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The Battle in Seattle

photo by Rick Dahms

The last time the World Trade Organization had a major meeting, it was in Singapore, and now we know why.

Singapore, of course, is the city-state that accords near-perfect freedom to banks and corporations while jailing political activists and caning messy tenants and people who chew gum in public. When WTO ministers gathered in Singapore in 1997, their business was unimpeded by any outside agitators. (Or, for that matter, any internal dissidents: Advocates for worker rights or environmental standards are not allowed into the deliberations that set the rules for global commerce.)

That Seattle wasn’t going to be another Singapore was never in question. On Tuesday, though, Seattle wasn’t even Seattle. It was more like Petrograd-for-a-Day. The TV news may be filled with replays of the day’s violence, but that was just a small part of the Seattle revolution, and something that hundreds of demonstrators personally tried to stop. But like Petrograd circa 1917, Seattle in just the past 24 hours has had something for nearly every species of reformer and revolutionary. Here was economist Bob Kuttner, with a scholarly presentation to an upscale and decorous gathering on the perils of laissez-faire capitalism. Over there, Ralph Nader was giving a more spirited rendition of the same basic tune. On the waterfront, the entire port clanged shut, as the longshoremen welcomed the trade ministers to Seattle by closing off trade altogether. Down one boulevard paraded 100 uniformed airline pilots indignant about growing employer power; down another, 100 environmentalists decked out in turtle suits to dramatize the WTO’s overturning of national endangered-species laws. Not to mention the thousands of students who trudged downtown from the University of Washington, the leaders of the American union movement who suddenly sounded like Gene Debs, and the nearly 20,000 workers who paraded around the outskirts of downtown while 20,000 other activists, most of them college-age, peaceably sat down in the middle of downtown and kept the WTO from convening.

Most astonishing, there was the intermingling of all these disparate movements, generations, nations and lifestyles. There were the kids blocking the WTO delegates, who parted like the Red Sea to make way for a group of Steelworkers, identifiable by their blue-poncho rain gear as members of the most ubiquitous of the protesting unions this week. There was Amparo Reyes, a single mother who puts in a 74-hour week (for a lordly $69) at her local maquiladora, shouting "Long live the Zapatistas!" at the official AFL-CIO rally. And amid Teamsters chanting "Hoffa! Hoffa!" and baby-faced animal rightsters chanting "No violence! No violence!" there was the sign that proclaimed, "Teamsters and Turtles — Together at Last!"

Team the Teamsters with the turtles, and what you get — what the world got in Seattle on Tuesday — could well be an ideological turning point — or at least, an end to the unchallenged dominance that right-wing economics has enjoyed for the past two decades.

For 20 years now, the greatest achievements of the world’s industrial democracies — the broadly shared prosperity created by unions and social insurance, the attempts to restore and preserve clean air and water, the whole idea of leisure time — have been eroded by the resurrection of laissez-faire economics on the global level, even while living standards in much of the developing world have been held in check by the coming of laissez faire. For 20 years, movements that knew how to change national and state and local laws were paralyzed by this shift to the global. At first, this new global terrain was a realm of practices, not laws; there was no legislature to lobby or win over; there was just business without government — Singapore writ large. National governments remained, but they were whipsawed by multinational businesses just as state governments had been whipsawed by the first national businesses — the railroads — 100 years ago.

At which point, the global corporate and financial powers — preponderantly American — made a serious mistake. Mere practices weren’t enough for them; they wanted some global codes. France was still blocking the exports of American food out of some sentimental attachment to its farmers; nations of the former communist bloc were pirating American films without paying the studios; and investment houses wanted developing nations to make their banks and businesses keep a clean set of books so they’d know what exactly they were buying. So five years ago, the governments of the West obliged their major businesses by bundling all their separate trade deals into one neat package and creating the WTO to make sure that transnational investment would encounter no significant obstacles.

In short, without fully grasping exactly what they’d done, they created at least the appearance of a legislature. Its mandate was limited to helping global capital, and its members weren’t chosen by election, but it had an office, held meetings, and set rules. At long last, global capital had a street address.

 

And Tuesday, in one convulsive outburst that had been building for 20 years, the movements shut it down. For just a day — but a day that already has altered the ideological balance of our time.

Convulsive, in this instance, means neither violent nor unplanned. Before the Ted Kaczynski wannabes took over some downtown intersections late Tuesday afternoon, the civil disobedience of the kids was both morally irreproachable and tactically brilliant.

Indeed, the free-spirit wing of the American Left was a lot better organized than the two other groups on the street — organized labor and the cops. The unions had to re-route their 20,000 marchers so they wouldn’t plow into the downtown sit-down. That called for a midmarch U-turn — which half the unions executed while the other half wandered blindly into sit-down central. Roughly 100 briskly trotting and generally apprehensive parade marshals fanned out in search of their missing columns. As for the police, they were badly outnumbered until well after nightfall. Despite a full year of planning, police officials couldn’t come up with a remotely accurate assessment of their needs.

