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This Day in Labor History: November 30, 1999

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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.

This is the 83rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Dave Brockington

    I do two lectures on WTO Seattle — one on the advance planning and execution, and one where I show a half decent documentary on it, as part of a section of my class on the effects of globalisation on domestic politics. I use some of my own pictures, as I was downtown the first two (or three, I forget) days.

    • fka AWS

      What is the name of that documentary?

      • Dave Brockington

        30 Frames a Second. It is largely empirical, in that the narrator, a local free-lance journalist accredited to cover the WTO itself, has no axe to grind nor any over-arching theoretical framework. But it’s also the only contemporaneous straight documentary I’ve found.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/30_Frames_a_Second:_The_WTO_in_Seattle_2000

  • fka AWS

    also,

    So what to make up the WTO protests for labor?

    do you mean *of* there?

  • swearyanthony

    Similarly, around a year later in Melbourne Australia there were mass protests at the World Economic Forum (held, in a fittingly ironic twist at a casino). Much the same story played out. Mass peaceful protest. The police overreacted and stomped heads. A bunch of idiots did stupid stuff, the local tabloid media tried to provoke confrontations(*)… nothing changed.

    The protests in 2000 went by the name S11. For the date – September 11. A strange little coincidence.

    (*) I got to see that firsthand when one if the TV networks found a loud angry gambler upset that he couldn’t get into the casino, and goaded him in to trying to start a fight with the peaceful blockade. Charming.

  • Matthew

    As someone who was there, the WTO protests showed absolutely everything that’s wrong with the modern American protest movement.

    It’s important to compare it to the much more successful Civil rights movement to make the point about how the Left has resolved to remain ineffective.

    Example 1) the dress code. There wasn’t one. You’re only taken as seriously as your craziest member, but there was no one running the protest saying that maybe the naked turtle costume was making the protesters as a group look INSANE. The news is going to gravitate towards the most outlandish person and they shall become your spokesmen.

    Contrast that with the civil rights movement. In those marches, people came out in their Sunday best and made sure that there was nothing that someone could use as a cheap excuse to reject the message. Lots of people still did, of course, but the the individual protesters weren’t making it easy for them. In modern protests, telling someone to put some clothes on, stay on message, cut their hair etc. is denying their self expression and that is something that protesters won’t do.

    Second problem, pet issues and no unified message. Go to an education protest or an Occupy protest and you’ll see that most people are on message, most people tried to see what the protest was about before joining, which is good. The problem is that the protesters allow people with “pet issues” as long as they’re the right ones, to join and be vocal about them as well. If the protest is against de unionization of teachers, than that’s what it’s about. Don’t allow someone who wants to make a sign about polluted schools or the travails of transgendered children to put up a sign. While both are worthy causes, it hurts the message.

    The Civil rights movement was clear what each protest was about.

    Third, let’s talk about a message or even better a method. Protests now are vast reservoirs of underpants gnome logic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    Phase 1) hold protest, flash mob, day of no buying etc.
    Phase 2) raise consciousness
    Phase 3) ?
    Phase 4) Substantive legislative action.

    Holding a flash mob has never made somebody write their congressman. They are fun to participate in, I agree, but are we protesting to have fun or to actually change people’s minds?

    “Well, Uncle Steve, you make some good points about capitalism and employment, but I was at a protest where we disagreed with everything you’re saying. Get me 50 other people and the soundtrack to Slum Dog Millionaire so I can make my rebuttal via interpretive dance.”

    No one is going to react to a flash mob and think, “they have a point.” They might be impressed by the skill, or they might react like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqpNQ9AJYgU. It’s entirely ineffective but it’s SO FUN.

    This may seem like I’m against the protesters and I’m not. I’m just against the tactics. The forces of globalization have focus groups and marketing and lobbyists to keep them on message. It’s an uphill climb to try to fight that, but you have to try to climb the hill. Chilling at the bottom trying to break convention while changing minds is a losing strategy.

    • JoyfulA

      Exactly what you said.

      Ever since C-SPAN existed, it showed,* beginning to end, big leftist rallies in DC, which were always an amalgamation of every vaguely leftish cause imaginable. So antiwar rallies had hours of speakers on environmental issues, ethnic issues, labor issues, gender issues, and more.

      A fabulous opportunity to make a point to a small but national audience, and not enough focus to form a point.

      *I don’t know if it still does because I haven’t had a TV for some time.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Phase 1) hold protest, flash mob, day of no buying etc.
      Phase 2) raise consciousness
      Phase 3) ?
      Phase 4) Substantive legislative action

      Good for all values of movements who are aiming at solutions via lagislation.

      A lot of times, no one’s thinking or looking past #2, or even #1.

      • LeeEsq

        Its favoring the theatrical aspect of politics over actually getting what you want done.

