LaborNet logo

Labor Newsline logo

LABORNET HOME PAGEABOUT LABORNETACTION ALERTSNEWS ITEMSLABOR TECHCAMPAIGNS

Global Victory For Workers In Seattle:
Workers Students, Activists Rout WTO


By Steve Zeltzer
lvpsf@labornet.org

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 be the first step in stopping and turning
back a generation of losses for working people, a real turning of the
tide.

 

First National Political Protest By Labor In Decades

This was the first major political protest by US workers in decades.
Major unions such as the Steelworkers, 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 busses were paid for the
British Columbia labor 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.


Brian McWilliams, president of the ILWU challenged the multi-national
bosses in a speech at the labor rally. "In closing the ports, the ILWU
is demonstrating to the corporate CEOs and their agents here in Seattle
that the global economy will not run without the consent of the workers
everywhere in this country and around the world." This received a huge
response from the crowd.

"When the ILWU boycotted cargo from El Salvador and apartheid South
Africa, when we would not work scab grapes from the California valley or
cross picket lines in support of the fired Liverpool dockers, these were
concrete expressions of our understanding that the interests of working
people transcend national and local boundaries, and the labor solidarity
truly means that when necessary we will engage in concrete action."
Williams continued.

Also for the first time at an AFL-CIO mass protest, Williams made clear
where the wealth comes from. "Let's not allow the free traders to paint
us as isolationist anti-traders. We are for trade. Don't ever forget--it
is the labor of working people that produces all the wealth." These are
new words for the AFL-CIO and the rank and file.

The protest was also the most important linking up of
the environmental movement and human rights movement with labor since the
1960's civil rights movement. It was the power of this alliance that
brought the WTO down, uniting labor'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".

Arrested protesters were now joined together in jail. "After he was
arrested in Seattle, (UC Student) Vandaei found himself sitting alongside
people who were involved in different causes than he was. They were
gathered with their hands tied behind their backs, waiting for hours to
be taken away by police wagons. 'It forced us to sit here together with
union workers, with Teamsters, with environmentalists,' Vandaei said.
'You get arrested together, you ask each other's names.' said Vandaei."
San Francisco Examiner December 5, 1999

It is this newly-forged alliance that will give workers the strength
they need in every city in the country.


A Lightning Rod For World Mobilization

 

What brought this together as a lightning 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 order 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
labor 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.

 

Extending the "Liberalization"

 

The latest planned WTO meeting was an effort to extend the
"liberalization's" 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, more privatizations, more gutting of social services and more
wage cuts.

 

"Don't Blame Us" Says Clinton


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!"

 

Growing opposition to the expansion the the WTO rules to agricultural
subsidies was also significant in major capitalist allies of the United
States like Europe and Japan.


The Japanese LDP government and Prime Minister Obuchi's base of support
is in the countryside. After the war the capitalists with the support of
the US gerrymandered the country to favor the more conservative
countryside.


An elimination of tariffs in Japan would eliminate the rice farmers and
drive the LDP out of power. Clinton and proponents of expanding the WTO
coverage were aware of this and realized that they had nothing to lose by
"talking" about including labor rights.

 

International Labor Bureaucrats Welcome WTO's Mike Moore

 

The Director-General of the WTO, Mike Moore was a true example of the
kind of collaborator the WTO looked to in its effort to expand.


WTO Chair Mike Moore had in fact won the job for helping to lead the
biggest assault on New Zealand's working class and poor in history. While
leader of the New Zealand Labor Party, Moore launched a massive
privatization of whole sections of the economy from the ports to health
and safety. These actions split the New Zealand labor movement and
created a dangerous division between the public workers and private
industry workers.


Leading up to the massive protest of the WTO convention was also a
meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
This was it's first meeting in the United States.This organization which
was set up by the AFL-CIO and the CIA to help be a counterweight to the
Russian controlled Word Federation of Trade Unions has now become the
largest international trade union federation with the membership or
affiliation of most unions around the world.


