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WTO Shutdown: The Kids Are Alright

This is a period when on certain issues, massive, non-violent direct action is in order, as the demonstration in Seattle shows.

RESIST Banner 1999 (Photo: Dang Ngo: ZUMA Press)

RESIST Banner 1999 (Photo: Dang Ngo: ZUMA Press)

WTO Shutdown 20-Year Anniversary Series: The Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and Common Dreams have produced this series of ten people's history accounts and forward-looking lessons from organizers who were in the streets of Seattle in 1999—at the very end of last century. Articles in the series—including archival photos and videos—will be published over ten days to commemorate and reflect on the events that happened 20 years ago this month. Read all the articles in the series here.


Reprinted from Voices from the WTO

I went to Seattle with 15 members of the North Shore Labor Council from the area between Boston and New Hampshire in Massachusetts Eleven were from IUE Local 201 at the General Electric plant in Lynn and Ametek Aerospace in Wilmington (my union, of which I am president). Contrary to the musings of Robert Reich and others that the primary loss of jobs in the United States through NAFTA and "free trade" would be unskilled work, both GE and Ametek aircraft engine work are headed to Mexico, Russia, China, Brazil, and other countries. The engineering and planning work is going as well.

Company documents had been leaked to us showing that GE Aircraft Engines is not only in a two-year, all-out push to ship work overseas but also demands that all their vendors do the same. At a meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, earlier this year, GE told assembled vendors (over 70 companies) that they would move to Mexico or get cut off from all GE business. "This is not an informative meeting," they told the smaller companies. "We expect you to move, and to move soon."

In a presentation called "Why Mexico?" GE told Ametek and the others: average manufacturing worker makes $6 a day, unions are "friendly," and environmental regulations are not a problem. It was a cold-blooded plan to destroy our own livelihoods and prey off people at starvation wages.

Ametek has not been a bad place to work. We have 290 members there. We build everything from cable attachments to aircraft engines to thermocouples and other aerospace work The Wilmington, Massachusetts plant had won awards as "supplier of the year" from GE and the "Lux" award as the highest quality Ametek plant within the Ametek chain. In a union negotiation, we multi-skilled the workforce and brought in state training money to increase the skill level of the workforce.

We thought we were doing everything right, and so did Ametek. And now we were going to be thrown on the street. One GE worker in our group has been laid off 11 times.

So we were pissed. After 7 or 8 years working on trade issues in our local union, it was not hard to sign up 11 people for the trip. Some great trade unionists from other unions in the Council came along as well (SEIU, AFGE, AFSCME).  We paid our own way and looked to have some fun as well as do some serious protesting.

My impressions from a week in Seattle:

We Learned a Lot

With help from our International Union, we built a float, a barge representing GE CEO Jack Welch's infamous quote: "Ideally, you'd have every plant you own on a barge." Again with the help of the International Union, we did 15-20 interviews, especially with media in the Boston area about our issues. 

We talked with lots of students, farmers from Japan, people from India, professors from Boston College, steelworkers from  Ohio, environmentalists of various stripes, church activists, as well as anyone who happened to be seated next to us on a plane or in the airport, and the waitresses and cabbies that we met in Seattle.

A year's worth of political discussion was compressed into 6 days: the role of the different movements, the role of the folks from other countries, the question of violence and civil disobedience, etc. Anyone who missed Seattle missed a great chance to build up their core of leaders and activists in their union or other groups. Trade unionists in the US don't exist in a vacuum, and we see ourselves more clearly when we see ourselves in relationship to others.

The Kids are Alright—and Have Much to Teach Us.  

The labor movement basically piggy-backed on the courage of the young environmentalists and anti-sweatshop and church activists. Without the Direct Action, which disrupted the WTO, the labor march would have received a 2-minute clip on the nightly news, with something like, "A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately, the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of roadkill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer. ..."

Then again, without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes, people who aren't worried about basic issues like having to earn a living. I guess the ideal mix was summed up in the now-famous sign seen in the Tuesday march: "Teamsters and turtles, together at last."

