“Battle in Seattle” Promises a New Era of Solidarity Against Free Trade Piracy

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When representatives of the World Trade Organization swept into downtown Seattle at the end of November, they meant for their five-day Ministerial Round to entrench and expand “free trade” — the free ride of the biggest corporations at the expense of everyone else. Instead, the WTO meeting crashed and burned, thwarted by determined protesters in the streets and angry delegates of poor and developing countries inside the WTO itself.

What a way to ring out the old millennium!

The WTO meeting, “hosted” by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Boeing President Phil Condit, was meant to be a showcase event for free trade and for Seattle. Law enforcement agencies from the FBI on down had been monitoring and meeting with potential demonstrators for months ahead, and Mayor Paul Schell expressed confidence that the round would run smoothly, despite plans for civil disobedience and massive public dissent.

The repudiation of this vast miscalculation is already history. On Tuesday, November 30, direct-action resisters in the streets withstood pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and nightsticks to stop the WTO, and they succeeded: the opening conference ceremonies were canceled. Meanwhile, a thoroughly international rally and march led by organized labor drew tens of thousands of unionists, environmentalists, and other activists together.

Authorities declared a state of emergency and a downtown curfew and called in the National Guard. Despite more than 600 arrests by police outfitted like Darth Vader, intransigent protesters refused to surrender, continuing to demonstrate through the last day of the ministerial.

The week ended with Mike Moore, director of the WTO and infamous privatizer of social services in New Zealand, announcing that the talks had broken down after developing nations rejected the deals being brokered over their heads by the economic superpowers.

The words of one graffiti artist painted on a storefront — “We win, we win” — summed up the protesters’ bold feeling of triumph.

Reform vs. revolution. Urban revolt and shutting down the WTO were not what most union officials and liberal leaders had in mind when they called their troops to Seattle. The goal of WTO critics like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and consumer advocate Ralph Nader was to stand at the head of impressive but manageable protests calling for “fixing” the trade group, with demands such as more accountability, a “seat at the table” for labor, and consumer impact assessments.

In the months leading up to the conference, this reform perspective got the most press and dominated much of the advance organizing. In Seattle, the WTO protest coalition was divided between “fair trade” advocates who called for amending the agency and other activists who called for abolishing it, including Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women representatives.

The position of FSP and RW was simple: The WTO is run by capitalist governments in the service of transnational corporations. It is designed to advance the interests of highly developed countries against poor and post-colonial nations and the interests of the bosses against the working people of every country. Lowering labor, health and environmental standards around the globe is integral to its basic mission, and the harm it causes cannot be done away with short of doing away with the WTO itself. And “fair trade” is not the answer; besides being an impossibility under capitalism, it is inevitably a rallying cry for reactionary national chauvinists like Pat Buchanan.

Radical sentiments like these seemed to be a minority viewpoint before the WTO met — but five fiery days in Seattle set the record straight. Cautious movement honchos and complacent Democratic Party politicians (who run Seattle and Washington state) badly miscalculated the fury that exists among people mauled by the global economy — especially the youth, who recognize that they are inheriting a polluted, plundered, and impoverished world.

Rage against the machine. On Monday, November 29, the day before the WTO was due to convene, demonstrators got a head start. In one action organized by Interfaith Jubilee 2000, they circled the entire Kingdome, a huge downtown sports arena, to demand cancellation of Third World debt.

By sunrise on Tuesday, thousands of people, most of them young, had already blocked and occupied the streets leading to the Paramount Theatre, making it impossible for the WTO to begin its opening ceremonies. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO had scheduled a rally for late morning at the Seattle Center, on the edge of downtown, to be followed by a march to the WTO site. Forty thousand people poured into the stadium for the rally, and their banners, buttons, and picket signs made it clear that they were in a fighting mood.

Peaceniks, socialists, tree-huggers, feminists, and animal rights champions mingled with Teamsters, machinists, and farmworkers. Unionists from 140 countries attended and speakers from all over the world shared the stage. The feeling that the U.S. labor movement could be entering a new era, one of internationalism and unity with social-issue activists, was palpable.

At the microphone, U.S. union officials went to unprecedented lengths to match the militant tenor of the crowd. Gerald McEntee, president of Service Employees International Union, actually went so far as to declare: “The enemy must be named — and the enemy is corporate capitalism!”

For some of the rally organizers, however, the moxie displayed at the podium was fleeting. When news spread to the rally that the early morning protesters had shut the WTO down, the ranks were jubilant. But the bureaucrats didn’t share their enthusiasm. Intent on keeping control, they changed the route of the march to avoid meeting the charged-up demonstrators near the Paramount Theatre.