The kids, by contrast, knew every street, every hotel, every plausible technique for linking arms to one another and the nearby lamppost. They managed to block off the Paramount Theater, where the opening session was supposed to take place. When I got there, the standoff was almost done — just a few delegate cars remained obstructed by the sit-downers, whose numbers had dwindled to around 30. Ten feet in front of them was a line of nine cops, in riot helmets and holding their nightsticks.

The protesters, said Rayna Rusenko, a worker-rights activist who’d come up from Portland for the day, had heard organizers say that bodies were needed at the Paramount, and off they’d gone. Other than one set of parents with two young children, and two middle-aged men, they all seemed to be in their early 20s or late teens (except one boy, using a bobby pin to keep a yarmulke on his head, who seemed more like 16). There was no cop-taunting on their part, just a steady refrain that they were committed to nonviolence — which under the circumstances was in equal measure a plea to keep the cops cool and a bit of a moral dare. The scene remained tense until a middle-aged African-American man, in a jacket that clearly identified him as an ironworker (one of labor’s lost legion, apparently), came by and, in a deliberately light tone, started talking to the cops about how the sit-downers wanted decent wages and benefits for all workers — cops included. At which point, the squad commander emerged from behind his officers, looked at the man and said, "We’d sure like to get ironworkers’ wages." Everyone laughed; the tension was gone.

The ghost of the ’60s hung over the afternoon: There was a loud recording of Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner"; Tom Hayden walked up and down the street; the crowd chanted "The whole world’s watching" when the police fired off tear gas. Gassing and pepper spray were the cops’ preferred modes of attack on Tuesday, and the clouds wafted over the just and unjust alike. Young protesters complained to me of the police brutality. But at the risk of sounding like the most hackneyed of grizzled elders, I am compelled to say: I was in Chicago in 1968, and I know a police riot, having been on the receiving end of one, when I see one. Seattle’s finest were comparative pussycats. They made scarcely any arrests, and when an altercation threatened to get out of hand — when the black-clad self-proclaimed anarchists trashed display windows and stores — they resolutely refused to do anything that could have resulted in a serious injury to anyone.

In their relative nonviolence, the cops seemed to be reflecting the policies of Seattle’s civic establishment. Seattle voters are disproportionately union members and environmentalists, and while Mayor Paul Schell and Governor Gary Locke condemned the violence, they went out of their way — during the news conference announcing a state of emergency and the call-up of the National Guard — to praise the nonviolent protesters and say there was merit to their cause. "I hope we don’t have to arrest people," said Mayor Schell, "to get them out of town." Which is to say, there is no Richard J. Daley in Seattle, and the blue meanies of the Chicago police — who happily walloped passers-by in their pursuit of demonstrators — have been supplanted here by a force that hasn’t walloped even violent demonstrators for fear of offending the peaceful ones.

In all the news coverage on Seattle TV Tuesday night, there was just one shot of a gun being pulled — not by a cop or a demonstrator, but by a WTO delegate frustrated by his inability to get to the hall.

 

One of the dignitaries who couldn’t get into the WTO’s opening ceremonies was the featured speaker — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It was the second of two disasters to befall Albright in Seattle, the first being a private meeting the day previous with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other union leaders. Sources report that Sweeney & Co. let Albright know the full extent of their rage at the Clinton administration’s deal to let China into the WTO.

Indeed, relations between the Clinton White House and labor are about as icy now as they’ve ever been. In October, the administration put forth the idea that the WTO should form a working group to study and assess the effect of trade on labor rights and standards. This fell far short of the AFL-CIO’s position, which is that the WTO should develop a code for labor standards and rights, and administer sanctions to nations that violate them, just as the WTO currently administers sanctions against nations that violate property rights. Even so, Sweeney agreed to sign a letter commending the administration for this small step, chiefly, as he explained it, because a number of prominent business leaders signed the letter too, thereby acknowledging that trade might possibly have some effect on workers.

But no labor leader in a union impacted by trade actually believed that a study group would accomplish anything; neither did Sweeney. The presidents who’d seen their members’ jobs exported or threatened by free trade — chiefly, George Becker of the Steelworkers, Steve Yokich of the Auto Workers, Jim Hoffa of the Teamsters — let Sweeney know they thought he’d been snookered. The federation president was already on the defensive on trade, then, when the Clinton administration announced its deal to admit China to the WTO.

For labor, this instantly negated all the kind words that Clinton and his lieutenants were mouthing about raising the profile of labor and environmental concerns within the WTO. The WTO acts by consensus, certainly by consensus of its major members, and the prospect that China — which independent authorities estimate has at least 850,000 workers in forced-labor camps run by the army, where child labor is rampant and unions are viewed as treasonous — would permit the WTO to pass any binding labor code was nonexistent.

