On November 30, 1999, protests began in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization. The WTO meetings offered unions, environmentalists, and various social and economic justice activists from around the world a forum to voice their rejection of the neoliberal free trade agreements of the late 20th century that had undermined American unionism, allowed corporations the mobility to flee meaningful labor agreements or environmental restrictions, thrown millions of farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands as cheap American agricultural goods flooded world markets, and stripped people around the world of the ability to influence the economic conditions of their nations and the social and economic safety nets created in the twentieth century to provide people with a modicum of dignity. These protests raised an important hue and cry against this injustice, but became most known for the violence that took place on the streets.
The general story of what went down on the streets is pretty well known. A loose coalition of people opposed to free trade agreements decided to target the WTO meeting in Seattle as a general point of protest. The protest was supposed to be nonviolent, but as is usually the case, there wasn’t much of a mechanism to ensure that it actually was so. The idea quickly caught fire and at least 40,000 people came to the protests, making it the largest international protest against free trade in world history. I don’t want to spend much time focusing on the idiotic black bloc anarchists who decided to break Starbucks windows during the protest and undermine the nonviolent mission of the protests without permission from the other stakeholders. I also don’t want to focus on the fascistic police response by the Seattle Police Department, which should allay any mythology that the police will ever be on the side of working class protest, unless it is very much in their own interest to do so. I’d rather focus here on the role of the labor movement. But by the evening of November 30, the streets of Seattle were at war and the labor and environmental organizations who had planned the thing found their message swamped in a sea of violence and the media coverage of it.
Labor’s involvement in the protests came in the wake of the federation increasingly realizing that the good old days were no longer true. There was a lot of denial and trying to ignore the problem of labor’s collapse in the 90s, although the defeat over NAFTA and the ascendance of John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO were clear signs that at least some people were trying to take it seriously.
The first moment of the protests, and really more accurately the weeks before the protest, saw an uptick in conversations about how labor was finally reaching out to other social organizations. “Turtles and Teamsters” was the phrase used to describe this phenomenon, an apt one as this came just a few years after the resolution of the ancient forest campaigns and spotted owl crisis in the Pacific Northwest that saw environmentalists and labor at each other’s throats. But environmentalists and labor had long had much in common and had for the last three decades had off and on alliances over specific issues. So this was not unprecedented but was meaningful at this point, particularly in its public nature. And at the protests, Steelworkers and Earth First members were making many of the same points–that free trade agreements undermine both good working conditions and environmental standards, that workers breathe in the same air as environmentalists, and that without meaningful protections on labor and environmental standards, a race to the bottom would ensue around the world, which is of course exactly what has happened.
After the protests, recriminations were everywhere, particularly against the Seattle city government and police, as well as the anarchists. Organized labor’s role in the whole event was largely forgotten. Left leaning discontent quickly moved on to the Nader campaign, while 9/11 changed the course of the nation’s history, or at least so popular culture likes to believe. But in the narrative of the left, 9/11 is what killed any chance of meaningful continued actions against unfair trade.
Even without the black bloc protestors and 9/11, we can legitimately question whether any real movement would have developed out of Seattle that would have led to meaningful alliances and a program for change. I am skeptical. It was immediately clear that this was a moment where various people could protest against something but that what would come next was a question no one was prepared to answer. That isn’t denigrating the moment, but everything that happened at Seattle was the easy part. That’s why I’m a little skeptical about the 9/11 claim; it seems like a cop-out for the fact that there wasn’t really any meaningful alliance building going on that would lead to an obvious next step. Once host cities and countries isolated the protesters from the function of the meetings, there wasn’t much else the various movements could do because there wasn’t any other plan. It’s possible that had the AFL-CIO and environmentalists placed the repeal of NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the one and only thing on their agenda and fought like the devil to make it happen–well–it probably still wouldn’t have worked given the overwhelming dominance of neoliberal ideology among the Republican and Democratic Party at the time. But that was probably the only concrete place where such alliances could have really made a difference where it counts–in the law. And in any case, such an alliance was not really feasible. I don’t disagree that on a national activist scale, 9/11 and the War on Terror dropped economic concerns from a high priority–and even today, look at so many of the people progressives claim to love and how little many of them ever talk about economic issues–but honestly, there’s not a whole lot of evidence from the last 40 years that what passes for the non-union left in this country has had much real impact on the nation’s trajectory.
But that doesn’t mean that commenters of the time didn’t hope it was so. The WTO protests was the first time I remember labor writers and activists and historians make statements that I’ve seen over and over again since–at the Wisconsin protests, during Occupy, after the Chicago Teachers Union strike–that this is the moment when labor will turn it around. This is almost entirely wishful thinking and it places a big burden on those trying to build a movement, but once people started realizing that the American labor movement was in very real trouble, they began hanging enormous expectations on whatever pocket of labor uprising popped up at a given moment.
So what to make up the WTO protests for labor? Ultimately, it’s not much. It is an important moment in public perception. But the ultimate effect of these protests upon the American working class was basically zero and the odds were long against it ever becoming something more than zero, even if the protests and the aftermath nationally took an entirely different course.
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