Over the course of the WTO, the rank-and-file of the labor movement and its most progressive unions showed just how far ahead of the official leadership they are. Longshore unionists shut down ports all along the West Coast. Steelworkers and others protested alongside young people being gassed and clubbed. On Friday, the King County Labor Council organized a second labor rally, this one in defense of the direct action demonstrators. Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President Sweeney signed a letter endorsing Bill Clinton’s sellout trade agenda!

“Divide and conquer” falls flat. By Tuesday afternoon, it was clear to local authorities that they had lost control of downtown to the protesters engaging in civil disobedience. With President Clinton due to fly in the next morning, the Secret Service gave them their orders: Use whatever force is necessary to take back the streets.

To clear the area around the WTO meeting venues, the cops turned to the indiscriminate use of pepper spray, noxious gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons. The mayor declared downtown a “no protest zone” and instituted a dawn-to-dusk curfew there.

In order to justify the crackdown, the politicians — aided by the media and even some of the protest leaders, including Sweeney — tried to persuade the public that there were “good” demonstrators and “bad” ones, and all they wanted to do was stop the bad bunch from inflicting random violence.

The much-exaggerated “violence,” however, consisted of a small number of protesters breaking the windows of a few well-chosen targets — including the GAP, Starbucks, Nike, and McDonald’s — widely hated for their exploitative practices. And the cops hardly helped their own cause by gassing bystanders and shoppers, which happened repeatedly.

Starting on Tuesday night, calls protesting the police rampage began flooding news outlets and the mayor’s office. By Friday, even the media was condemning the cop brutality. And shortly after the WTO delegates packed and left for home, Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned.

Besieged from within and without. While protesters did their best to bring down the WTO from outside it, storms were brewing inside the meeting halls as well.

In the weeks before the talks, free trade boosters extolled the “win-win” situation that the WTO is supposed to create for all 135 of its member nations. But this is transparent nonsense!

The bedrock economic law of capitalism is expand or die. This means that overproduction is a continual threat and that competition for resources, cheap labor, and consumer markets will never be anything other than fierce and brutal. Inherently, capitalism is a game of winners and losers.

The WTO reflects and perpetuates this. In theory, every member country is equal. In reality, the world’s dominant economic powers call the shots.

The Seattle Round was a model of the WTO’s unfairness. In the first place, the agenda was designed to discuss issues that would benefit giant businesses like Microsoft. And then, of course, trade negotiation is itself an expensive business: while the U.S. could afford to send 85 representatives to Seattle and Japan 88, for example, Congo sent five. On top of everything else, heavy weights like the U.S. and the European Union organized secret side meetings that excluded all developing nations but a hand-picked few.

In the face of such high-handedness and dirty play, trade ministers from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean announced that they were prepared to reject any concluding declarations presented to the body. At the same time, the most powerful nations were also locked in conflict with each another; the U.S. attacked European and Japanese farm subsidies, while Japan battered against U.S. steel protection measures.

The talks collapsed, and the WTO ended without reaching a single agreement.

Globalization for the common good. What some organizations under the wide anti-WTO umbrella conclude from all this is that economic globalization, in and of itself, is undesirable. But the internationalization of trade is inevitable; the question is, who will control it and to what end? The case of revolutionary Cuba demonstrates the key role that trade can play in the survival of a people. The collapse of the former Soviet Union, Cuba’s major trading partner, coming on top of a three-decade-long embargo by the U.S., threw Cuba into serious economic turmoil. Cuba uses its membership in the WTO to strengthen desperately needed trade alliances and to press for economic “affirmative action” inside the WTO for developing and poor nations.

In China, on the other hand, a section of the bureaucracy is trying to win entry into the WTO to take revolutionary gains away from the Chinese people. Officials want to use its rules as an excuse to dismantle the state-owned enterprises that provide livelihoods, pensions, education, and medical care for millions of people.

Nevertheless, labor officials in the U.S. have no business taking up the cause of keeping China out of the WTO. The problems of U.S. workers are not caused by China, and it is nothing but cowardly to bash China while endorsing free-trade cheerleader Al Gore!

The rule of the profit motive, not globalization, is the enemy of the working class. A communal world economy would not lower living standards everywhere, but lift them; not increase disparity, but equalize wealth; not force working people into competition with each other, but bring them together; not provide unparalleled tools for the destruction of the environment, but for its care.

For five days in Seattle, internationalism came alive. Workers, farmers, students and activists from all over the world joined together and, through their solidarity, felled a giant. The task ahead is to turn the alliances forged here into one united movement to not only destroy the old, but create the new.

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