With the administration’s decision on China, Sweeney himself felt snookered. He’d signed that damned letter, he’d prodded the federation to endorse Al Gore, and now the administration had abruptly signaled that it didn’t wish the WTO ever to enact even the most modest of labor standards. Two weeks ago, Sweeney delivered a speech saying that without binding labor standards, the round of negotiations that the WTO would begin in Seattle should never even commence.

In its 60-year relationship with the Democratic Party, labor has grown inured to the thousand casual affronts the party inflicts upon it, but the China deal, coming when it did, was a bit much. At least partly in consequence, the rhetoric at labor’s Tuesday rally — a stunning event with 15,000 unionists and 5,000 activists from environmental, human-rights, church and consumer groups, with stilt-walkers decked out as corporate demons, sporting death’s-heads and Edward Scissorhands fingers — was a throwback to a time when labor was an outsider to the political system. AFSCME president Gerry McEntee, the union head most deeply enmeshed in Beltway inside politics, seemed to lift his talk from Karl Marx’s manifesto. "The system turns everything into a commodity!" he bellowed. "A rain forest in Brazil, a library in Philadelphia, a hospital in Alberta! We have to name that system: It is corporate capitalism!"

There’s a lot more at work here than pique, of course. When it comes to the WTO, Gerry McEntee and John Sweeney are outsiders, just like the union leaders of 100 years ago, who could get no one in the national government to hear them out. As the rally made clear, their frustration is matched by European trade unionists. The governments in power in France, Italy, Germany and Britain are theirs, after all; they are socialist or social democratic or labor. Both separately and together, though, these governments are even more relentless advocates of free trade, devoid of binding labor standards, than Bill Clinton’s. Addressing a meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) — the global federation of national union federations — in Seattle on Monday, European Union Trade Minister Pascal Lamy said the EU was committed to basic human rights in the workplace as a fundamental right — but that developing nations would never support this within the WTO, and a separate forum should take it up, without even considering setting binding standards. "The European Union needs to dialogue with developing nations," he told the assembled unionists, many of whom concluded that Lamy might need to dialogue with himself.

 

Some of the historically left European governments proclaim themselves the champions of the developing nations, whose governments are resolutely opposed to transnational labor or environmental codes. The problem, as ICFTU head Bill Jordan notes, is that they have "no class analysis of the Third World" — where the elites represented in government profit from trade deals no matter how grotesque are the sweatshops they create. While support for labor standards is nowhere to be heard from the trade delegates of the developing nations, it was sounded repeatedly by the South African, Caribbean, Malaysian, Mexican and Chinese union activists (some of whom had spent years in prison for their efforts) who addressed Tuesday’s AFL rally. "What’s good for Ford workers in Detroit is good for Ford workers in Mexico and South Africa," said Glen Mpufane, a South African mine worker who called for a global minimum wage. (Following McEntee’s Marxian lead, he concluded, "Workers of the world, unite — against the WTO!")

Mass opinion has always been dubious about free trade; that is one reason why the AFL-CIO was able to persuade House Democrats to kill the administration’s proposal for a fast-track process to approve trade deals (that is, a process with no possibility of congressional amendment of the deal) in 1997. One recent University of Maryland poll shows 78 percent public support for the idea of making labor and environmental concerns a factor in all trade deals.

Elite opinion, however, has long viewed the case for free trade as axiomatic. Free trade made nations richer, which made them more democratic, except when it didn’t (one of those pesky anomalies the theory hasn’t fully explained away). But labor has already forced one key segment of the elite — the administration and its consulting ideologists at the Democratic Leadership Council — to alter its rhetorical position on trade. This week, everyone from Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to trade rep Charlene Barshevsky — has suddenly been talking up the virtues of a humane global-trade order. "We must pay more attention to labor issues," Summers wrote in Monday’s Financial Times, casually jettisoning the beliefs of a lifetime.

It is rhetoric, of course. The working group the administration seeks will be powerless, and the entry of China will effectively negate all subsequent attempts at protecting worker rights. But rhetoric, however insincere, can have an effect. In this case, it reflects not only the political needs of Al Gore, who can’t afford to have the administration estrange labor any more until the primary season has passed, but a shift in the intellectual climate. The momentum for laissez-faire policies in domestic affairs has peaked. The war on the state waged by Reagan, Thatcher and Gingrich has been called off. Only at the level of world trade does the cult of laissez faire continue to hold sway, but the case is getting harder and harder to make. If increased wage equity and environmental safeguards are once again valid concerns in national affairs, it grows harder and harder to argue that they’re mere sideshows to the transnational economy and society.

While elite opinion begins to waver, popular opinion has now gained a focus. At Monday night’s march for debt forgiveness, at Tuesday’s labor march, people came out of their shops and businesses to cheer the marchers on. While the trashing and gassing was proceeding apace on Tuesday afternoon, just three blocks away office workers laughed as a chorus sung mock Christmas carols with anti-WTO lyrics. There was anger at the inconveniences the marches caused, anger at the anarchists for sure. But on the whole, the protesters in Seattle were nobody’s outside agitators. These were the kids at U Wash, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week. To the WTO, Singapore has never looked better.


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