Eyewitness Report from Seattle Streets
It was big, and it was militant, and it shut down Seattle's downtown and
blocked meetings of the World Trade Organization. Unions and
environmentalists and anti-sweatshop activists converged, and trade
policies will never be the same. With 50,000 people shouting in the
streets and media around the world carrying the story, secret negotiations
to intensify the "race to the bottom" by neo-Robber Baron capitalism will
be much more difficult to pull off.
On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of union members gathered
under light showers, rainbows, and sunlight. They came from New York and
Minnesota and Wisconsin, from Washington, Oregon and California, from
Canada. Several planeloads flew up for the day from the Bay Area with
California Labor Federation and Labor Council officers. Virtually every
international union in the United States and Canada was represented. The
International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down the ports so its
members could attend.
The labor rally and march was the largest union action in many years,
certainly the largest union protest in memory, and while the march was
organized to minimize contact with thousands of young rebels blocking the
streets of downtown Seattle, the unionists had a mind of their own.
While speeches continued, and even before the "heavy hitters" took the
podium, union delegations began marching out of the stadium at 12:30, the
announced marching time. Major AFL-CIO speakers lost their audience,
because people there were already convinced that the free trade policies of
global capitalism were anti-worker, and they wanted to hit the streets to
demonstrate their anger.
The speeches themselves were way different than in the not-so-distant past.
The ICFTU representative talked about working class internationalism and
the president of AFSCME named the enemy, "corporate capitalism," and
declared, "We will fight them in Congress, we will fight them in the
courts, and we will fight them in the streets. And we will stop them. We
will prevail." Another top union official quoted Ecclesiastes about a
"time to sow and a time to reap," then said it was "time for a war for
social justice!" The president of the United Auto Workers said union
members must "hit the streets!"
Many young people from the 500 other groups that converged on Seattle
joined the labor march, and many from the labor march detoured to join and
show solidarity with young activists chained together across intersections.
The Seattle police, who had tear-gassed protesters in the morning, took an
eyeball-to-eyeball time out while the unions marched, and resumed attacks
when the union marchers had dispersed. Police used pepper spray, tear gas,
and rubber bullets to drive thousands of mostly-young, non-violent,
demonstrators out of the streets, which were blocked with dumpsters as well
as with bodies.
While the corporate media, predictably, focused on window-breaking and
looting by a handful of people -- what percentage of 50,000 is a dozen? --
at least some reporters noted that the direct actionists gathered in front
of broken windows to prevent looting. Looting actually started after the 7
p.m. curfew imposed by the mayor, when the police drove the non-violent
civil disobedience protesters from the streets. Police held dozens of
buses in reserve for arrests, but only a few people were taken into custody.
There were printed signs and hand-made signs, banners and costumes, and a
dozen variations on the initials WTO -- World Totalitarian Organization,
Where Tyrants Oppress, World Toxic Organization, We Think Otherwise. My
favorite sign was on a corner occupied by turtle-shell-costumed
environmentalists: Teamsters and Turtles United At Last.
I was proud to be there, and even more proud at the numbers of labor
studies students from various campuses, past and present, who were there to
take part in the building of a movement.
Solidarity! Albert Lannon, Laney College Labor Studies