The decision by the AFl-CIO not to plan direct action was a mistake. I am not talking about the decision to turn the AFL­ CIO march on November 30 away from where the Direct Action Network activists were getting tear-gassed- I am talking about not doing a planned participation in civil disobedience by the unions.

The literature and petition the AFL-CIO used for Seattle was mostly unreadable and unusable, with no edge. Despite some heroic efforts by union folks in Seattle and other places, the AFL-CIO campaign was reminiscent of the "old" AFL-CIO's campaign against NAFTA-remember "Not This NAFTA"? If we had run a campaign against the Congressional "Fast-track" vote with "Not this fast-track," we.would have lost that one, too. Did anyone really try to bring people to Seattle under the slogan, "We demand a working group?

This is a period when on certain issues, massive, non-violent direct action is in order, as the demonstration in Seattle shows. Every member who went on our trip reports that support for the demonstrations, even with the disruptions, is overwhelming. And not just from other workers in the shop, but family and others, regardless of what they do for a living. "We're being treated like conquering heroes," marveled one of our group.

Perhaps the AFL-CIO  was driven by policy advisors in Washington who didn't understand how angry people are about this issue. Perhaps they did not want to embarrass Gore. Perhaps · Sweeney had an agreement by Clinton to ask for enforceable labor standards. No doubt it was difficult to unite unions from other countries, particularly the Southern hemisphere, around demands other than for a '\working group'' to review the -effects of WTO policies on labor. Perhaps they thought that most people would be turned off by civil disobedience-or something else, I don't know. There were plenty of people in the labor movement pushing to join the Direct Action-we lost.

Clinton's commitment, prior to the demonstration, to support the "working group" proposal \.Vas not taken seriously by anyone outside of Washington DC. It was blown away as meaningless by Clinton's own trade negotiator Barshevsky as soon as Sweeney signed on to the administration's letter on US trade goals at the WTO. Clinton himself left the "working group" in the dust when he came to Seattle and proposed at the last minute that enforceable labor standards be included in talks for the next WTO round. With this record of duplicity (remember the NAFTA  side accords on labor rights?) this has to be seen as a sop to bail out Gore more than anything else-although of course it's good he said it and indicates strength on our part.

I did an interview on a "WTO Tradewatch" program by the National Radio Project and others, on the same show as Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland. He predicted that both Democratic candidates would start moving towards the labor movement on trade during the primaries and that the eventual candidate will pick a running mate that has a strong pro-labor and environment record on trade agreements. Sounds likely to me.

For our part, we have to just keep doing what got us here and not put our hopes on any of the presidential candidates.

In Seattle, we were bailed out by the kids. The Steelworkers­ hats off to them- and Longshoremen (ILWU) did a great job, with the Longshoremen shutting down all West Coast ports! The Teamsters made a major effort to mobilize for Seattle as well­ those were the unions that went all out, as far as I could tell. (Of course the local Seattle and Washington unions did as well.)

The Fair Trade Movement Is an Internationalist Movement

Even some of the mainstream commentaries noted this. I was proud that the AFL-CIO rally had speakers from Mexico, South Africa, the Caribbean, China, France, etc. A Ford maquiladora worker got a huge response at the AFL-CIO rally when she shouted, "Long Live the Zapatistas!" It reminded me of a day in January of 199.4, after our bitter defeat on the NAFTA vote, when a member of our local union's Legislative Committee came into the union hall, all pumped up. He had a newspaper story of the Chiapas rebellion which had just broken out: "Man, these guys really hate NAFTA!

There could be no mistake that this was not a Pat Buchanan crew. This makes building alliances easier, both within the US and across borders. We've come a long way from thinking that the answer - is just to "Buy American."

Whose "Violence"?

If you were not there, think for a moment about what you did not read about: the number of injured police, buildings being burned, etc. Virtually none of this happened. I only read about "firebombs" when I got back to my hometown newspaper. I never read or heard a \vord about that when I was in Seattle, and I was there through Thursday.

