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The Clouds Clear: Seattle and Beyond

Frank Borgers

As the clouds of tear gas lifted from the streets of Seattle two images emerged in the public consciousness. The WTO, gaining instant celebrity as a powerful symbol of globalization's discontents, was brought crashing to its knees. As the edifice toppled it revealed an odd Lilliputian army of labor, environmental, church, and assorted activists that had appeared out of nowhere to create a loud, colorful, and seemingly united assault on what had been presumed to be an unassailable new world order.

Of course the Lilliputians who came to protest had long recognized the WTO as a key impediment to the protection and extension of labor and environmental rights, and as a key forum in which the national-corporate deals of neoliberalism were cut. While the extraordinary scale and success of the Battle in Seattle may have surprised those who had spent painstaking months planning, organizing, and navigating the treacherous political reefs of coalition building, they knew that their achievements were not accidental nor easily wrought.

What was achieved in Seattle - the shut-down and subsequent chaos of the meetings, and the unity of previously disparate and often hostile elements of resistance have been justly celebrated in the left press. The scale, energy and creativity that fused in the streets were extraordinary. Perhaps most significantly, from an international perspective, was that the long dormant political consciousness of the US had finally sparked. JosJ BovJ , president of the French Farmers union and infamous destroyer of McDonalds property put it well: "Americans have been very unaware until now of the whole issue of globalization. For those of us who live in the rest of the world, this American ignorance has been very frustrating. The movement has begun in Europe. It is strong and it will not weaken; and the same is true of the movement in other regions of the world. But, until now, the question has been: Will the people of the United States learn enough about the struggle to join us? And now, I think, we can answer the question by saying that, yes, the American people will be with us in this fight against globalization." (John Nichols, "Now What: Seattle is Just a Start," the Progressive, January 2000)

So celebrate we should and celebrate we have - both in the streets of Seattle, in the left press, and in the numerous teach-ins and report-backs organized by activists returning to their communities. However the chain of events and decisions that were made in the heat of the moment reveal the cracks in the veneer of the supposedly solid coalition. While the desire to luxuriate, even if briefly, in the lap of such a huge victory is understandable, it is important to examine these tensions. For once the heat of the moment has subsided, and the coalition attempts to move beyond this defensive victory, confronting the internal and external pressures of movement politics, Seattle's hair-line cracks could quite quickly shatter into deep fault lines.

Seattle as Road Map

The tensions that emerged in Seattle help provide a miniature road-map to the struggles that lay ahead in maintaining the coalition and expanding its agenda. These challenges may be the greatest for the US labor movement, still struggling to emerge from an extended period of dormancy and cold war conservatism. What follows are a series of snap-shots of some key events that took place on the streets that help illuminate these challenges.

As is now widely recognized, the key moment in Seattle was the shutdown of the WTO on the morning of November 30. The credit for this remarkable achievement goes to the uproarious but highly organized troops of the Direct Action Network (DAN). Well before the 20,000 (by official media accounts) labor activists had gathered at Memorial Stadium, DAN had already achieved its immediate goal of shutting down the opening WTO session.

Early that morning (gathering at 7 am) supporters had assembled in two predawn rallies and then marched down to the Convention Center (marching as they had on the previous days without permits), shutting down intersection after intersection with human blockades, huge metal tripods with activists strung from their peaks, and colorful constructions locked down by protesters connected by PVC piping and duct tape. On arriving at the Convention Center they confronted delegates getting in early and encamped themselves in sprawling dance parties that blocked the intersections surrounding the convention center. The guiding theme for DAN was to organize a "Carnival Against Capital." They succeeded admirably.

As nine O'clock neared DAN activists and supporters formed human chains in front of every entrance to the Convention Center. The goal was literally to shut-down the inaugural session by blocking delegates and dignitaries from entering. Remarkably, a good number of delegates actually tried to break through the lines (a couple of suits even donned anti-WTO buttons in a lack-luster and unsuccessful attempt to pass through as activists). In some instances, where the chains were thinner and the riot police presence closer, delegates managed to force their way through. Ultimately however, so few delegates were able to enter that the opening sessions had to be canceled. The police response to these developments was extraordinarily brutal.

By 9 am, kids were down from pepper spray, and rubber bullets were flying. Soon thereafter the police initiated what would turn out to be an all week orgy of indiscriminate violence. The police assault escalated all morning - prostate protesters gassed and pepper sprayed in the face, percussion grenades lobbed directly into bands of seated protesters, rubber bullets shot at point blank range into a protester's mouth, and police riding their motor-bikes over protesters legs. The police never arrested any of those engaging in the convention center blockages (by Tuesday night they had only arrested some 35 protesters). Instead the riot police poured their arsenal down on them in a sadistic ritual that would clear an intersection and then allow it to refill.

