Labor rally opens America's eyes to WTO

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

SEATTLE - It was an extraordinary moment that tens of thousands of labor activists are not likely to soon forget: Over a period of a week, in the biggest-yet demonstration against corporate globalization, some 50,000 people turned out in the streets of Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

In the days before the WTO meeting began, months of organizing began to crystallize as workshops and demonstrations gathered momentum and an unmistakable buzz filled the air that something momentous was about to occur.

That moment arrived the morning of Nov. 30, when 20,000 people attended a union rally in Memorial Stadium, and 35,000 marched downtown to find that 15,000 other demonstrators had done what few had thought possible: Shut down the WTO meeting with civil disobedience.

Several thousand unionists continued to demonstrate for days to come, marching alongside environmentalists and others for the right to protest in the face of police assaults. Many union members were tear-gassed, and some were among the 500-plus arrested and jailed for up to five days for taking part in peaceful protests.

By week's end it was clear the demonstrations had had profound impact on public opinion and awareness of the WTO. Labor did not get the trade and labor standards working group it had hoped for out of the WTO, but its demand that no new free trade agreements be reached came true as the talks collapsed on Dec. 3 without any agreement, and it seemed clear that the protests contributed to the collapse.

Since that week, the mass outpouring that took place has continued to have a ripple effect, as union members and others who took part in it share their experiences with family, friends, and co-workers. For many, it was their first experience taking part in a protest, and they will never be the same.

The Momentum Gathers: Seattle Swells With Protesters

Thanksgiving weekend, while organizers in Washington, Oregon and around the United States were busily filling up the last seats on buses and planes for the Nov. 30 event, many hundreds of unionists were already mobilizing in Seattle.

Labor's presence there was bolstered by two conferences taking place locally the week before the WTO summit: The annual meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, (ICFTU) with several hundred delegates from unions around the world; and the Rapid Response conference of the United Steelworkers of America, held at the Tacoma Sheraton hotel and attended by 500 shop stewards.

The Steelworkers had a busy schedule of events. On Sunday, Nov. 28, they heard from U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and top policy experts of the AFL-CIO.

On Monday, they joined environmentalists, many dressed as turtles, for a noon march and rally to "Make Trade Clean, Green and Fair."

Later that day, they packed into a "town hall" meeting on trade globalization at downtown Seattle's First United Methodist Church.

Then, as darkness fell, they moved to the Seattle Art Museum for a rally.

The rally site was the plaza in front of the museum, adjacent to a gigantic moving sculpture of a worker wielding a hammer. There, Steelworkers stood in the pouring rain wearing blue ponchos and listened to Steelworkers President George Becker and Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. and others before marching to the Kingdome, site of a posh reception for WTO delegates and their local corporate sponsors.

For over an hour unionists worked with religious activists organized by the Washington Association of Churches to link hands in a giant chain around the reception, to publicize a call for cancellation of the debt of the world's poorest countries.

At the same time, on the other side of downtown Seattle Steelworkers and the Teamsters were among the hosts of a Key Arena "People's Gala," a free party emceed by political humorist Michael Moore - no relation to the WTO executive with the same name.

The Big Day: 50,000 People Protest in Seattle

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30, thousands of students, environmentalists, and others began occupying downtown streets to keep WTO delegates from getting to their opening ceremony. An hour later the gates opened at Memorial Stadium for the biggest of the week's protest events.

Over the next six hours, Seattle witnessed the results of months of planning by organized labor. In a rally and march that lasted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as many as 35,000 people filled a football stadium and took over miles of downtown Seattle streets; more than 1,500 of them were from Oregon, including some 350 who'd come on a "union train."

The enormous event sent an unmistakable message to its target, the WTO.

Some 20,000 people packed into Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium to shout their unequivocal disapproval of the WTO, including union members from more than 144 countries and 50 U.S. unions and 25 states. It took 185 buses, nine charter planes, and two trains to bring them in, not to mention the many who came by car. By 10:30 a.m., the arena was a massive quilt of colored ponchos, as unionists sat in rows in the bleachers and stood in blocks on the field.

In the front, about a thousand Steelworkers stood under a tethered white blimp wearing blue ponchos, while to their right a thousand Teamsters stood in yellow ponchos.

