Seattle and the global justice struggle

Lee Sustar, a participant in the dramatic protests against the World Trade Organization a decade ago, explains why the movement for global justice remains relevant.

Peaceful protesters sit in as riot police fire pepper spray during the 1999 WTO protests (Steve Kaiser)Peaceful protesters sit in as riot police fire pepper spray during the 1999 WTO protests (Steve Kaiser)

AT THE end of the 1990s, Americans were repeatedly being told by the mainstream media that they were lucky to be enjoying the prosperity of a "miracle economy." Youth in the U.S. were said to be quiescent, busy focusing on careers and consumerism. The unions, while occasionally capable of flexing a muscle, could no longer claim to be Big Labor--they were seen as a tamed and downsized component of the Democratic Party, dominated by the pro-business administration of Bill Clinton. The left was marginalized, apparently relegated to raising concerns about the losers of global capitalism in developing countries rather than having any impact on U.S. politics.

But on November 30, 1999, all those assumptions disappeared in vast clouds of tear gas dispensed by Seattle riot police.

That was the first day of demonstrations by tens of thousands of people against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle--protests that shattered the myth of working-class contentment and individualistic youth in the U.S. The protests gave a boost to an emerging global justice movement that provided a focus for a revived international left in opposition to the free-market fundamentalist brand of capitalism known as neoliberalism.

Today, of course, neoliberalism has driven the world economy into a deep and protracted crisis. So it's all the more important to look back at the Battle of Seattle and the impact it had on an entire generation of activists.

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THE ROOTS of the anti-WTO protests go back to 1993, when a Democrat promising change moved into the White House.

Although Bill Clinton was avowedly on the right wing of the party--he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, a grouping that wanted to rebrand the party as Republican Lite--he nevertheless won the election by tapping the anger of voters fed up with recession conditions. Health care reform was to be the centerpiece of his agenda, along with a program to boost the economy through federal spending on infrastructure.

But by the late 1990s, those promises were a dim memory. Clinton had pulled the plug on health care reform before it even came to a vote in Congress. But he teamed up with his Republican opponents to ram through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), rolling over opposition from organized labor to do so. Clinton denounced the efforts of unions to oppose NAFTA as "real roughshod, muscle-bound tactics."

When it came to labor's legislative agenda--top on the list: a law to ban the use of permanent replacements during strikes--the Clinton White House didn't lift a finger. As the New York Times noted, the bill "never inspired the midnight phone calls and political arm-twisting that the White House has lavished on other difficult political issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement or last year's budget."

The 1994 capture of Congress by the Republicans muted labor's criticism of Clinton. The White House posed as the protector of working people against an aggressive Republican agenda, and the new AFL-CIO leadership under John Sweeney didn't question such posturing.

But as the "miracle economy" led to lower unemployment rates, labor regained some leverage. The media portrayal of satisfied and self-interested workers was interrupted by the UPS strike of 1997, which was hugely popular. Tens of millions of workers, whose real (after inflation) wages had been stagnant since the early 1970s, identified with the victorious strike. Less dramatic, but important, strike victories followed at Verizon and General Motors in the next few months.

So as the U.S. prepared to host a pivotal WTO meeting in Seattle, a revived AFL-CIO sought to pressure Clinton by announcing a protest. The demands weren't radical--AFL-CIO President Sweeney was seeking a "seat at the table" rather than a halt to the corporate trade agenda. But the planned demonstration marked the first serious political mobilization by labor since the second Solidarity Day protest in 1991 under the George H.W. Bush administration.

Significantly, the protest put labor at odds with a Democratic administration for the first time in decades. And the showdown was to take place in what had long been a labor stronghold, thanks to the power of dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) who built airplanes at Seattle-area Boeing plants.

As Ron Judd, then executive secretary-treasurer of the Seattle-based King County Federation of Labor, put it, labor had a "home-field advantage."

A big, spirited labor march might have embarrassed Clinton, who was set to attend the WTO meeting personally. But what turned a protest into a major confrontation with worldwide impact was a convergence of thousands of left-wing activists, most of them young, who opposed the WTO as a symbol of the corporate agenda.

Environmentalists, campaigners for Third World debt relief, anarchists, socialists and radicals created networks aimed not only at turning out large numbers, but also at disrupting the WTO proceedings with nonviolent direct action.

As they convened in Seattle and took stock of their numbers, the protesters gained a level of confidence that had been elusive in previous years.

Many had been active in relatively small struggles on various issues--as labor organizers, for example. Others served as staffers for environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) like the Rainforest Action Network, which highlighted the role of the World Bank and other international financial institutions in financing big dam projects and other environmentally destructive projects. Also present were a range of left-wing think tanks, such as the International Forum on Globalization, which organized a three-day teach-in.

