Counterpunch on Seattle

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 4 20:30:08 MST 1999

"Victory in Seattle"
from Counterpunch (edited by Alex Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair)

December 3, 1999

Beyond the wildest hopes of the street warriors, five days in Seattle have
brought us one victory after another. The protesters initially shunned and
denounced by the respectable "inside strategists", scorned by the press,
gassed and bloodied by the cops and national guard: shut down the opening
ceremony; prevented Clinton from addressing the WTO delegates at 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 have been 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 demur 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 Earth-First!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 thousands 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. As
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 the inside. As far as any
street action was concerned, the deals were cut long ago. Labor might huff
and labor might puff, but when it comes to the WTO what labor wants, in
James Hoffa's phrase, is a seat at the table.

And what does this seat at the table turn out to be? 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 will, in the next round of
WTO talks, be sensitive to labor's concerns. Here's the chronology. The
present trade round will ponder the working group's mission and composition
and make recommendations for the next round of trade talks. Then, when the
next round gets under way, the working group will perhaps take form. Guess
what? It's at least 2014AD before the working group is up and running.

Sweeney's AFL-CIO isn't against the WTO. Sweeney himself is physically
fading into the woodwork. One well informed-friend of CounterPunch used the
brutal comparison (in health terms) of Boris Yeltsin. Gerry Shea, Sweeney's
head of government affairs and the man essentially running the show at 16th
St in Washington, has no ideological posture on the issue, and listens
closely to his old friend David Smith, who heads the AFL-CIO's public
policy department and who is a zealous free trader, cerebellum thickly
stuffed with neo-liberal hokum.

There are unions -- the autoworkers, steelworkers, teamsters, machinists,
UNITE -- which have rank and file members passionately concerned about
"free trade" when, as a 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 steel workers, the only labor group which, in the
form of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, took up
position in downtown that Tuesday morning (and later fought with the cops
and endured tear gas 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 report, 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
bioregionialists 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 its 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 the "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 its workers
less than 20 cents an hour, has made "an astounding transformation", and in
Seattle actually defending Nike's premises from well-merited attack by the
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. Anyone remember those heady days in the 1970s of the New World Economic
Order when third world countries were going to get a fair shake for their
commodities? We were at a far more favorable juncture back then, but it
wasn't long before the debt crisis had struck, the NWEO was dead and the
mildly progressive UN Commission on Trade and Development forever
sidelined. Publicity, harassment, obstructionism...Think always in terms of
international solidarity. Find targets of opportunity. South Africa forces
domestic licensing at cheaper rates of AIDS drugs. Solidarity. The
Europeans don't want bio-engineered crops. Fight on that front. Challenge
the system at the level of its pretensions. Make demands in favor of real
free trade. Get rid of copyright and patent restrictions and fees imposed
on developing nations. Take Mexico. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research reckons that Mexico paid the industrial nations last
year $4.2 billion in direct royalties, fees and indirect costs. And okay,
let's have real free trade in professional services, with standardization
in courses and tests so that kids from Mexico and elsewhere can compete
with our lawyers, accountants and doctors.

A guerilla war, without illusions or respectable ambitions. Justice in
world trade is by definition a revolutionary and utopian aim.

Louis Proyect
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