Beyond the wildest hopes of the street warriors, five days in Seattle have brought us one victory after another. The protesters initially shunned and denounced by the respectable “inside strategists”, scorned by the press, gassed and bloodied by the cops and national guard: shut down the opening ceremony; prevented Clinton from addressing the WTO delegates at Wednesday night gala; turned the corporate press from prim denunciations of “mindless anarchy” to bitter criticisms of police brutality; forced the WTO to cancel its closing ceremonies and to adjurn in disorder and confusion, without an agenda for the next round.
In the annals of popular protest in America, these have been shining hours, achieved entirely outside the conventional arena of orderly protest and white paper activism and the timid bleats of the professional leadership of big labor and environmentalists. This truly was an insurgency from below in which all those who strove to moderate and deflect the turbulent flood of popular outrage managed to humiliate themselves. The contradiction between the demur agenda of the genteel element and the robust, tear it all down approach of the street legions was already apparent by Tuesday.
All day long, Tuesday, November 30, the street warriors in downtown Seattle vindicated their pledge to shut down the first day of the WTO talks, in itself a rousing victory. Locked-down Earth-First!ers, Ruckus Society agitators, anarchists and other courageous troublemakers sustained baton charges, tear gas and rubber bullets, hopefully awaiting reinforcement from the big labor rally taking place around the space needle, some fifteen or twenty blocks from downtown. As the morning ticked away and the cops got rougher, the street warriors kept asking, “Where are the labor marchers?”, expecting that at any moment thousands of longshoremen and teamsters would reinforce them in the desperate fray.
But the absent legions of labor never showed. Suppose they had. Suppose there had been 30,000 to 40,000 protesters around the convention center, vowing to keep it shut all week. Would the cops have charged such a force? Downtown could have been held all night, and perhaps President Bill would have been forced to make his welcoming address from SeaTac or from the sanctuary of his ardent campaign funder, the Boeing Company. That would have been a humiliation for imperial power of historic proportions, like the famous greeting the Wobblies organized to greet president Woodrow Wilson after the breaking of the Seattle general strike in l9l9 when workers and their families lined the streets, block after block, standing in furious silence as the President’s motorcade passed by. Wilson had his stroke not long thereafter.
This might-have been is not posed out of churlishness, but to encourage a sense of realism about what is possible in the struggle against the trading arrangements now operative in the WTO.
Take organized labor, as embodied in the high command of the AFL-CIO. As these people truly committed to the destruction of the WTO? Of course they aren’t. It was back in February of this year that the message came down from AFL-CIO HQ that rallying in Seattle was fine, but the plan was not to shut down the WTO. Labor’s plan was to work from the inside. As far as any street action was concerned, the deals were cut long ago. Labor might huff and labor might puff, but when it comes to the WTO what labor wants, in James Hoffa’s phrase, is a seat at the table.
And what does this seat at the table turn out to be? At Seattle those labor chieftains were willing to settle for a truly threadbare bit of window dressing, in the shape of a working group which will, in the next round of WTO talks, be sensitive to labor’s concerns. Here’s the chronology. The present trade round will ponder the working group’s mission and composition and make recommendations for the next round of trade talks. Then, when the next round gets under way, the working group will perhaps take form. Guess what? It’s at least 20l4AD before the working group is up and running.
Sweeney’s AFL-CIO isn’t against the WTO. Sweeney himself is physically fading into the woodwork. One well informed-friend of CounterPunch used the brutal comparison (in health terms) of Boris Yeltsin. Gerry Shea, Sweeney’s head of government affairs and the man essentially running the show at l6th St in Washington, has no ideological posture on the issue, and listens closely to his old friend David Smith, who heads the AFL-CIO’s public policy department and who is a zealous free trader, cerebellum thickly stuffed with neo-liberal hokum.
There are unions — the autoworkers, steelworkers, teamsters, machinists, UNITE — which have rank and file members passionately concerned about “free trade” when, as a in the case of teamsters, it means Mexican truck drivers coming over the border at $2 an hour. But how many of these unions are truly ready to break ranks and holler Death to the WTO? For that matter, how many of them are prepared to think in world terms, as the capitalists do? Take the steel workers, the only labor group which, in the form of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, took up position in downtown that Tuesday morning (and later fought with the cops and endured tear gas themselves). But on that same day, November 30, the Moscow Tribune ran a story reporting that the Clinton administration has effectively stopped all cold-rolled steel imports from Russia by imposing penalty duties of l78 per cent. Going into winter those Russian working families at Severstal, Novolipetsk and Magnitogorsk are facing tougher times than ever. The Moscow Tribune’s report, John Helmer, wasn’t in doubt why: “Gore must try to preserve steel company and steel worker support.”
As the preceding item suggests, there’s no such thing as “free trade”. The present argument is not about trade, for which (except for maybe a few bioregionialists in Ecotopia) all are in favor in some measure. The argument is about how trade is to be controlled, how wealth is to be made and distributed. The function of the WTO is to express in trade rules the present balance of economic power on the world held by the big corporations, which see the present WTO round as an opportunity to lock in their gains, to enlist its formal backing in their ceaseless quest for cheap labor and places to dump their poisons.
So ours is a worldwide guerilla war, of publicity, harassment, obstructionism. It’s nothing simple, like the “Stop the War” slogan of the l960s. Capitalism could stop that war and move on. American capitalism can’t stop trade and survive on any terms it cares for.
We truly don’t want a seat at the table to “reform” trade rules, because if we get one, then sooner or later we’ll be standing alongside Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin proclaiming that Nike, which pays its workers less than 20 cents an hour, has made “an astounding transformation”, and in Seattle actually defending Nike’s premises from well-merited attack by the street warriors. Capitalism only plays by the rules if it wrote those rules in the first place. The day the WTO stipulates the phase-in of a world minimum wage of $3 an hour is the day the corporations destroy it and move on. Anyone remember those heady days in the l970s of the New World Economic Order when third world countries were going to get a fair shake for their commodities? We were at a far more favorable juncture back then, but it wasn’t long before the debt crisis had struck, the NWEO was dead and the mildly progressive UN Commission on Trade and Development forever sidelined. Publicity, harassment, obstructionism…Think always in terms of international solidarity. Find targets of opportunity. South Africa forces domestic licensing at cheaper rates of AIDS drugs. Solidarity. The Europeans don’t want bio-engineered crops. Fight on that front. Challenge the system at the level of its pretensions. Make demands in favor of real free trade. Get rid of copyright and patent restrictions and fees imposed on developing nations. Take Mexico. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reckons that Mexico paid the industrial nations last year $4.2 billion in direct royalties, fees and indirect costs. And okay, let’s have real free trade in professional services, with standardization in courses and tests so that kids from Mexico and elsewhere can compete with our lawyers, accountants and doctors.
A guerilla war, without illusions or respectable ambitions. Justice in world trade is by definition a revolutionary and utopian aim.