Bill Jordan, chair of the ICFTU is also the former right wing leader of
the AUE in the United Kingdom. He had invited none other than Mike Moore
to have an exchange at the ICFTU conference. Moore was clearly
uncomfortable but did his best. He accused the ICFTU and other opponents
of the WTO of being against "internationalism". He said that their
opposition to free trade would hurt workers around the world.


Bob White of the Canadian Labor Congress was the sharpest critic. He
called the Moore's view 180 degrees wrong. White said the problem was
that multi-nationals and other corporations were seeking to violate laws
and protections of workers in order to continue their child labor and
other labor violations. White and others at the meeting called for Moore
and the WTO to integrate the ILO and UN resolutions on labor into all
trade agreements.


The focus however of the ICFTU meeting besides getting a seat at the
table for the union officials was to push the WTO to set up "working
group" that would discuss labor 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.


While raising the issue of labor rights and environmental clauses, very
little was said by both the ICFTU leaders and the AFL-CIO leadership
about the actual economic program of the WTO. This so called
"liberalization" and "structural reform program" of the WTO went mostly
unchallenged at the ICFTU meeting and in most speeches of the AFL-CIO
leadership. One women unionists demanded to know of Moore whether he
supported continued "privatization" of education and turning it over to
the "market economy". Moore refused to address this and many of the other
questions.


When media critic and journalist Norman Soloman asked Sweeney at an
ICFTU press conference on December 29 if the reason that he was only
asking for a "working group" was so that he would not embarrass 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".


He was also asked how the AFL-CIO, the German trade union (DGB) could
call for more transparency of the WTO when these organizations themselves
were undemocratic. Sweeney and Dieter Schulte of the DGB denied that
they were undemocratic and said the questioner was only really
representing the interests of the corporations.


"WTO Must Go" Or "fix it"?

 

Most of the coalition that came to protest the WTO had a clear
demand--get rid of it. As the demonstrators chanted, "The WTO must go!"
The very least protesters aimed at was preventing the new round of
negotiations from starting.

 

But John Sweeney and the other top labor leaders had other ideas. They
wanted a "partnership" like those they have been pushing in the US-- for
"a seat at the table" for union officials to push the WTO to set up a
"working group" that would discuss labor 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. Like in any labor-management partnership
the idea was to let management do what it wants, while labor leaders
pretend that they are standing up for workers.


Pursuing this strategy of not breaking with Clinton and Gore, but being
pushed by tens of thousand of rank and filers to protest the WTO, Sweeney
and company planned a tame protest, keeping the tens of thousands of
labor 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
blockaded 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 center. 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, concussion bombs were exploded
and large cans of pepper spray were 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
a angry crowd and the trashing of the windows of The Gap, Starbucks,
McDonalds and a host of other chain stores.


Prior to the march, the police were using gas but when the labor
march began, the tear gas stopped as thousands of unionist left the
stadium and were headed downtown. The IAM march marshals sought to
prevent the unionists from reaching downtown to join the mostly young
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. In 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 "education"
signals a very important change in the thinking not just of the
steelworkers but hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the United
States.


The beginning of the week 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
neighborhoods like Capital Hill to terrorize the population.


The mayor brought in the National Guard and also declared a state
of emergency and curfew after 7 PM on Tuesday and this was used by the
police to make further arrests and encouraged their rampage against the
protesters. Over 600 were arrested and dozens were injured from beatings
and plastic bullets.

 

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 center of Seattle tied up by pretests 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 labor troops. His signature on a new WTO
agreement would mean that millions would bolt the labor-Democrat alliance.


"Mr. Clinton's advisers worried that the agenda emerging from the talks
would so outrage American labor unions that they would denounce both the
administration and Vice President Al Gore, who needs the unions'
energetic support in his bid for the presidential nomination. Some feared
that this agenda could further jeopardize chances of winning
Congressional approval for China's entry into the trade organization,
which was negotiated in Beijing just two and a half weeks ago." New York
Times December 5, 1999.

 

We Lost At Seattle?