    • LeeEsq

      Are dress code protests even possible anymore? On both the right and the left, it seems that protests have more in line with the counter-culture, “fly your freak flag high ethos” than the more disciplined and to extent bourgeoisie protests. Rightists might dress like Revolutionary era patriots and leftists something else but getting both into small c-conservative dress is not going to happen. I think one reason why the civil rights protests, at least the earlier ones, were able to get more decorum in uniform was in part because everyday fashion was more straight-laced at the time.

    • Ronan

      I’m not sure the comparison to the civil rights movement makes a huge amount of sense though.

      One was against a very specific form of injustice with deep historical roots concentrated in a specific area
      The other was opposed to globalisation.

      You want a clear message? How ould there be one? There wasnt one issue to unite them.

      I dont know enough about the civil rights movement but I’m sure this watered down version (which i keep hearing – about how it was the ‘moderation’ that won it) needs to be compliated, seriously complicated

      • Ronan

        This idea that leftists/anarchists/choose your strawman are destroying the left ( that there is only one way to politically organise) is nonsense.
        I could equally say unionising is a waste of time, that people should be starting think tanks, building poliy networks, and influening policy etc etc .. but there’s more than one way to skin a cat
        The fact that certain elements of the left choose to do something else has *absolutely no real world negative effect* on another part of the left to do something else

        • Matthew

          Unionizing is one of the most effective things someone can do. It actually has a clear blueprint for how it causes change. It’s not that there’s one way to politically organize it’s that there are several ways that are guaranteed not to work and look self indulgent in the process.

          What you call “harmless” easily becomes “useless” in the minds of the general public. The guy in the flash mob may be earnest about raising wages, but it really looks like he’s just having a good time. The Walmart cashier he’s trying to help would be embarrassed to be seen with him. This harms the movement as a whole

          This episode of SouthPark is a good illustration of how the “harmless self expression” eventually morphed into “useless, unrealistic imbeciles.”

          http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/154839/hippie-jam-fest-2005

          Two of the kids get trapped in the festival and then the town invents a giant drill which plows bloodily through the crowd. It’s ranked 8.6 out of 10 on IMDB.

          Look at this lovely poster for OWS http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/files/2011/10/adbusters_occupy-wall-street-500.jpg

          Clarence Howe, the Walmart greeter from St, Louis, is going to look at that and think “Wow, those guys are really taking it to the big banks, maybe they have some good ideas, maybe I should write my congressman.” Then he’s going to go to the bar and talk to his buddies and say, “There was this ad with a ballerina on a statue of a bull and it made realize that we are part of the exploited 99%.”

          No one in their right minds believes that this was going to happen. It was a beautiful and thought provoking poster, but it was the definition of preaching to the converted. For the citizen in the street, the message is the left wants to solve your debt through interpretive dance,

          But here’s the guy who made it, “To me it was a sublime symbol of total clarity. Here’s a body poised in this beautiful position and it spoke of this crystal-clear sublime idea behind this messy business. On top of the head it said, ‘What is our one demand?’ To me it was almost like an invitation, like if we get our act together then we can launch a revolution. It had this magical revolutionary feel to it, which you couldn’t have with the usual lefty poster which is nasty and visceral and in your face. The magic came from the fact this ballerina is so sublimely tender.”

          http://thetyee.ca/News/2011/10/07/Kalle-Lasn-Occupy-Wall-Street/

          Sorry for the rant, I just feel like older people don’t understand how alienating a lot of behavior was to the moderate middle.

          • Gareth Wilson

            If you actually sat down and carefully considered which art form is least appropriate for a movement representing the 99% against the 1%, ballet would be it.

          • Ronan

            No need to apologise for the rant, I enjoyed it : )

          • Ronan

            Matthew, if you’re still out there
            this might be of interest

            http://mobilizingideas.wordpress.com/

        • LeeEsq

          Matthew isn’t saying that the leftists/anarchists are destroying the Left. He is saying that their method of presenting their ideas is discrediting them in the eyes of the general public before they even consider them. Optics matter and what the people on the fence or the undecided think about you is important. Most of the people who aren’t believers in a particular cause really care about how respectable a person looks. Thats why a lot of people in the United States keep voting against the Republicans even if they aren’t all that liberal. To them the GOP candidates look barking mad and the Democratic candidate does not.

          We might not like it but the WTO protestors looked at best weird and incomprehensible to most people and crazy at worse. We need the support of these people if we want to implement our ideas.

          • Ronan

            I get that, but he’s not providing any evidence for his contention, it’s a personal prejudice .. and ‘social transformation through revolutionary aesthetics’ is a cooooontroversial proposition.

            And ‘you must be as successful as the civil rights movement’ is really not a reasonable standard to set for any protest movement !!

            • LeeEsq

              Can you prove any evidence that he isn’t right? The Civil Rights protests and maybe some environmental protests were the last successful ones on the left in terms of effecting policy and legislation. The other ones not so much.

              • Ronan

                why’s the burden of proof on me here?

                If there’s any evidence that the WTO protests had any lasting affect on US politics I’m more than willing to accept it. And I wouldnt dispute that tone/aesthetics etc is important to some degree(Im no expert by any means, so Im happy to let other people weigh in) but I think he’s overstating it.