As it turns out the crack-down can be attributed in large part to a combination of "poor" planning on behalf of the Seattle police department and calls from local, state and federal officials to regain control of the streets. Significantly, Attorney General Janet Reno, and an infuriated Secretary of State Madeline Albright (who was trapped in her hotel room) were cited as key players in calling for the crackdown. (see Mike Carter and David Postman's piece on December 16, 1999, in the Seattle Times) Their call to arms seems a likely portend for the police response to the planned demonstrations around the IMF and World Bank meetings in DC in April. Indeed, recent reports indicate that DC enforcement agents were on hand during the latter half of the week, and that they have attended post-Seattle workshops on crowd control. It seems safe to say that, barring concerted attempts to break through police lines, protesters won't gain the proximity to the meetings in April that they had in Seattle.

As mayhem broke out downtown, the huge labor rally gathered in Memorial Stadium. The 20,000 strong rainbow of labor activists and line-up of domestic and especially international speakers was impressive. There were even some great speeches buried within the two and a half hour rally. However, the contrast with the downtown confrontation was physically palpable. While some labor leaders sounded ready for battle - the UAW's Yokich proclaimed "Enough speech-making, we all know why we are here, let's hit the streets! Let's Go!" and AFSCME's McEntee screamed "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" - the call to arms sounded a little hollow. Yokich was followed by at least another hour of speeches, while McEntee has been a key player in the AFL's endorsement of the fair trade warrior known as Al Gore. In fact the only labor group that matched their rhetoric with action were the west coast Longshoreman who had shut down the entire West coast.

The limitations the rally and the labor events of the preceding days did not lay with the rhetoric. Laborís international discourse has come an extraordinary distance in five short years and it's embrace of the environmental movement, religious activists, and international labor leadership in Seattle helped fill the void previously dominated, by default, by Pat Buchanan's nationalistic and racist populism.

The limitations of laborís role in Seattle lie in its demonstrated aversion to direct confrontation, its unwillingness to match its rhetoric with action, and in its overwhelming bias toward centralized control and tightly managed scripts. The distance between labor and groups such as DAN can be illustrated by contrasting the way they dealt with the potential police confrontations that day. At the pre-dawn rallies DAN organizers had addressed the potential for arrests (many of their activists had gone through arrest training) and police violence. They acknowledged that certain of the planned acts of civil disobedience entailed higher risks of confrontation and arrest. They then set up three flags, signifying different levels of risk, and then asked participants to group around those flags that matched individuals' risk aversion (or appetite!). Simple, effective, and highly democratic.

In contrast, not once during the two and a half hours of labor speeches was any reference made to the events unfolding downtown. Granted, the AFL line was not to shut down the WTO but to hold a well controlled labor march. Outside of debates as to whether these were valid goals, the question remains as to why 20,000 adults cannot be trusted with some basic information that presumably was of some significance given that they were about to march into the epicenter of the confrontation. As it turns out, the leadership had apparently decided for their membership that they should re-route the march away from the contested terrain. In any case by the time the labor march set off few if any of its participants were aware of the events unfolding downtown. Likewise, once the labor marchers encountered the conflict they had no context to place it in nor had they been given any officially sanctioned choices as to how to respond.

As the labor march approached the convention center I was struck with how quiet 20,000 unionists could be. Our march seemed at times almost silent, erupting sporadically into chants, but these never lasted too long, and never quite took hold. While this sense of quite was probably exaggerated, this derived from the stark contrast with the DAN's raucous Carnival against Capital of the previous days. Whenever DAN marched they were accompanied by drumming groups, dancers and giant puppets, and a van pumping out high decibel techno alternating with chants. While these marches had far fewer participants, the sheer energy, exuberance, and volume of these marches registered on an altogether different plane. Indeed as the labor march approached the Convention Center, passing through the activists engaging in the shut-down the decibel level increased dramatically as they enthusiastically chanted their support for the labor marchers (a contingent of young Wobblies even burst into Solidarity Forever as we passed).

While the labor marchers were oblivious to the confrontation they were marching toward, the effects of the war zone hit as we entered an intersection on the approach to the convention center. Confusion broke out among the machinist marshals as they attempted to direct us away from the convention center. While the marshals seemed confused, the conflicting directions were partly attributable to DAN activists who ran through the intersection directing us toward he convention center. 