Other organizations like the 50 Years is Enough network and Global Exchange were trying to bring attention to the impact of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which had plunged countries like Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea into deep crisis. The solution pushed by the U.S. Treasury Department--via its instrument, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)--called for deep cuts in social spending so that debt to international banks and governments could be repaid. The result was immense suffering--many Indonesian peasants, for example, had to eat tree bark to survive.

The more experienced protesters forged a loose alliance known as the Direct Action Network (DAN). But many more who turned out to demonstrate in Seattle had never been active at all. They responded to the call to protest the WTO--a group of unaccountable bureaucrats dominated by the wealthiest nations.

For many, the WTO came to symbolize a world economy geared to the interests of big business and the superrich--all under the aegis of what became known as the "Washington Consensus" of free trade, privatization, deregulation and "flexible" labor policies.

The Washington Consensus was running into other problems, however. The financial panic of 1997-98 made even pro-globalization governments in the Third World wary of further attempts to restructure the world economy on the terms demanded by the "triad" of the U.S., Europe and Japan.

So when the triad countries pushed for a comprehensive reduction in trade tariffs, several important countries pushed back, including Pakistan and India. Thus, the Clinton administration, the driving force for a new WTO accord, encountered resistance both in the streets and in the meeting rooms.

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THESE CONTRADICTIONS came to a head November 30, the opening day of the WTO meeting and the day of the 40,000-strong big labor march. Whatever the modest aims of the AFL-CIO's Sweeney, marchers were in a more militant frame of mind.

The ILWU had used a provision in its contract for "stop work" meetings to shut down the entire West Coast ports for the day, a clear demonstration of workers' power. Jennifer Tollefson, an instructional assistant at the Washington Education Association, told Socialist Worker then, "I'm here because they want to privatize everything. Schools need to remain public."

Barbara Hopkins, a member of the Oregon Public Employees Union, said she attended the WTO protest because she believed in fighting for a living wage everywhere in the world. "Children shouldn't have to work in sweatshops," she said.

Even moderate union leaders caught the mood. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, declared, "We have to name the system...corporate capitalism." The unprecedented alliance of labor and environmentalists was captured by a famous picket sign that read, "Teamsters and Turtles, Together at Last."

But the march that followed the midday labor rally came to a sudden halt. Up ahead, thousands of young people organized by DAN had launched a series of sit-ins to blockade hotels where WTO delegates were housed and "lockdowns" of streets in which activists chained their arms together inside lead pipes. The actions confounded the police, and the WTO was effectively halted for the day.

Police mounted a ferocious counterattack, firing huge amounts of tear gas, and charging into crowds on horseback and tank-like vehicles. Their pretext was the action of a few protesters who broke some store windows, most famously a Starbucks.

But while the window-breakers faded away, the nonviolent protesters were tear gassed, bashed, shot with rubber bullets and handcuffed by cops in riot gear who were dubbed "Darth Vaders" by the protesters. Police even barred entrance to a hospital to keep protesters from getting medical attention.

If the crackdown was designed to isolate and crush the protests, it had the opposite effect. A police rampage in the Capitol Hill neighborhood left Seattle residents with no ties to the protest choking from tear gas and nursing wounds from police batons. The overwhelming sentiment of Seattle residents was to support the demonstrators.

The repression did create a momentary crisis among the coalition of protesters. When AFL-CIO President Sweeney and other union officials diverted the labor march away from the scene of protesters' confrontation with police, scores of union members who had served as marshals during the labor march threw their credentials on the ground in disgust. And many union members--especially those from the ILWU--joined the fray anyway.

The following day, December 1, Seattle was under a curfew that had the look and feel of martial law.

After a police roundup of a sit-in, activists sought refuge at a previously scheduled dockside protest led by the United Steelworkers. While the aim of the protest was backward--to symbolically dump Styrofoam "Chinese steel" into the harbor--it became a rally for free speech and solidarity. George Becker, then president of the Steelworkers, told the young people at the rally, "You're where you should be--with the labor movement."

Becker, however, retired from the scene following the rally. Up stepped Bob Hasegawa, then-president of Teamsters Local 174 and now a Washington state representative. With Hasegawa in the lead--along with a delegation from the French union federation CGT--hundreds of union members and young people tried to march toward the Seattle Convention Center where the WTO proceedings were taken place.

I was on the march, and later described the scene for Socialist Worker:

The feeling of unity and internationalism was fantastic as we met up with another group from the rally to create a 1,000-strong march behind the Teamsters' banner.

Minutes later, cops in riot gear ambushed us in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Propping their weapons on the hoods of cars, they fired a hail of rubber bullets and threw concussion grenades and canisters of powerful, military-issue tear gas. We were pursued by cops on horseback, motorcycles, cars, helicopters--even an armored personnel carrier.

