or 'Fix It'?
Most of the coalition that came to protest against the WTO had a clear demand: get rid of it. As the demonstrators chanted, The WTO must go! The very least protestors aimed at was preventing the new round of negotiations from starting.
But John Sweeney and the other top labour leaders had other ideas. They wanted a partnership like those they have been pushing in the US - a seat at the table for union officials to push the WTO to set up a working group that would discuss labour and environmental conditions that, according to their plan, would eventually be included in the text of the WTO agreements. This was hardly radical. In fact the US head of the Chamber of Commerce agreed with this perspective and Clinton in a private meeting with John Sweeney and others said he would continue to push this reform of the WTO. As in any labour-management partnership the idea was to let management do what it wants, while labour leaders pretend that they are standing up for workers.
When media critic and journalist Norman Solomon asked Sweeney if the reason that he was only asking for a working group was so that he would not embarrass the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO)- supported presidential candidate Vice-President Al Gore, Sweeney was livid. He declared that this was not tokenism and that they wanted their whole agenda.
Pursuing this strategy of not breaking with Clinton and Gore, but being pushed by tens of thousand of rank and filers to protest against the WTO, Sweeney and company planned a tame protest, keeping the tens of thousands of labour marchers away from the WTO meeting-place and the militant protest of students, environmentalists and others. But the rank and file had other ideas.
Exploding in the Streets
On Tuesday, November 30th the mobilization exploded in the streets. Besides the trade union rally and march, thousands of protesters blocked the intersections and WTO delegates from around the world were unable to get to and from their hotels.
When the WTO has met in other countries, whole sections of the inner city are blocked off to prevent protesters from getting close. The mayor of Seattle thought that he could continue to have the WTO meeting by simply blocking off the convention centre. The police at first did not charge the demonstrators but when it became clear that the whole convention could not even convene without clearing the streets, the order was given to blast away.
CS gas was shot into the crowds, large cans of pepper spray was used on the protesters as well as any tourist who might happen to be around. The police also began to beat the demonstrators and anybody else they could get their hands on. This led to an angry crowd and the trashing of the windows of The Gap, Starbucks, McDonalds and a host of other chain stores.
At the same time that the police were using gas, thousands of unionists had left the stadium and were headed downtown. The IAM march marshals sought to prevent the unionists from reaching the protesters. They physically blocked two intersections and sought to divert the marchers toward another hotel where they said a sit-in would take place. They were primarily interested in preventing the linking up of the thousands of youth with the unionists in battle against the police and the WTO.
Many workers marched right past the march marshals. The ILWU and many other unionists went downtown to join the youth who were protesting. ln one instance police were chasing some youth and saw a delegation of ILWU longshoremen. They quickly turned around and went back.
The Steelworkers had brought hundreds of striking workers from Oregon Steel and Kaiser Aluminum to Seattle for the whole week and they got a view of American justice that will never go away.
This was just the start of a tumultuous 4 day police riot. The police also attacked a steelworkers march a few days later with tear gas and marauded through not only the downtown but neighbourhoods like Capital Hill to terrorize the population.
The mayor also declared a state of emergency and curfew after 7 p.m. and this was used by the police to further arrest and attack the protesters. Over 600 were arrested and dozens were injured.
The Rout of the WTO
The result of this battle was a complete rout not of the protesters but of Clinton and his cronies. Not only could the WTO not open on time, with the centre of Seattle tied up by protests and turned into a military camp by police in Star-Wars gear, it was impossible for them to accomplish anything. The trade talks collapsed without even a final statement - there is to be no new WTO round of negotiations. Clinton was scared to ram through a new agreement because he knew that his buddy Sweeney could not control the labour troops. His signature on a new WTO agreement would mean that millions would bolt the labour-Democrat alliance. And other governments saw well enough what would happen back home if they struck a new rotten deal.
Only the alliance of rank and file workers with students, environmentalists and other activists made this victory possible. As many workers themselves noted, without the civil disobedience that tied the conference in knots, a polite labour rally would have just resulted in a few editorials. And without the presence and active participation of thousands of trade unionists in the militant demonstration in the centre of Seattle, the police would have used mass arrests from the start to sweep a few crazies away from the convention centre. But with this alliance, the protesters could not be dismissed or repressed. We won this round. The WTO and the capitalists lost.
Millions of Americans now began to learn about the real role of the WTO and workers and people throughout the world were uplifted that finally the US people were going on the offensive against this world corporate dictatorship. Reality is beginning to sink in that the few democratic rights we have are quickly being usurped by the needs of the corporations. This was clearly illuminated by the militarization of the police and their tactics of torture and beatings. Many of the demonstrators were stunned that for their peaceful picket they would be met with such tactics.
The failure of the talks are absolutely due to this massive protest. The confidence of the Clinton and the cooperate controlled politicians has been shaken. This fear of this massive demonstration of anger against the system is a threat to both political parties and corporate America.
For the working class, this was an important and historic political action against the multi-nationals and the US government. John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO as well as Hoffa Jr. and most of the leadership will seek to keep this mobilization contained. The political danger for them is that once millions of workers become engaged in this fight, they will undoubtedly begin to question how the trade unions can continue to support the very politicians that support global robber barons. They will also begin to question how they can seriously fight for their rights, when in most unions they have little control over their own structure. The need to use the internet and communication technology to begin this discussion, debate and organization is crucial. Workers from Korea to South Africa to the US can now really build a new internationalism with no borders and with complete democratic communication and simultaneous international workers' action. This is a historic and profound development for all working people of the world.
For the first time since the 1930s the US working class is going into a new confrontation with capital that is immediately international in its character. This new alliance with other sections of the population can be a powerful vehicle to begin to not only throw back the WTO and other anti-working class attacks but to lead to a real working class political alternative. We will be taking this alliance back home to form similar city-wide alliances all over the country. The battle of Seattle is an exciting indication of things to come.
Bay Area Workers Committee
'Workers' Democracy', Vol.1, No. 2, December, 1999.
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