                The civil rights movement was (obviously) deeply contingent on the situation at that time, specific to the circumstances of US history and geography, I have genuinely no idea what good it does comparing the WTO protests to it (only to beat up on the WTO protests)

                Im also, as I said, by no means any sort of authority on the civil rights movement, let me stress that NONE AT ALL..but my (very limited, let me stress that)understanding of the complex movements and processess that led to the demise of Jim Crow is that they cant be reduced to one thing (ie those involved in the mainstream civil rights movement were well dressed, or whatever)

          • Ronan

            Optics dont really matter, imo, when it comes to voting as (in general, afaict, and Im sure it transfers somewhat to the US) outside of ‘partisans’ most people are low information voters and arent really going to make their choice based on what happened at the WTO protests

            Im not being smartarsey, I relly think thats the case

          • Ronan

            and just one more thing .. my problem is more with this ‘anti radical’ narrative, as if the main obstacle to strenghtening the Unions is the insignifiantly small amount of anarchists/radicals. (as if theyre undermining, in any meaningful way, the ability of other groups to organise)

            I’m sceptical enough of the ‘organise and good things happen’ narrative, (although I support Unions beause they have very specific, real positive effects for their members and those ‘nearby’).. but it’s not a his panacea for social change.
            It’s one part of it, other people have other ideas, why this need to consistently attack people who are doing things differently (while aspiring to the same goals)

            • Ronan

              should be a ? at the end of that sentence

  • Gregor Sansa

    I was living in Seattle at the time of the N30 protests, and involved with Food Not Bombs. I participated for basically the whole week; I happened to speak with some members of a main contingent of the (Eugene) Black Bloc as they were just arriving, while their vandalism hadn’t gone past pointlessly overturning a few newspaper racks for The Stranger; and I was outside the jail when the breakdown of talks was announced.

    Obviously, the WTO talks’ breakdown wasn’t just caused by the protestors outside. But I do think that the chaos outside gave people inside who objected a bit more courage to stand together. Not because they were inspired by the beautiful cardboard turtles, but because they knew that the blame for a breakdown would not fall so much on them.

    I think that the protests were successful in derailing that particular negotiation. It’s easy to talk about how they failed at more grandiose goals, but I think that what they did accomplish shouldn’t be minimized.

    As for the larger and longer-term goals of that movement… well, it did shift the dialogue, not radically, but incrementally, on a number of issues. Jubilee 2000 (third world debt relief), labor and environmental standards in free trade agreements… I think it moved the ball on these.

    Did that kind of protest politics have staying power? Probably not, though it wasn’t entirely dead before 9/11. But even if it wasn’t a critical watershed, I think that ranking it as a failure or a waste of time is unfair.

    • I’m not saying it was a waste of time. I am saying that there wasn’t any clear path forward where this would make a real difference for working people–certainly not how it turned out but probably not even in a best case scenario.

      The problem of course being that it wasn’t a movement at all. It was a collection of disparate movements that had only a vague idea of why they were working with these other movements.

      • Gregor Sansa

        That’s a start. There’s no other kind.

  • CD

    I saw at least three distinct protests Nov 30 1999.

    1. The “legal” protest: a labor-and-environment rally at Seattle Center followed by a march that looped to within a few blocks of the WTO site, and then back toward Seattle Center. The point of the loop closest to the site was an interesting scene: the march’s marshalls and the cops directed people to stay in the march, others shouted for people to stay, and quite a few marchers broke ranks to mill near the site, at least until the tear gas started up. This dramatized the gap between formal labor and environmental organizations and less-legal protests, nonviolent and otherwise.

    2. Carefully-planned, disciplined nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at blocking access to meetings, which had started early in the morning. This was strikingly effective, ironically because of the police response. Police secured a central zone (http://content.lib.washington.edu/wtoweb/) which meant every street leading into it was barricaded by a line of police blocking a line of nonviolent protesters. WTO delegates with hotels outside this area could not cross in, because even if they could hop over demonstrators the cops were not letting anyone through.

    3. The anarchists etc. who turned up and discovered that the downtown area just outside this police/protester cordon was almost wholly unpoliced, at least during daylight hours. During the day their activities were more pathetic than alarming: guys wandering around looking for stuff to vandalize in ways they hoped might be vaguely political. In retrospect they received a lot of attention, because they were eager participants in photogenic street skirmishes that evening. I don’t think they made any difference to the outcome, though, apart from embarassing other protesters. The subsequent media narrative of riots-stop-WTO is wrong.

    Based on what I witnessed and heard from participants, both “sea of violence” and “fascistic response” are gross exaggerations.

    • CD
    • Gregor Sansa

      Your version of events is strangely lacking in tear gas (the military-grade stuff with neurotoxic solvents) and dowel guns. Both of which were key parts of what was going on on Dec 1 and 2 as well as on Nov 30.

      • CD

        I’m not providing a complete account, just a response to the OP. The account I linked to discusses tear gas and much else.

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