A friend, who had observed the approach of the labor march, was later able to provide an explanation for the confusion that broke out. Based on his observations, Sweeney and the international leaders at the head of the march had apparently decided to avoid the intersections immediately adjacent to the Convention Center through which the march had originally been routed. There also appeared to be some on the spot disagreement among the leadership as to this decision. At this point the changed march route was either not communicated or badly communicated to the marshals and most of us ended up marching through the war zone. As it turned out, by the time we reached the Convention Center, the police violence was at a lull. Meanwhile, Sweeney et al were marching back to Memorial Stadium. It should be noted that they did engage in a 5 minute sit-down. However they blocked an intersection that evinced no signs of either WTO delegates, traffic or police.

As parts of the labor march passed by the Convention Center DAN was regrouping to try and halt delegates from convening the plenary session that had been rescheduled for the afternoon. Despite repeated pleas from DAN activists to the labor marchers to stay, lend their support, and help avoid the escalation of police violence, labor marched silently by. Perhaps the lowest point came when a woman manning the SEIU PA system by the Convention Center repeatedly announced to the labor marchers "congratulations we shut the WTO down." While the AFL's leadership hasn't been so crass as to claim credit for a goal they never endorsed, they have been quick to distance themselves from the downtown confrontation. Instead of condemning the police brutality or praising the DANís civil disobedience Ė which remained resolutely true to its goal of no property destruction - the AFL-CIO joined in the political and media condemnation of "violent" demonstrators. "A small group of demonstrators received a huge amount of media attention when they engaged in violent actions. Sweeney voiced agreement with Clinton's regrets that a few people had given the protesters a bad name." (AFL-CIO Work in Progress, December 6, 1999)

The Limits of National Leadership

While this reaction shouldn't come as a surprise to labor observers, the lesson should be clear. The AFL and most internationals are not going to provide leadership in taking on the institutions of globalization outside the parameters of partnership, nor will they support those that engage at that level. On the other hand, the labor activists that returned to the Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon, and the central role played by local progressive labor leaders and rank-and-filers in the mobilization post Tuesday, reveal the critical significance of building local social movement unionism, and the galvanizing potential when labor engages in street battles alongside more radical allies.

In the massive state crack-down in the wake of Tuesdayís disruption local union activists and leaders joined forces with DAN to take on the police and National Guard in their attempt to enforce a 50 block no protest zone. Teamsters, Longshoreman and steelworkers, were pulled into the fray and stood their ground in the face of violent assaults as they tried to carry out previously planned marches and demonstrations that now found themselves located in the no protest zone. These efforts culminated in a march on Friday, December 3, spearheaded by the King County Labor Council and planned in collaboration with the DAN and other community and religious activist groups, in defiance of the no protest zone, protesting the WTO, and demanding the release of the more than 500 jailed activists. As a vigil was set up outside the jail, the Longshoremen began organizing a second port shut down to win the release of the jailed activists. 

Key to this local labor leadership was: the class based confrontational activism of the west coat Longshoreman; the pressure exerted by Teamster Local 174, a flagship TDU local, to maintain the King County Labor Councilís coalition with DAN and the other activist groups; and the involvement of Kaiser steelworkers, radicalized by MAXXAMís (Kaiserís owner) labor and environmental abuses and their coalition building with activist elements of the environmentalist movement. The galvanizing impact of Seattle has since reverberated up the Steelworker hierarchy, with the leadership inviting USAS and other student group representatives to an all expenses paid post Seattle strategy meeting in January.

In sum, the mass mobilization and the presence of more aggressive, less risk averse activist elements in Seattle created an environment that was faster moving, less predictable, and more confrontational than was comfortable for labor's leadership. While these cracks were masked by the explosive chain of events on the streets it is hard to envisage national leadership working in coalition with groups such as DAN. Not only is the organizational fit poor for an AFL that appears to place a huge premium on centralization and the maintenance of a unified message. It is also clear that, in the physical and ideological distancing from the direct confrontation, the labor movement at large remains very much a contested terrain, with more conservative and cautious voices retaining the dominant position. 

On the other hand, the consciousness raising potential of such street battles were amply demonstrated. These conditions are not impossible to replicate. Also, the ranks of international leadership are showing signs of dissension. Aside from the steelworkers and Longshoremen's disagreement with the AFL's position on the WTO, UAW President Stephen Yokich's resignation

from the AFL-CIO's Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest of Sweeney's attempt to partner with Clinton/Gore on WTO strategy, indicate that the internal AFL rifts over globalization are widening.