We decided to march to the Labor Temple, the headquarters of Seattle's unions, to appeal for solidarity. There, the cops ordered us to disperse--only to cut off our exit with more concussion grenades and tear-gas bombs. Several protesters alerted Ron Judd, head of the King County Labor Council, who immediately began organizing solidarity efforts for us.

We sat down in protest until the cops arrested anyone they could fit into city buses. While in custody on the bus, we used cell phones to contact lawyers and protesters still on the street. Some busloads of prisoners sat in for 14 hours before being forcibly removed by being sprayed in the face with Mace. Jail guards later beat one man, nearly breaking his wrist.

Despite the ferocity of the crackdown, within hours, the political momentum shifted toward the protesters. Police dropped their threats to storm the Labor Temple and arrest demonstrators taking refuge inside--for fear of setting off labor action. Pressure from supporters forced police to allow lawyers to visit arrestees in their jail cells, and solidarity marches took place on their behalf.

When the arrestees were freed from jail following the end of the WTO conference, we found ourselves in the midst of something that had been all too rare on the U.S. left--a victory party.

Meanwhile, the WTO meetings had ended in a fiasco. The triad countries were unable to force developing countries to accept concessions, and failed again to do so in a new round of talks launched in Doha in 2001. The reason is the growing economic weight of industrializing countries in the WTO, particularly Brazil, India and China, as well as the popular rebellion against neoliberalism in several Latin American countries.

Since then, "developing countries are far less likely to accept policies handed down by the governments of rich nations, many of them having gained freedom from the economic dictates of the IMF in recent years," Deborah James of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote last year. "And while Brazil, India, and China may be the most oft-cited emerging market powerhouses, developing countries from Latin America to Africa to Asia are increasingly demanding a stronger voice in international fora."

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FOR THE U.S. left, the WTO protests were a big shot in the arm. A new global justice movement took shape, highlighted by a protest of more than 20,000 at the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., in April 2000. The flurry of activism brought many youth into politics for the first time--a number of them gravitated to Ralph Nader's presidential campaign on the Green Party ticket, which had the strongest showing of any left-wing third party since 1948.

Internationally, the Seattle demonstrations had a galvanizing effect on a series of struggles that had been building for years in the developing world--for example, the "IMF riots" in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

These struggles found a political focus with the inaugural World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, an event conceived as an ideological counterblast to the World Economic Forum of the rich and powerful in Davos, Switzerland. Subsequent WSF meetings would go on to mobilize tens of thousands of activists in South America, Africa and Asia.

In the U.S., the movement was poised to take a new step forward in September 2001 in a protest at the annual IMF fall meetings. The demonstration--endorsed by the AFL-CIO--was expected to draw 100,000 people.

But the attacks of September 11, 2001 derailed the movement. The AFL-CIO pulled out of the march, which was cancelled by its other sponsors.

The global justice movement was still too small and politically undeveloped to cope with the right-wing backlash that followed 9/11. While the movement had a critique of neoliberal capitalism and the depredations visited on poor countries by the IMF, World Bank and WTO, it lacked a coherent analysis of imperialism. Having largely failed to challenge the U.S. government's "humanitarian" wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, the movement was ill-prepared to oppose a supposed "good" war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There were other political weaknesses as well. Key forces in the global justice movement shared a set of politics often called "autonomism" or "horizontalism," which explicitly opposed the formation of a defined radical or revolutionary organization. This "networked" approach could achieve the basic aims of mobilization while the struggle was on the upswing, but was disabling when the movement had to confront hard political questions following 9/11.

Was it correct to suspend protests against the IMF in the wake of the 9/11 attacks? Should the movement oppose the U.S. war on Afghanistan? How could activists maintain their connections with the unions in the new, right-wing environment? What kind of protest tactics would be effective in the post-9/11 world, when the authorities responded to almost every serious demonstration as if it they were national security threats? The movement was unable even to coherently debate these questions, much less resolve them.

Nevertheless, the global justice movement was an important step forward for the U.S. left--one that continues to have an impact. It highlighted the radicalization that took shape in U.S. society even during the so-called "miracle economy" of the 1990s. It set the stage for the U.S. Social Forum of 2007, which brought together some 20,000 people in Atlanta and will be followed by another forum next June in Detroit.

Today, as capital tries to impose deep and permanent cuts in working class living standards, the kind of alliances and solidarity on display in Seattle a decade ago are even more necessary.

There's no predicting where or when the flashpoints will come. But certainly the anger over bankers' bonuses amid the Great Recession is far more widespread and intense than the distrust of the WTO a decade ago. The great achievement of Seattle--linking organized labor's struggles with a radical political critique of the system--should be the starting point for another revival of the U.S. left.