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Who Were Those Kids?

Okay, who were those kids?

Though the media have done their usual sensationalist spreads profiling the several hundred anarchists who trashed downtown Seattle, that still leaves unresolved the identity of the other 20,000 nonlabor demonstrators. Yes, a number came from other nations and around the U.S., but the vast majority were homies. Groups of young people I spoke with on Shut-Down Tuesday came from, in no particular order, a local synagogue youth group, a local Chinese-medicine college, the University of Washington, other local colleges. My high-school-senior daughter e-mailed a high-school-senior friend who lives in Seattle and was told that her friend‘s entire class took their senior ditch day that Tuesday to join in the demo. So, the shortest answer to this question is: kids. Normal kids. Not the kids who will end up at the Wharton School of Finance, but few kids do.

What the kids on the streets of Seattle told me was that the WTO frightened and upset them, which raises the question of what all the WTO has come to symbolize. There may be some clues in both the trashing of Seattle’s Niketown megastore and the wildfire growth of the campus anti-sweatshop movement. The kids‘ deep and visceral (as well as informed) loathing seems directed, first, at the corporate appropriation of youth culture, then at the huge inequalities that our economy is generating at home as well as abroad, and ultimately, at the corporatization and commodification of the environment and absolutely everything else (which the WTO is seen, rightly, as promoting).

Good thing the Democrats aren’t holding their convention next summer in one of those God-awful arenas with some abysmal corporate logo on top.

Did the enviros and the kids really hit it off with the unions? Will this alliance hold?

Ironically, they probably hit it off best with the Steelworkers. (The mills that once turned the industrial Midwest a dingy rust-brown have been either shuttered or cleaned up.) At the behest of Steelworkers president George Becker, nearly 1,000 of his union‘s activists came to Seattle and stayed all week -- conducting teach-ins for themselves with environmentalists, academics and unionists from distant shores; marching for Third World debt forgiveness in a driving rain; and leading a procession of whooping kids down to the harbor where they dumped Styrofoam ingots into the harbor (and fished them out again in a display of proper Green etiquette).

What has been largely unreported is that many nonunion demonstrators took part in the unions’ mega-rally and march, where the Naderites, the church ladies, and the cadres from the Sierra Club and the National Organization of Women cheered and shouted as lustily as the longshoremen. A camaraderie was forged in Seattle, and what my friend Todd Gitlin has called the Greenie-Sweeney alliance will only grow stronger in the next battle: the fight over China‘s admission to the WTO.

We were told that was a done deal -- that Congress would surely vote to approve China’s admission, just as it votes every year to extend its Most Favored Nation status.

It may well have been a done deal, but Seattle undid it. Before Seattle, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt was putting out signals that it couldn‘t be beat, because he didn’t want a fight on an issue that would divide the Democrats in an election year. Now, the unions and environmental and human-rights groups have a shot to defeat it, and to that end, they‘ll wage total war. Anything less would be backing off when they have the momentum. Their justifiable fear is that if China is admitted to the WTO, all prospects that the WTO will ever suggest, let alone mandate, any labor safeguards, worker rights or environmental standards to its member nations will be eternally kiboshed.

Some free-trade advocates say the WTO shouldn’t get into labor rights and standards, anyway; that these matters should be handled by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

That‘s because the ILO has less authority to enforce global labor standards than your cousin Bernie.

What about all those complaints from the governments of developing nations that imposing these standards will remove their main competitive advantage: cheap labor?

Globalization has reduced even the noblest of these governments to the level of small-town mayors forced to come up with ridiculous subsidies to bring the widget factory to town. The union activists of these nations -- many of whom spoke eloquently at the labor rally in Seattle -- don’t buy this for a minute. This kind of free trade, they document, drags down wages in Mexico to the levels in Thailand, and those to the levels in Bangladesh, and those to the levels in China.

Back to Gephardt‘s concern that this issue will divide the Democratic Party. Or, as one of the more senior and most savvy members of the House asked me this weekend, “Is this 1968 all over again for the Democrats?”

Like 1968, this splits the party, but along different lines. Vietnam divided the Democrats’ core constituencies against themselves: The remaining urban machines and most of labor favored LBJ‘s policy; the suburban liberals and the campuses opposed it. This issue, by contrast, unites the Democrats’ core constituencies: labor and the environmentalists together turn out a good 90 percent of all Democratic precinct walkers, phone bankers, and the mailings that don‘t come directly from the candidates’ own campaigns. On the other side are business and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which provide megabucks and ideological mush, respectively, for Democratic campaigns, but no bodies whatsoever. (Nationally, the DLC might have just enough members to do a precinct walk of K Street -- Washington‘s lobbyist gulch -- between 16th and 19th streets.)

In short, China will present a miserable dilemma for Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley, who fecklessly endorsed China’s WTO membership bid before Seattle. The unions supporting Gore and the enviros supporting Bradley will be pushing them in one direction, their finance capos in the other. (Example: L.A.‘s richest Democrat, National Convention Committee chairman Eli Broad, is a huge shareholder in AIG Insurance, which forecasts fortunes from the Chinese insurance market.) For Gore, the problem may be particularly acute. The China vote is likely to come early next year, at the very moment he needs unions assistance in California, New York and the industrial Midwest.

Can the unions be so dialectical that they can mobilize their members for Gore at the same time they’re mobilizing them against a deal Gore supports?

Hegel wasn‘t that dialectical.

How else can the Greenie-Sweeneys impact the election?

Alas, there isn’t a fair-trader in the whole bunch of presidential candidates, except Pat Buchanan. But one thing the core Democratic constituencies can do is try to get the Democratic presidential -- and, for that matter, senatorial and House -- candidates to commit themselves to the position that Bill Clinton took on Super Tuesday last week, when he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he not only supported global labor standards, but believed that nations that flouted them should have sanctions applied to them, just as nations that violate property rights do now.

Okay, Clinton‘s own Cabinet secretaries didn’t pay him any heed. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky immediately assured her fellow trade ministers that that was just the president talking, that she would never insist on such a thing, and what she said went.

In a sense, Seattle presented Clinton with his greatest challenge in triangulation yet: His (and the Democrats‘) core supporters were in the street, his (and the Democrats’) money guys were holed up in their hotel rooms, with diametrically opposed positions. In a faint echo of 1968, when Clinton demonstrated against the war while in Britain, but still worked to preserve, as he wrote at that time, his “viability inside the system,” the president strove mightily to bring street and suite together. His final gambit was to embrace the street‘s position almost entirely, letting his underlings tell the suites that he didn’t really mean it.

But why shouldn‘t the Democrats take the president’s rhetoric seriously? Gore and Bradley may well be lost causes on the China deal, but why not try to save them from their own worst instincts on free trade generally? Greenie-Sweeneys should push them, and the party platform, to embrace the Clinton Post-Intelligencer position. Injecting some binding standards, some environmental protection, some worker rights into the laissez-faire global economy would conform Democratic global policy with long-standing Democratic domestic policy. If the polling is to be believed at all, it would also be a widely popular position -- one that could be favorably contrasted with the Republicans‘ anything-for-a-buck approach to the New World Order. Two key Democratic-leaning constituencies that don’t vote a whole lot -- blue-collar workers and kids -- might even turn out in greater numbers this November. (Did I mention that‘s who the sit-downers were in Seattle? Kids.)


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