Laborís Internationalism Post-Seattle

While labor's rhetoric on globalization took a significant step forward in Seattle, it still teeters on the edge of a protective, isolationist ideology that could quickly destroy the links with domestic and foreign allies forged in the streets. There remain significant challenges for labor in developing a deeper internationalist vision and strategy:

  1. While labor oversees has been very supportive of struggles in this country, US unions have generally not reciprocated. Until US labor generates real and broad support for overseas labor struggles, its internationalism will remain a lopsided and ultimately unsustainable affair. The upcoming mobilization around China's accession to the WTO is an opportunity for labor to move beyond a defensive blocking maneuver and to really build support for leaders of the independent labor movement such as Han Dongfang and other human rights groups.
  2. US labor needs to engage in serious international negotiations with oversees unions and NGOs to develop a unified position and platform of demands around the inclusion of labor rights and environmental protections in trade treaties and other instruments of globalization. While the third world outcry against inclusion of labor standards generally emanates from elite quarters, important Southern activists such as Third World Network's Martin Khor have questioned conditionality and the motivation of Northern labor. Likewise Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange as well as other important human rights groups inside and outside China argue that China's accession into the WTO should be supported as it will weaken the Chinese government's repressive authority. Right or wrong, these multiple voices must be engaged if the post Seattle coalition is to survive and claim itself to be truly international.
  3. A core issue resolving such North-South tensions is the need for Northern labor to convince Southern activists that is motivated by more than narrow job protectionism. US labor could move a long way along this path by: building on its support for Jubilee 2000 at Seattle; expanding this agenda with real demands on the IMF to halt structural adjustment programs; work toward lowering trade barriers, or even providing positive trade incentives, to Southern countries that enforce base-line labor rights and environmental standards; and, promote a broad international dialogue on the type of trading and investment system that could benefit workers, farmers, and the environment, North and South. Again, the IMF and World Bank Protest in April will provide an important litmus test for the breadth of US labor's new found internationalism.
  4. While ILO conventions and their enforcement are generally recognized as toothless, they retain considerable international symbolic and political significance. The lack of ratification of core ILO conventions continues to weaken the US labor movementís position around inclusion of labor rights in trade instruments. How can US labor demand punishment of Southern nations that lack labor rights when it hasn't managed to secure ratification at home? Equally problematic is the unwillingness of labor's leadership to recognize that its domestic weakness has enabled downward leveling in US labor and product markets to exert downward pressure on other economies, North and South. For example, the unwillingness to confront this dynamic within the North American market, combined with US laborís lack of support for the Canadian labor movement in opposing the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement delayed and possibly weakened what could have been a more powerful bi-national coalition in opposition to NAFTA.
  5. Revocation of, or at least exertion of greater and more strategic leverage toward, national and local partnerships with Democrats and corporate capital. If labor continues to subsume its broader class coalitional interests to narrow gains through such failed partnerships it will continue to undermine its ability to build and maintain strong coalitions. The AFL's attempt to partner with Democrats around the WTO reveals some of these contradictions and tensions. The Canadian Labour Congress strongly rejected Sweeney's signing the letter endorsing Clintonís WTO negotiating position. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a 'social clause' or environmental rules." (David Bacon, 1/6/2000) Likewise, while the AFL rejects China's entry into the WTO, it has steadfastly maintained its support for Clinton/Gore. The contradiction in this position was painfully obvious when Clinton signed an accord with China, two weeks before the WTO meetings, paving the way for China's entry. In the latest debacle, Al Gore, the AFLís early pick in the Democratic Primary, is in the process of becoming enmeshed in an environmental and human rights scandal. Gore has become the target of environmental and human rights activists for his huge share holding in Occidental Petroleum which is directly linked to the environmental and human rights crisis engulfing the U'wa people of North-East Colombia. 

  6. Much of the success of the Seattle organizing and especially the crucial ties that were created in the wake of the state crack-down are attributable to democratic and left activists within more conservative labor institutions. The significance of the work to promote progressive reform movements and support progressive staff within these institutions was revealed by events. To the extent that Seattle is seen as a successful model, and to the extent that left/progressive forces can claim credit, the greater the political space next time around. The challenge for labor activists building social movement unionism will lie in claiming that space and pushing the labor movement to embrace the lessons of Seattle.
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