But don\’t thank mainstream environmentalists or unions
Beyond the wildest hopes of the street warriors, five days in Seattle brought us one victory after another. The protesters, initially shunned and denounced by the respectable \”inside strategists,\” scorned by the press, and gassed and bloodied by the cops and national guard; shut down the opening ceremony; prevented Clinton from addressing the WTO delegates at the 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 adjourn in disorder and confusion, without an agenda for the next round.
In the annals of popular protest in America, these were 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 demure 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 EarthFirst!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 thousand 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 1919 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. Are 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 inside. As far as any street action was concerned, the deals were cut long ago. Labor might huff and puff, but when it comes to the WTO, what labor wanted, in James Hoffa\’s phrase, was a seat at the table.
And what would this seat at the table turn out to have been? 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 would, in the next round of WTO talks, be sensitive to labor\’s concerns. Here\’s the chronology. The present trade round would have pondered the working group\’s mission and composition and made recommendations for the next round of trade talks. Then, when the next round got under way, the working group would perhaps take form. Guess what? It\’s at least 2014 AD before the working group is up and running.
There are unions-the autoworkers, steelworkers, teamsters, machinists, UNITE-which have rank and file members passionately concerned about \”free trade\” when, as 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 steelworkers, the only labor group which, in the form of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, took up positions in downtown that Tuesday morning (and later fought with the cops and endured teargas 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 178 per cent. Going into winter those Russian working families at Severstal, Novolipetsk, and Magnitogorsk are facing tougher times than ever. The Moscow Tribune\’s reporter, 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 bioregionalists 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 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 that \”Stop the War\” slogan of the 1960s. 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 workers less than 20 cents an hour, has made an \”astounding transformation,\” and in Seattle actually defending Nike\’s premises from well-merited attacks by 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. Publicity, harassment, obstructionism… Think always in terms of international solidarity. Find targets of opportunity. South Africa forces domestic licinsing at cheaper rates for AIDS drugs. Solidarity. The Europeans don\’t want bioengineered crops. Fight on that front. Challenge the system at the level of its pretentions. Make demands in favor of real free trade. Get rid of copyright and patent restrictions and fees imposed on developing nations.
A guerilla war, without illusions or respectable ambitions. Justice in world trade is by definition a revolutionary and utopian aim.
This article was lifted from the Anderson Valley Advertiser without permission. They\’re cool; drop them a line: 12451 Anderson Valley Way, Boonville, CA 95415