Some union folks were pissed off about the anarchists breaking windows downtown, feeling that it was getting all the media coverage and our message was getting lost. I heard nothing but respect for the direct action folks.

Fo r some reason, the role of the faith-based organizations was nearly blacked out in the press that I read. Church services and marchers of thousands got little ink. Groups like Preamble or Jubilee 2000 focus on canceling Third World debt, or workers' rights, The development of a powerful faith-based movement in support of workers' rights and a just international economy is a key story of the '90s and was very evident in Seattle

Denouncing the violence of the protesters, in my opinion, only plays into the media game of putting the blame on the demonstrators.

The endless gassing and firing of plastic projectiles and rubber bullets into crowds of non-violent demonstrators made no sense to me at all. Tear gas will make you move along temporarily, but it won't generally make you go home, especially if you have come to a demonstration with the intention of getting arrested in civil disobedience. Most of the financial losses reported by merchants were from lost business, and the main reason nobody wanted to go downtown was because the cops were gassing everywhere and hundreds of scary-looking automatons were blocking off the streets.

The cops also had a few innovations since the 60's, like shooting 2-inch chunks of wooden dowel at people. One of these broke a window a few inches above one of our group member's heads­ he snatched it up as a souvenir.

Perhaps most important, focusing on the alleged "violence and "rioting" of the protesters takes focus away from the corporations who are trashing continents, not a few plate-glass windows.

So What has Changed?

Usually, when something goes right, we suffer from euphoria and overestimate our gains. And the corporations always have more resources than we do in the effort to define what has happened, and they make up some of their losses. So there is a second "Battle of Seattle" that is now underway. The first was in Seattle. 'f he second is the battle for public opinion over what Seattle means, The first thing we need to do is address this second battle with every means at our disposal.

As has been pointed out in many other places, everyone is talking about the WTO. Add this to our victories on Fast-track in Congress (twice), and the collapse of the talks on a Multilateral Agreement on Investment  (MAI). We are driving the agenda.

l was optimistic about public support for the anti-WTO demonstrations, but even so, I was amazed at how broad it was. A Seattle cabbie, picking his way through the gas, told us, "Good. You  can't just lie down." A programmer for Fidelity, of all companies, who happened to be seated between two of us on a flight from Philadelphia to Boston, told us: "You were there? Great. They were protesting in Italy, too."  At a church community coalition dinner in which we are involved, it was a main point of discussion. Speakers used it as an example of how you can change things through action. The head of the local community health center bumped into a couple of us at lunch and told us, "Hey; congratulations on Seattle."

What's great is that for most of the demonstrators in Seattle, this was not a one-time thing. They are already organized, and have already been working on trade, labor and environmental issues for years, and return to their organizations energized for more. At least for a moment, and I am hopeful that it will last. The "There is No Alternative" crowd is back on their heels (to quote Margaret Thatcher).  And the "There Must Be An Alternative" crowd (our side) is on the offensive. The stereotypes of young folks as the "selfish generation" and of labor as neanderthals took direct hits in Seattle.

So now back to work. Catch up on your union grievances, catch up on your schoolwork, catch up on your sleep. Then take advantage of the presidential elections, the debate over Most Favored Nation status for China, and whatever else comes along to broaden the coalition and deepen our roots.

Jeff Crosby

Jeff Crosby

Jeff Crosby is president of the North Shore Labor Council in Lynn, Massachusetts. He worked for General Electric for 33 years and served eight terms as president of IUE-CWA Local 201, including during the WTO in '99. Jeff is a vice-president and member of the state Executive Board of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO as well as the Executive Director of the New Lynn Coalition. He currently teaches Labor Studies at UMass Boston in the Labor Resource Center program, and the Harvard Trade Union Program. Jeff lives in Lynn, Massachusetts with his wife, Marjie, an Occupational Therapist just retired from the Boston public schools, and an activist in the Boston Teachers’ Union (AFT). 

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