Looking back on the Battle in Seattle

University of Washington students rally prior to the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. (Photo by Mike Barkin)

By Don McIntosh

On, Nov. 30, 1999, 50,000 union members, residents and activists from a huge variety of causes came together in downtown Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). At the invitation of then-president Bill Clinton, 700 trade officials from 134 countries were in Seattle to talk about expanding the WTO, and hundreds of journalists from around the world had come to report on it.

Until then, few people in the world had heard of the WTO, established five years earlier to police a new set of global trade agreements. Earlier international trade agreements dealt with trade in goods, and focused on reducing tariffs as barriers to trade. The 1994 agreement that created the WTO went well beyond that, opening up trade in services, enforcing commitments to respect “intellectual property” (state-sanctioned monopolies like patents and trademarks), and giving unelected trade dispute judges the authority to strike down “non-tariff barriers to trade” — such as public health and environmental regulations. By 1999, WTO trade tribunals had ruled repeatedly for corporations and against regulations intended to protect dolphins and sea turtles, food safety and many others.

This is what democracy looks like

What happened in Seattle the week of Nov. 28-Dec. 3 was the reaction to all that. It was the product of nine months of diligent organizing and coalition building. Labor and environmental groups committed significant resources.

Labor’s main contribution was massive turnout on Nov. 30, Day One of the four-day WTO summit. Roughly 25,000 union members and allies filled Memorial Stadium in Seattle Center and — joined by another 10,000 students, environmentalists and community members — took part in a mile-long march to the Washington Convention Center, where they collided with another 15,000 people who were already occupying the streets.

For labor, it was a logistical feat that has never been repeated since. From San Francisco to British Columbia, as many as 30 national AFL-CIO staff worked with allies in groups like Jobs with Justice to get commitments for local union participation and coordinate the logistics of getting people to the event. All told 185 buses, nine charter planes, two trains and countless cars brought union members to the rally.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions arranged its annual meeting to take place in Seattle just beforehand so that hundreds of trade unionists from around the world could be there. So did the United Steelworkers (USW) with its Rapid Response conference, which drew over 500 local union officers. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down ports all up and down the West Coast so members could take part. As many as 1,000 members of 19 Teamsters Washington locals from mobilized. Portland Machinists Local 1005 paid lost wages so members could afford to take the day off work. Seattle Machinists Local 751 volunteered several hundred members as marshals for the march.

And that was just the union side of the coalition.

Today, Mike Dolan works as the Teamsters union’s top trade policy lobbyist in Washington, DC. But in 1999, he was the field director for Global Trade Watch, a division of the non-profit group Public Citizen. More than anyone else, Dolan was the Paul Revere of the Seattle WTO protests. Starting in March when Seattle was announced as the meeting site, Dolan invited local, national and international labor, environmental and non-profit leaders to form an ad hoc coalition. The coalition soon opened an office in downtown Seattle and undertook a region-wide mobilization against corporate globalization. Staff and volunteers working with Dolan spent the next six months visiting college campuses, churches, union halls and neighborhood groups with a call to join the WTO protest.

To prepare for mass non-violent civil disobedience at the WTO summit, a group called the Ruckus Society trained hundreds of people in banner-hanging and lock-down techniques in three-day “Globalize This” training camps held at Pragtri Farm outside Arlington, Washington. (Photo courtesy Jeremy Simer)

Dolan’s vision was for a week of massive protest demonstrations led by labor and non-profit groups — to send the message that WTO was a threat to workers rights, the environment, and democracy worldwide. Others got busy with plans for non-violent civil disobedience, and formed the Direct Action Network, a West Coast network of local grassroots organizations opposed to corporate globalization. To train hundreds of protesters in Greenpeace- and EarthFirst- style blockade tactics, the newly formed Ruckus Society held three-day “Globalize This” training camps at a farm north of Everett, Washington.

As the WTO meeting neared, there were tensions between those who wanted to protest the WTO and those who wanted to shut it down by preventing WTO delegates from getting to their meeting. Labor officials wanted nothing to do with the street blockades.

The week of activity began Friday Nov. 26 with teach-in that packed Seattle’s 2,500-seat Benaroya Concert Hall for two days. On Sunday, Nov. 28, the Washington Council of Churches filled St. James Cathedral with a “Jubilee 2000” prayer service calling for third world debt relief. On Monday, hundreds of Steelworkers, Teamsters and others marched with about 250 environmentalists dressed in cardboard turtle costumes. That night, thousands of people turned out in pouring rain to form a human chain surrounding a corporate-sponsored reception for WTO delegates, while several miles away filmmaker Michael Moore and singer Michael Franti entertained thousands of others at a Key Arena “people’s gala” sponsored by USW, Teamsters, Rainforest Action Network and others.