In the risers, the Office and Professional Employees were visible in yellow ponchos, AFSCME public workers in green T-shirts, Sheet Metal Workers in blue jackets, Electrical Workers in yellow ponchos, the United Farm Workers waving red flags, Painters in white ponchos, Airline Pilots in full black uniforms, and Service Employees in purple jackets.

A large contingent of Longshore members sat midway in the risers, brandishing yellow picket signs with the slogan "Stop Corporate Globalism." The signs depicted a "WTO" octopus stymied from strangling the globe by a wall of letters, the acronym of the Longshore Union, ILWU.

And everywhere at the rally (and along the perimeter of the march that followed), Boeing Machinist event marshals stood, recognizable in neon orange baseball caps.

In addition to the unionists, thousands of students, environmentalists and others attended the rally and march.

Adding to the visual spectacle were many creative costumes and props, including a fearsome-looking 20-foot-high balloon of a giant rat, men on stilts in business suits and animal snouts, and a troupe of Aztec dancers dressed largely in feathers and beads.

After a performance by the a capella troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock, Washington AFL-CIO President Rick Bender opened the rally with a declaration: "There's only one answer to organized greed, and that's organized labor."

Over the next several hours, some 17 labor leaders spoke, as well as leaders from environmental, religious, and human rights groups. And it seemed the most militant and unambiguous messages received the loudest applause.

"Who the hell asked our leaders to give us the WTO?" asked Becker, president of the United Steelworkers. "And why do they feel the need to protect intellectual property rights but not workers' rights?"

"We want enforceable labor rights in the WTO, and we want it now," Becker continued. "And our leaders had better deliver it, because if they don't, we're going to start a movement to get out of the WTO."

When ILWU President Brian McWilliams took the stage, Longshore members let out a tremendous roar. The union had shut down all the ports on the West Coast for the day, from Canada to Mexico. McWilliams did not beat around the bush. "We will not stand idly by while you corporate puppets in the WTO plot this economic coup."

To his call "Are you ready to fight?" the longshore workers yelled back, "Damn right!"

Some industrial unions such as the Teamsters, Steelworkers and Machinists took a more militant stance than the national AFL-CIO or the ICFTU. As the Teamsters' slogan "No to WTO" indicated, the industrial unions are considering a push to abolish or withdraw from the WTO, while the program of the AFL-CIO and ICFTU is to press for reforms within it.

Many in the crowd knew first-hand the impacts of WTO-style free trade. Joe Kear, a Portland Freightliner assembly worker, attended the rally with other members of Machinists Local 1005. "Our company lobbied heavily for NAFTA and they've already shipped a lot of production to Mexico City and Monterrey," he said.

Joel Shapiro, a member of the Portland Association of Teachers, brought seven students with him to the rally. "I think the WTO is trying to set up a system that puts corporate profit over everything else, including the environment and worker rights. I'd like to see a system that puts those things first."

Two hours into the rally, large numbers began voting with their feet that the time to march had come.

When Hoffa took the stage, he was speaking to a diminished crowd. By the time the final speaker, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, took the stage, the stadium was largely empty. Most of the unionists, whether solo or in large groups, were already assembling outside the arena.

As the march stretched out along Fourth Avenue, it become clear just how large the crowd was. Half an hour after the march began, it came to a halt as it collided with thousands of protesters who were already near the WTO meeting site, including Tibetans, Vietnamese and other activists trained in non-violent civil disobedience.

From that point on, labor's march was a battle between order and chaos as Machinist marshals struggled to clear streets so that organized contingents of unionists could continue. Attempts to herd protesters onto the sidewalk using barriers of yellow tape failed as groups of people ducked underneath and returned.

In the chaos, the march split into at least three currents.

The march route was changed several times and cut short, and finally the unionists were able to proceed and return to Seattle Center. Despite the confusion, the larger groups of unionists managed to stay together.

Neither police nor officials within the WTO seemed to be prepared for the size or intensity of the protests.

As Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile Workers Federation, put it: "When you have a dog and you come home at night and kick it, it shrinks into a corner. But one night, you'll come home and kick it and it will sink its teeth into your leg. People are fighting back. There's a new mood today."

