Labor, Seattle and Beyond

Frank Borgers

Posted February 29, 2000

AS THE CLOUDS of teargas lifted from the streets of Seattle two images emerged in public consciousness: The edifice of the WTO brought crashing to its knees, simultaneously revealing an odd Lilliputian army of labor, environmental, church and assorted activists that had appeared out of nowhere to assault what had been presumed to be an unassailable new world order.

What the Lilliputians achieved in Seattle—the shutdown and subsequent chaos of the WTO meetings, and the unity of previously disparate and often hostile elements of resistance—have been justly celebrated in the left press.

Perhaps most significantly, from an international perspective, was that the long-dormant political consciousness of the U.S. population had finally sparked.  José Bové, president of the French Farmers’ union and infamous destroyer of McDonald’s property put it well:

(U)ntil 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-yet 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 anti-WTO coalition.  It is important to examine these tensions, for once the coalition attempts to move beyond this defensive victory, Seattle’s hair-line cracks could quite quickly shatter into deep fault lines.

Seattle as Road Map

What follows are a series of snap-shots of some key events on the streets that help illuminate the challenges ahead in maintaining the coalition and expanding its agenda.  These challenges may be the greatest for the U.S. labor movement, still struggling to emerge from its extended period of Cold War conservatism.

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.  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, with prostrate 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 thirty-five 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 crackdown 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 in the December 16, 1999 Seattle Times.) Their call to arms seems a likely portent for the planned April demonstrations around the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington D.C.

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.

Yet 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 Longshoremen, who had shut down the entire West Coast.

Labor’s Limitations

Rhetorically, U.S. labor’s international discourse has come an extraordinary distance in five short years, and its 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 appeal.

The limitations of labor’s 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.

Not once during the 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.  Aside from 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.

In striking contrast, DAN organizers in predawn rallies had extensively prepared activists for their acts of civil disobedience and the various levels of associated risk of confrontation with police.

The labor leadership had apparently decided for their membership that they should reroute 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 been provided no context to place it in, nor 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, starkly contrasting with the DAN’s raucous Carnival against Capital of the previous days, accompanied by drumming groups, dancers and giant puppets, and a van pumping out high decibel techno alternating with chants.

While most 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 the 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 communicated to the marshals badly, if at all, 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 five-minute sitdown; however, they blocked an intersection that evinced no signs of either WTO delegates, traffic or police.

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 low point came when a woman on 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 DAN’s civil disobedience, the AFL-CIO joined in the political and media condemnation of “(a) small group of demonstrators [who] 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 who 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 crackdown in the wake of Tuesday’s disruption local union activists and leaders joined forces with DAN to take on the police and National Guard in their attempt to enforce a fifty block no-protest zone.

Teamsters, Longshoremen 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, defying 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 shutdown to win the release of the jailed activists.

Key to this local labor leadership were the class-based confrontational activism of the west coat Longshoremen; the pressure exerted by Teamsters Local 174, a flagship Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)-led local, to maintain the King County Labor Council’s coalition with DAN and the other activist groups; and the involvement of Kaiser steelworkers, radicalized by Kaiser owner MAXXAM’s 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 United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and other student group representatives to a union-financed 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 this national leadership working in coalition with groups such as DAN.

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.

Further, forces of International leadership are showing signs of dissension, illustrated by 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.

Labor’s Post-Seattle Internationalism

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 overseas has been very supportive of struggles in this country, U.S. unions have generally not reciprocated.  Until they do so, U.S. labor’s internationalism will remain a lopsided and ultimately unsustainable affair.

    The upcoming mobilization around China’s accession to the WTO is labor’s opportunity 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. U.S. labor needs to engage in serious international negotiations with overseas unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to develop a unified position and platform of demands around the inclusion of labor rights and environmental protection in trade treaties and other instruments of globalization.

    While the third world outcry against inclusion of labor standards generally emanates from elite quarters, important 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 developed-world labor to convince activists in the global South that it is motivated by more than narrow job protectionism.

    U.S. labor could move a long way along this path by building on its support for Jubilee 2000; 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 promoting 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 U.S. 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 U.S. ratification of core ILO conventions continues to weaken U.S. labor’s position around inclusion of labor rights in trade instruments.

    How can U.S. 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 U.S 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 U.S. labor’s 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 against NAFTA.

  5. If labor continues to sacrifice its broader social interests to narrow gains through failed national and local partnerships with Democrats and corporate capital, 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 Clinton’s 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-CIO 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 AFL’s 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 crackdown, 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.

Frank Borgers is a professor in the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,  This article has been abridged for space reasons.