And all that was trivial compared with what was to happen the following day.

MASSIVE LABOR TURNOUT. All over the West, labor organizations sent members. Colorado’s AFL-CIO booked 100 plane tickets. Montana’s AFL-CIO organized a car caravan. The Oregon AFL-CIO mobilized an estimated 1,600 union members, including 15 busloads and a specially chartered 350-seat Amtrak train. In Washington, every central labor council sent at least three busloads, and Tacoma sent over 30. Forty-two busloads crossed the border from British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Mike Barkin)

Whose streets? Our streets!

Jeremy Simer today works as a strategic researcher for SEIU Local 49 in Portland. In 1999, he was a recent graduate of University of Washington. In mid-summer, he began working full-time for Dolan’s group doing neighborhood-level organizing. But after having worked for months to get people to come to the big labor rally and march, Simer himself decided to go to where the civil disobedience would occur.

The day activists had dubbed a “festival of resistance” began at 7 a.m. with not one but two giant puppet parades. As the parades wound through downtown, organized “affinity groups” peeled off and made their way to agreed-upon intersection where they linked arms, sat down, and in some cases locked themselves together. The tactic took police by surprise.

But it wasn’t long before police moved in to try to clear streets. Twenty years later, Simer still remembers seeing protesters prodded by police batons, bruised by rubber bullets, hit in the face by gas canisters, and sprayed at close range with chemical agents. He also remembers the courage, discipline, and determination of the protesters as they stayed put and held on to intersections, or when dislodged, regrouped to try again.

Over the next six hours, police managed to clear some intersections, but with most delegates unable to get through, to worldwide shock, the WTO canceled its opening ceremony.

Meanwhile, with streets occupied and tear gas in the air, police appealed to labor leaders to delay their march until the streets could be cleared. But at a certain point, labor leaders could no longer control the thousands of union members. Two hours and dozens of speakers into the rally, large numbers began leaving the stadium to assemble outside for the march. By the time then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney took the stage, the stadium was largely empty.

About 250 environmentalists marched in cardboard turtle costumes. (Photo by Erv Schleufer)

The plan had been for labor marchers to set out, led by Harley-riding Machinists, be met by feeder marches from University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College, and proceed to the Convention Center where the WTO meeting was to be held. But outside the stadium, careful plans melted into organized chaos as contingents of Tibetan monks, topless women protesters, French farmers, church groups and students crammed in next to groups of union members in matching colored ponchos.

And as the slow-moving march neared the Convention Center, the streets they expected to pass through there were still occupied, full of demonstrators linking arms and blocking intersections. Concerned that the labor march would disintegrate or be exposed to tear gas, the decision was made to turn the march several blocks shy of the planned route. Brian McWilliams, then president of the ILWU, remembers it as a pivotal moment.

“At the front there was a huge mass of people determined to intervene with what was going on outside the Convention Center,” McWilliams recalls. “I think it was a huge mistake not to go forward, because we were all of singular mind about interfering with the blueprint the WTO had for workers and business and the world, and we needed to take it straight to the convention center.”

As Machinists in orange parade marshal hats struggled mightily to turn the march around, individual labor union members made their own decision. Others stood in the street and caucused with fellow members. Maybe a third of the marchers kept going, and were greeted with cheers like reinforcing cavalry when they arrived at occupied intersections.

Union steelworker Erv Schleufer is one of those who kept going. Now retired, in 1999 he was a participant in a bitter strike-lockout at the Kaiser aluminum smelter in Spokane and had traveled the West as a union “road warrior” speaking about their struggle.

“We had spent all those months and tens of thousands of miles preparing for this,” Schleufer says. “I started thinking about my history teacher in high school.… I realized this was becoming a moment in history.”

While Schleufer and thousands of other labor marchers lingered with the occupiers for an hour or two, police held back from further attempts to clear the streets. As unionists left, the police moved back in forcefully. As night fell, Seattle mayor Paul Schell declared a curfew and police pushed the remaining protesters out of downtown into the Capital Hill neighborhood.

THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING When 50,000 protesters filled Seattle streets, journalists from all over the world were there to document it. The coverage inspired solidarity protests in cities around the world, and woke the global public up to undemocratic aspects of the World Trade Organization. (Photo by Mike Barkin)

Police crackdown

Police arrest a protester at Westlake Park in Seattle, Washington, USA in 1999 after the World Trade Organization meeting was disrupted. (Photo by Mike Barkin)

Further protests had been planned throughout the WTO summit. But now the mayor declared a huge area of downtown Seattle a “protest free zone,” in violation of the U.S. Constitution. On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 1, National Guard members stood watch near the Convention Center. Squads of police in riot gear zoomed through the streets in armored personal carriers on the lookout for protesters. Groups of protesters who entered downtown were subject to mass arrests. Over 500 were arrested, put on buses, taken to Sand Point Naval Base, and later transferred to King County Jail, where they were held until the end of the WTO summit. Unable to assemble near the Convention Center, protesters and community members surrounded the jail demanding their release. Contingents of unionists brought food and supplies to the jailhouse vigil, which continued for days.

