Ten Years Ago Today: Seattle Protests Put Globalization on Center Stage
Don McIntosh, associate editor of the Northwest Labor Press, writes about the 10th anniversary of the massive march against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) meeting in Seattle and the continuing struggle to rebalance a global economy that now benefits only the wealthy. The article is excerpted from the Northwest Labor Press. To read the entire article, click here.
Ten years ago on Nov. 30, 50,000 people protested a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The protests succeeded in delaying the summit’s opening day and contributed to the collapse of plans for a new round of trade negotiations. It was one of those rare moments in history when ordinary people rise up and can no longer be ignored.
Before the Seattle protests, few people had ever heard of the WTO, a secretive organization that promotes and enforces multinational trade agreements. But the public was increasingly aware that growth in worldwide trade was not benefiting workers or the environment.
WTO didn’t create the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But the WTO served to “grease the skids,” by lowering tariff and “non-tariff” barriers to trade.
Not all interests are equal at the WTO, says Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:
The bias is toward the interests of multinational corporations. The labor movement’s view is that to the extent that we will continue to be in a global economy, we need to make sure the rules of that global economy are taking care of working people and the environment, not just corporate profits.
For months leading up to the meeting, [labor leaders and environmental and community activists] made extraordinary efforts to educate people about the WTO, and reached out to other groups to coordinate a week of protests.
The union movement focused on a rally and march on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999—Day One of the meeting. Seven staff organizers assigned by the national AFL-CIO worked for two months to prepare. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) resolved to shut down Washington ports for the day so members could take part. Other unions paid lost wages so members could get off work to attend. The Machinists committed to turn out 900 members to serve as parade marshals. United Steelworkers scheduled an annual conference to take place in Seattle just prior to the WTO meeting, reserving 500 hotel rooms.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions [now the International Trade Union Confederation] scheduled its annual meeting in Seattle as well, drawing unionists from more than 100 countries. Each local labor council in Washington organized between three and 10 busloads, and labor councils in Colorado, Montana and British Columbia organized bus and car caravans. The Oregon AFL-CIO chartered and filled a 350-seat Amtrak train, while other Oregon labor organizations accounted for 15 more buses.
On Nov. 30, some 20,000 people, mostly labor unionists, attended a union rally in Memorial Stadium, and then were joined by another 15,000 in “feeder marches” in a permitted march to downtown. But as marchers neared the convention center, they found the streets full of people. The procession ground to a crawl and split into at least three streams, some mingling with the protesters blocking intersections.
Steve Hughes, today a union rep at Oregon AFSCME Council 75, was then part of a group of The Evergreen State College students occupying an intersection near the convention center. He says:
The WTO was one of those moments where there was a crack in the facade and we got a taste of our power. It was a vision of how different groups could work together and how our causes are interrelated.
On Day Four of the summit, the WTO talks collapsed when delegates from less-developed countries walked out. The uprising punctured the perception of inevitability or omnipotence that free-traders had enjoyed.
After Seattle, free-traders adopted the rhetoric of protesters, saying it was important that labor and environmental concerns be considered. But labor and green groups were not fooled and continue to oppose new international trade agreements.