The most overt anger from the union bureaucracy over the collapse of the
talks was International Metal Workers General Secretary Marcelllo
Malentacchi. On December 7, 1999 in a public statement, Malentacchi
complained about the protests.


"The march was a success until a few hundred started the riots and
managed to attract all the mass media's attention. And now these people
are claiming victory. Maybe they are the winners. But then what? The
trade unions have lost two years of hard work. We will have to start all
over again and organize our action even better, to make sure that at the
next meeting, in two years' time, our demands are met by the ministers of
trade." Maybe Malentacchi is pitching himself for the job that Mike Moore
will soon be leaving and wants to set the proper tone.

 

Chinese Bureaucrats Worried

 

Other governments saw well enough what would happen back home if they
struck a new rotten deal. "All these post-Seattle maneuvers are being
carefully monitored in Beijing. 'The Seattle meeting has poured some cold
water on WTO' prospects, says Hai Wen, deputy director of the China
Center for Economic Research at Beijing University. Already conservatives
are counseling Beijing to go slow on economic reform and privatization."
Business Week December 20, 1999

 

Rank And File Alliance Brought Victory

 

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 labor 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 center
of Seattle, the police would have used mass arrests from the start to
sweep "a few crazies" away from the convention center. 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.These tactics of course are common practice in many
parts of the world.


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.


"The victory in Seattle has emboldened labor, environmental, and other
anti-WTO forces to redouble their efforts. On Dec. 8, AFL-CIO President
John J. Sweeney and the labor leaders joined an anti-sweatshop vigil in
Manhattan-the first time they have joined the annual rally." Business
Week 12/20/99


Gerry Fernandez director of International Relations for the United Steel
Workers of America, at an international USWA educational in Seattle on
November 29 gave a international perspective in fighting the WTO.
"We need international labor solidarity. The fact of the matter is that
international solidarity works. The WTO talks about core labor standards.
They say we should support the incorporation of the ILO core conventions
into the WTO. They talk about social clauses, social mandates, labor
standards.


Let me tell you about the ILO: Unions have won only two cases in the ILO
over the past 18 years. We can't count on these folks, just as we can't
count on the WTO. The WTO is run by the corporations. The only thing we
can count on is ourselves.


With the global corporate economy, we can no longer win on the picket
line. We have corporations - and politicians - who close down factories
and move overseas if we strike. These same folks push for striker
replacement. These are the people who run the WTO. Are they really going
to give us a seat at the WTO table? I say they aren't.


When we have a strike here, we need to have actions in 20 countries or
more. We have to internationalize our labor movement. "


While Fernandez is wrong about the power of a real strike he is
absolutely correct about the need for internationalizing the labor
movement with global contracts and joint action worldwide.

 

Political Danger

 

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 the AFL-CIO bureaucrats 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 next mobilization may come in the third week of April 2000
when the World Bank and the IMF are holding their international
conferences in Washington DC. Already discussions are going on about a
national march in Washington against these organizations and against the
entry of China into the WTO.


Some unionists are also seeking to push for a national one day strike to
demand that the US pulls out of the WTO. This would clearly put Sweeney
and the others who want to reform the WTO on the spot.

 

Labor Use Of Communication Technology Spreads Message

 

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.


In an important example of this work to break the corporate media
blockade, an Independent Media Center was set up in Seattle that sent
information electronically (www.indymedia.org) by the hour and
audio/video streaming on the internet as well as broadcasting by
satellite 1 hour a day throughout the country. One of the videos
broadcast was the Korean Labor News Production "Crisis Of Capital, Hope
of Labor".


Only a week following the protests, a video on the labor struggle at
Seattle and interviews with dozens of workers was streamed on the web at
(www.brightpathvideo.com/default_labor_video.html) It was captured by
labor communication activists in Turkey and used to show the role of
labor in the battle against the WTO.


This use of communication technology by workers around the world is a
historic and profound development for all working people of the world.


For the first time since the 1930's, the US working class is
going into a new confrontation with capital that is immediately
international in it's 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.

Online communications for a democratic labor movement.
This page is maintained by labornet@igc.org
Copyright 1999 LaborNet