In the afternoon on Dec. 1, the USW led hundreds on a march to the Seattle waterfront, outside the protest-free zone. When the rally there ended, activists pleaded for unionists to enter downtown and defy the ban. Schleufer and others marched into downtown and soon felt the shock of police concussion grenades and the sting of tear gas. “We could see canisters flipping through the air, and people running from the gas. I lost about half my vision and had a hard time breathing,” he said.

On Dec. 3, the final day of the WTO meeting, the King County Labor Council was ready to defy the “protest-free” zone. With marshals holding ropes to mark the perimeter of the march, unionists and allies marched into downtown … and were left alone by police.

Meanwhile, local labor leaders had pushed for jailed protesters to be released. McWilliams, the ILWU president, threatened to shut down the port again if the mayor didn’t release them. The mayor relented.

The WTO talks collapse

Lori Wallach, then and now the leader of Global Trade Watch, spent much of that week inside the WTO meeting, lobbying foreign trade ministers as a credentialed observer. Wallach says leading up to the summit, there’d already been tensions among trade negotiators. The United States and some other developed countries were pressuring poor nations to agree to things like stricter pharmaceutical monopolies, and arrogantly dismissed the proposals of African and Latin American nations. What brought the situation inside to a boil was the existence of invitation-only “green rooms,” where delegates from the “important” nations met for long hours to hash out a final deal they expected the rest of the nations to approve.

“Because of that there were extended periods of time where there would be a whole set of delegates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, basically left in the halls watching the protests on big TVs hung in the halls,” Wallach said. “They’d come all this way and now they were being left out of the negotiations, watching these American protesters being beaten up and tear gassed.”

“The passion and commitment displayed in those protests was the last special ingredient to tip over the edge a process that was already seen as illegitimate and not in the interests of a lot of the member countries.”

On the final day of the summit, the WTO announced that the meeting had failed: Delegates were unable to agree on the terms of a new global deal.

The aftermath

Exhilarated by the Battle in Seattle, anti-corporate-globalization activists tried to recreate that success at other international summits, but with less success. The WTO held its next meeting in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, a Gulf State monarchy where visa restrictions prevented a recurrence of protest. After the 9/11 attacks, the anti-WTO activist movement subsided. But the political stigma of the WTO persisted.

“The WTO never recovered from its crisis of legitimacy,” Wallach says. Negotiations continued for 15 years, but never resulted in a new agreement.

Now, even the WTO’s trade dispute process is grinding to a halt. When two member nations can’t resolve a trade dispute, it’s supposed to be decided by a three-judge panel selected from a seven-member WTO court of appeals. But as their terms expire, the Trump administration has been unilaterally blocking the appointment of new judges. The body is down to just three members, the minimum needed to hear a case. On Dec. 9, the terms of two more judges will expire, at which point the WTO will be incapable of hearing appeals, and thus no have way to enforce its rules.

2 Comments on Looking back on the Battle in Seattle

  1. i could have never predicted how this event was to come out. back in the 70s my history teacher talked of the history of labor and how many sacrificed and some died in those fights. i stood there among tens of thousands from all over the world and countless hundreds of heavily armed riot police and realized this was going to become part of the history of seattle. back in 1971 myself and 3 friends were in the biggest explosion in the history of port angeles and that same history teacher was a radio taslk show host and he did a live show all nite from the explosion site. a couple years ago i called that radio station and he was still working there and even tho he didnt remember me he did remember the explosion and i told him of thinking of him during the 1999 wto protests. he seemed proud of that. thank you don for including that thought in this article and i did call the radio station today and they are going to be sandy sees your article. and thank you to all those that supported us during our 98-2000 labor dispute. so many things we just could have not done without you. erv

  2. It’s Hard to Beat Seattle

    It’s hard to beat Seattle
    when you remember what we did
    The WTO came to party
    we were ready for their bid.

    The kids got out early
    before the cops reported in.
    They took the streets with bodies locked
    they knew that they could win.

    I mean, this was the town that struck the state,
    as Anna Louise did say,
    when she called for worker self management
    as the means to rule the day.

    When those kids sat in the labor temple
    planning their tactics for this feat.
    They learned the history of the strike
    and designed their enemy’s defeat.

    For four days they ruled the streets
    Just like the General Strike of old
    and brought the WTO to its knees
    for all the world to behold.

    You might not think much happened here
    but the WTO never agreed again.
    Their global scheme began to die,
    their free trade at an end.

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