An On-The-Spot Alliance in the Streets

As the march stalled and restarted, many unionists mingled with the crowd downtown. Protesters cheered when the unionists arrived; some of them appealed to the labor people to halt the march and stay downtown with the other protesters; some of the labor marchers agreed with this and wanted to stay.

In fact, the massive labor presence served to shelter the thousands of students and others taking part in civil disobedience, as well as the handful engaged in acts of property destruction.

Police had used tear gas on the protesters that morning, but once thousands of union members and their families were downtown, the police decided it would be politically disastrous to crack down.

Indeed, it was only after the labor march had left the area that the crackdown began. By this time, protesters in some areas had started fires in Dumpsters pulled out into the street. Police responded with extensive use of pepper mace, tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets to clear the streets. The National Guard was called, and a curfew was declared starting at 7 p.m. for the entire downtown Seattle area.

From that point on through the rest of the week, the issue of police conduct came to take on ever-greater importance.

Untold numbers of non-protesters were gassed along with the protesters: Business people, shoppers, onlookers, passersby, residents, journalists, even politicians and delegates.

Tuesday night, Seattle Union Now organizer Suzanne Wall, formerly of Oregon Public Employees Union, was tear-gassed walking out of a grocery store in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Wednesday, U.S. Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon was tear-gassed as he tried to make his way to an official WTO meeting at the Sheraton Hotel.

Starting at 7:30 the next morning, Wednesday, Dec. 1, the police began making mass arrests of protesters, sweeping the streets with indiscriminate arrests of onlookers, shoppers, pedestrians and protesters alike.

Jailed For The Crime of Peaceable Assembly

Nancy Haque, staffer at Portland Jobs With Justice, was among the first of the more than 500 people arrested in the crackdown. Arrested in Denny Park as she gathered with other protesters, Haque spent five days in jail for the charge of "failure to disperse."

"It felt like we didn't have any First Amendment rights," Haque said. "I wasn't arrested for anything I did. I was arrested for what happened Tuesday. It was an embarrassed police force that wanted to crack down on protesters and punish us."

And punish they did, says Haque. In her account of the circumstances of her arrest and detention, as with the testimony of dozens of others who were held, Haque described conditions of physical brutality and petty cruelty at the hands of her captors. She and others were kept cuffed for many hours and went 24 hours without food. She saw people very roughly handled, beaten on the head, pulled violently by the hair, cuffed so tightly that they bled, maced in jail for refusing to cooperate. She also described an extraordinary solidarity among the jailed protesters, who chanted, sang, conducted sit-ins, held impromptu workshops, and made democratic collective decisions while imprisoned.

Labor Protests Continue

Most unionists went home or stayed home after the big Nov. 30 march and rally, but several hundred Steelworkers had planned to remain and take part in further actions over the next few days.

While other groups of activists faced a determined police crackdown on any form of protest, the Steelworkers were able to proceed without interference in holding protests long planned for; many environmentalists joined the Steelworkers, both in solidarity and unity and in the knowledge that taking part in any other demonstrations would mean swift arrest.

On Wednesday, Dec. 1, at 2:30 p.m., about 500 Steelworkers and environmentalists and other allies gathered at the First and Clay offices of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. From there they marched to Seattle's Pier 63 and conducted a spirited rally that culminated in the dumping of "steel" girders into the bay.

Meant to evoke the Boston Tea Party, the act was a symbolic protest against steel dumping by Japan, Brazil, Russia and Korea, which has caused the loss of 100,000 jobs in the American steel industry. Also dumped were a string of Nike shoes. The items were to be retrieved later by divers, so as not to pollute the bay.

Several politicians spoke, as did steelworkers from France and Mexico.

Burt Dixon, a steelworker from a hard-hit steel plant in Sparrows Point, Md., observed that the mobilization of the past few days had forced an alternative agenda into the WTO debate. "When opportunity knocks, it's a fool that complains about the noise," Dixon said. "Seattle is going to unify all America," he predicted.

Voicing the anger of many unionists who felt that a few vandals had tarnished the message of tens of thousands of unionists, AFL-CIO head Sweeney had earlier Wednesday condemned the actions of those protesters who had committed property destruction.

