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A daily report from the World Trade Organization summit, Seattle

by LBO editor Doug Henwood

Tuesday, November 30

Back in the late 1980s, the World Bank and IMF held one of their annual meetings in Germany (two out of every three years they're held in Washington, but in the third the conventioneers visit the hinterlands). The bankers were met by spirited riots. The next year in Washington, about 10 people held a demo in the back of the Washington Sheraton, annual meeting HQ, and were promptly arrested with no press attention aside from LBO, which means no press attention. I was always embarrassed by the inability of Americans to kick up a good fuss.

That fuss gap was closed today. Early in the morning, thousands of people descended on downtown Seattle and prevented the WTO delegates from meeting. A group of black-clad anarchists chanted the slogan of immense ideological power and clarity: "Capitalism? No thanks!/We will burn your fucking banks!" As the day progressed, the cops - more reticent than most of their breed, outright softies to someone used to Giuliani's NYPD - broke out the pepper spray and rubber bullets. But downtown remained largely shut - keeping the folks in the black helicopters busy. Late in the afternoon, the mayor declared a curfew and the governor activated the National Guard. The streets were cleared, but word is that the activists had already left their posts, saying "see you tomorrow." Since Bill Clinton is supposed to speak to the meeting tomorrow, officialdom is no doubt determined to clear the way. We'll see.

Aside from the declaration of martial law, the highlight of the day was a massive labor rally and march, sponsored by the AFL-CIO. The change in U.S. union rhetoric over the last 5 years has been amazing. The nationalist rhetoric is largely - though not wholly - gone, largely replaced by a rhetoric of international labor solidarity. Unionists from all over the world spoke, some of them quite heatedly. A Mexican unionist cheered the Zapatistas, and a South African mineworker quoted Marx by name, urging the workers of the world to unite - to a great cheer from the crowd. George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America did complain that "imports were inundating our borders," and Teamsters unfurled a banner urging the border be closed to the threat of Mexican trucks, and AFL-CIO building trades chief evoked his specialty's long history of "skilled craft labor," but these offenses to solidarity were refreshingly minimal.

And quite a few of the American speakers sounded downright militant. The president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union proudly announced that his people had shut down West Coast ports from Seattle down to San Pedro, and recalled his union's history of support for Salvadorean workers and the Liverpool dockers. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees went so far as urging us to "name the system" that was oppressing us, the system that "commodifies everything from a forest in Brazil to a library in New Jersy," that subjects us to the logic of profit - that system being "corporate capitalism." Jay Mazur, president of the far-from-angelic clothing and textile workers union UNITE! declaimed that "we are one," environmentalists and workers around the world. While U.S. labor has never been known for making common cause with outside groups, the (admittedly mild) Sierra Club president Carl Pope made an appearance, as did the head of the Citizens Trade Watch, Lori Wallach.

Togetherness was the theme of the labor rally, not only solidarity among workers of the world, but of organized labor with everyone else. There were the incredible sights of Teamster president James Hoffa sharing a stage with student anti-sweatshop activists, of Earth First!ers marching with Sierra Clubbers, and a chain of bare-breasted BGH-free Lesbian Avengers weaving through a crowd of machinists.


There were a few who protested the protesters - bands of reactionary Christians who seemed to find Biblical support for the WTO and perverts among its opponents.


[Added on Thursday: Despite the curfew, a debate jointly sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization and The Nation went on anyway at Town Hall. On the pro-WTO side were Procter & Gamble lobbyist Scott Miller (who's also head of the U.S. Alliance for Trade Expansion, a business lobby), Undersecretary of Commerce David Aaron, and Columbia University economist Jagidish Bhagwati; against were John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies,Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, and consumer icon Ralph Nader. Paul Magnusson of Business Week was the moderator. Miller bleated a rather low form of corporate propaganda and said almost nothing memorable. Aaron peddled the adminsitration's new line, which is that the protesters have a point, and that trade should be "clean, green, and fair." Bhagwati was the most subtle and sophisticated of all six: like most economists, a devotee of free trade, but a critic of free movements of speculative capital and an advocate of greater social protections. He argued that there was a lot of hypocrisy in complaining about foreign sweatshops when we have plenty of them right here in the U.S., and migrants workers who live in conditions of near-servitude. The No side had the audience's sympathy; Aaron and Miller were hissed several times (to the disapproval of most of the audience). But the No side's arguments embodied some of the shortcomings of their position. When asked what would happen if we "eliminated" big business, Cavanagh rightly said that giant firms employ relatively few people, but then surreally claimed that they could easily be re-employed by small business. Cavanagh didn't disclose where we'd get our computers, telephones, and diesel engines from. Aaron pointedly asked Nader how a consumer advocate could recommend the restriction of imports, which could lead to reduced selection and domestic monopoly. Nader, who seems incapable of serious economic analysis, claimed that restricting oil imports in the name of energy self-sufficiency was a good thing, as if the virtues of self-sufficiency were self-evident, and so too was the restriction of pornography imports a good thing. (Ideological criticisms of Nader aside, his people - led by chief Seattle organizer Mike Dolan - made this week possible. For that, they deserve nothing but admiration and gratitude.) Shiva, rightly denouncing the WTO as an agency of imperialism, urged a "return to national decision-making which we control," apparently not noticing that the nation-state itself was an imperial inheritance, nor disclosing just when it was that "we" (whoever that is) controlled its governance. Her India seems like one consisting almost entirely of displaced peasants; she spoke of it as a single thing, as if unriven by class, ethnic, and regional differences. She also claimed that business was once limited by ethical concerns, but with the WTO, the logic of profit maximization has taken over - a strange version of capitalist history indeed.]

As this is written (the last few hours of Tuesday), the city is quiet and the streets are clear of human chains. Today is an extremely tough act to follow. But for a skeptic and a pessimist, the last two days' events - and the large, varied, imaginative, and spirited movement behind it - are inspiring. I know I used that word yesterday too, but it really fits.


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