Workers, Activists Unite Despite Mainstream Union Capitulation

It\’s the biggest global victory for workers in decades, thirty thousand unionists and tens of thousands of students, environmentalists, and human rights activists stopped the WTO in its tracks and sent its 133 trade ministers home in utter defeat. The Battle of Seattle has made it almost impossible for the WTO to take major new steps in the next few years to further drive down wages, working conditions, and environmental standards throughout the world. Before the week of protests, most workers in the US and abroad had never even heard of the WTO, but now the capitalist governments that run it and their thieving corporate masters can no longer work quietly in the dark to undermine workers and farmers everywhere. Seattle may well be the first step for working people, a turning of the tide.

This was the first major political protest by workers in decades. Major unions such as the steelworkers and the ILWU mobilized thousands of their members. Over 3,000 workers from Canada and delegations from many countries around the world joined together to make their voices heard. West Coast ILWU longshoremen shut down the coast for 8 hours, and Seattle taxi drivers went on strike November 30.

The protest was the most important linking up of the environmental movement and human rights movement with labor since the 1960s civil rights movement. It was the power of this alliance that brought the WTO down, uniting labor\’s numbers and organization with the daring civil disobedience and broad-based support of students, environmentalists, and other activists. It is this newly forged alliance that will give workers the strength they need in every city in the country.

Most of the coalition that came to protest the WTO had a clear demand-get rid of it. But John Sweeney and the other top labor leaders had other ideas. They wanted a \”partnership,\” a seat at the table for union officials, in keeping with the support for Clinton and Gore these unions have.

Pursuing this strategy of not breaking with Clinton and Gore, but being pushed by tens of thousands of rank-and-filers to protest the WTO, Sweeney and company planned a tame protest, keeping tens of thousands of labor marchers away from the WTO meeting-place and the militant protest of most activists. But the rank and filers had other ideas.

While police were using gas on the demonstrators, unionists left their stadium and headed downtown. The march marshals sought to prevent the unionists from reaching the protesters. They physically blocked two intersections and sought to divert the marchers towards another hotel, where they said a sit-in would take place. They were primarily interested in preventing the linking up of the thousands of youth with the unionists in battle against the police and the WTO.

Many workers marched right past the marshals. The ILWU and other unionists went downtown to join the youth who were protesting. In one instance, police were chasing some youth and saw a delegation of longshoremen. The police quickly retreated. The steelworkers had brought hundreds of striking workers from Oregon Steel and Kaiser Aluminum to Seattle for the whole week, and they got a view of American justice that will never go away.

This was just the start of a tumultuous 4 day police riot. The police also attacked a steelworkers march a few days later with teargas.

Only the alliance of rank and file workers with students, environmentalists, and other activists made this victory possible. As many workers themselves noted, without the civil disobedience that tied the conference in knots, a polite labor rally would have just resulted in a few editorials. And without the presence and active participation of thousands of trade unionists in the militant demonstration in the center of Seattle, the police would have used mass arrests from the start to sweep \”a few crazies\” from the convention center. But with this alliance, the protesters could not be dismissed or massively repressed. We won this round. The WTO and the capitalists lost.

For the working class, this was an important and historical political action against multinationals and the US government. John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO as well as Hoffa, Jr. of the Teamsters and most of the leadership will seek to keep this mobilization contained. The political danger for them is that once millions of workers become engaged in this fight, they will undoubtedly begin to question how the trade unions can contribute to support the very politicians that support global robber-barons.