At the dockside, rally, Steelworkers President Becker took a different tack, pinning the real "violence" on the police: "I watched young kids who weren't doing anything but peacefully protesting. I watched them jackbooted, clubbed, surrounded, and pushed."

Two and a half hours later, the Steelworkers gathered again, this time at the United Methodist Church on Fifth and Columbia for a "celebration of resistance to the WTO" hosted by the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. After a free dinner, celebrants heard rousing speeches by Steelworker leader David Foster, populist commentator Jim Hightower, and others, as well as theater and music.

Hightower, who had been broadcasting his nationally-syndicated talk radio show from the basement of the church, drew repeated hoots of laughter and approval from the audience of several hundred with his quips.

Labor Reacts To The Crackdown

By Thursday morning, word had spread worldwide of the severe police crackdown of the previous day. Labor, one of the key participants in the week's protests, had to formulate a response. On Wednesday, labor had reacted to the "bad apples" among the protesters. By Thursday, with 500 people in jail, labor's reaction was to the conduct of the police.

As they mingled over the course of the week, observed Suzanne Wall, unionists and the mostly-student direct action forces had established a growing affinity.

"There was this demand from the rank and file that labor needed to have a presence in their marches. People had started to identify with the students and wanted to do something to protect them. Union people were saying 'Those kids are a lot braver than we are, and we need to be down there to support them.'"

The King County Labor Council spent much of Thursday debating the appropriate response. They decided to call a demonstration for the following day.

Led by the Teamsters, 2,000 protesters marched through downtown Seattle and rallied at the King County Labor Temple. Union marshals - there to ensure the march would be peaceful - kept people on the streets and off the sidewalk with ropes.

Meanwhile, with hundreds of people still in jail, an ongoing protest was taking place outside the King County Jail, and individual unionists took it upon themselves to show support. A constant stream of union members wearing their union jackets brought food, coffee, bullhorns and batteries to the protesters keeping vigil.

The Long-Term Impact of the Protests

Friday evening, protesters reacted with jubilation to the announcement that the WTO meeting had ended without any new agreement. The official word on the failure of the talks was that the protests were not a factor. But protest organizers say they have reason to believe otherwise.

"The presence of the protesters made it more difficult than ever to paper over a bad deal," said Thea Lee, assistant director of public policy for the AFL-CIO, one of the foremost labor experts on the WTO. "This was a whole different level of public attention, and this [WTO] system is not well-equipped to deal with scrutiny."

The trade ministers, aware that constituents back home were watching, felt constrained in their readiness to sign agreements that would wound the interests of workers, farmers, consumers and others.

Days of protests in Seattle had also had an effect on public opinion. Polls taken several days into the WTO meeting showed between 80 and 93 percent of Americans would support adding workers' rights and environmental protections to the WTO.

Around the world, hundreds of millions of people who'd never heard of the WTO got their first glimpse of it in the television and newspaper coverage of the massive protests.

"The WTO has become a household word," said Lee. "That can only be a good thing to lift the veil of secrecy."

Though the media barrage may have been (predictably) short-lived, protest organizers say there's every indication that the Seattle demonstrations will prove to have long-term impacts.

In the days and weeks after the demonstrations began, a tremendous ripple effect spread the psychological impact far beyond the protest's participants. At parties, weddings, in e-mail exchanges and in college classes, the WTO protests were the hot topic of conversation as those who were there talked about it with those who'd witnessed it on TV.

"People came out of Seattle really energized and inspired to work on the issues that were raised - workers' rights, environmental standards, and democratic participation," said Lee.

Not only did the protests make activists out of the previously uninvolved, but many of those who were already active said they felt their commitment strengthened by the experience.

The civic ferment has continued in Seattle, prompting the resignation of Police Chief Norm Stamper. In Portland, after three days of demonstrations in solidarity with the Seattle protesters, 120 people showed up at a Dec. 8 meeting at the Service Employees Union Hall in southeast Portland for a discussion on how to keep the momentum going on issues of globalization.

As organizers foresaw, Seattle would be the host to the last great protest of the millennium. If they succeed in building momentum for a more humane, environmentally-sustainable kind of globalization, it may well end up being remembered as the first great protest of the new millennium. "This week is not a culmination," observed Hightower. "It's a harbinger of things to come."

December 17, 1999 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.