anti-WTO protests

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Nov 28 11:06:20 MST 1999

The anti-WTO protests in Seattle this coming week will have a problematic
character. This is rooted in the fact that the most powerful protest
groups--the AFL-CIO, NGO's and mainstream environmentalists--all have
financial, ideological and political ties to the US ruling class. The very
process that they are there to fight, which comes under the rubric of
"globalization," is being accelerated by the White House, whose current
inhabitants they have been supporting in election after election. It is
analogous in some ways to having an antiwar demonstration in 1967 being
called by the Democratic Party.

In today's NY Times (11-28, "Global Trade Forum Reflects a Burst of
Conflict and Hope", Joseph Kahn has some rather pointed comments about the
mixed character of the assembled anti-WTO forces.

He reports that the "Clinton administration is determined to make the best
of the Seattle talks." He adds, without even the slightest hint of
embarrassment, that the "Clinton administration's effort to make labor and
environmental issues a central part of negotiations has brought a backlash
from poorer countries and only tepid support from rich ones."

One can only rub one's eyes at such a statement. Clinton's presidency has
been characterized by legislation that is harmful to working people and the
poor. By dismantling welfare, he has created low-wage pressures on the
union movement as people thrown off the welfare rolls compete for jobs
formerly represented by city unions. With respect to the environment, David
Brower--the dean of American environmentalism who founded the Sierra
Club--has characterized the Clinton-Gore team as worse than Reagan and Bush.

According to the Times, "some union members plan a Seattle Steel Party,
modeled on the Boston Tea Party, in which they will dump Chinese steel into
the city harbor here. (In deference to the environment, the steel will be
retrieved.)" The AFL-CIO has no qualms about protesting low wages and lousy
working conditions overseas, but seems powerless to halt such conditions
here. The most glaring example is the textile union UNITE, which while
being a nonstop critic of Asian sweatshops, unites with garment bosses in
NYC to allow sweatshops to stay in business. Robert Fitch has written a
number of articles in NY's Village Voice detailing the sordid relationship
between the UNITE brass and companies operating in the stone age with
respect to wages and worker's safety.

Meanwhile, a group of middle-class environmentalists organized as the
International Forum on Globalization are raising a big stink about the WTO
juggernaut rolling over subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples. One of
them, Jerry Mander says, "We need to stop it in its tracks, before it
starts controlling agriculture and bioengineering and many other things."
The only problem with Mander and his co-thinker Vandana Shiva is that they
have no answers to the pressing problems of development in the third world.
They are basically opposed to any kind of technological innovation and urge
a "back to nature" solution upon people suffering from a lack of economic
development. In "Absence of the Sacred," Mander argues that it is wrong in
principle for indigenous to use computers. It will spoil them, you see.

The Nation Magazine has been promoting the anti-WTO protests, as one might
expect. They symbolize better than anything the schizoid relationship
between left liberals and an administration that posterity will recognize
as delivering the coup d'grâce to liberalism. Every single week the Nation
Magazine has some article or another bemoaning the injuries done to the
environment or working people, but at election time finds all sorts of
reasons for people to hold their nose and pull the lever for Clinton and Gore.

In the current Nation (12-6, "Join a Caravan, Don a Turtle Costume--it's
WTO Time in Seattle" reporter John Nichols presents the left-liberal party
line, while presenting useful information about the high degree of trade
union mobilization:

<<How big a battle will Seattle see? Even the most ambitious organizers are
cautious about numbers. But President Clinton, who is scheduled to address
the WTO session, says, "Every group in the world with an ax to grind is
going to Seattle to demonstrate. I'll have more demonstrators against me
than I've had in the whole seven years I've been President." Unions are
expected to mount the loudest protest. The AFL-CIO has rented 12,000-seat
Memorial Stadium for a November 30 rally and dispatched more than twenty
organizers to pull in the crowds for a march that some strategists predict
will draw more than 50,000. State labor federations in Wisconsin and
Minnesota are flying in jetloads of their members, Teamsters will be busing
in from Tennessee and a multicar train will carry trade unionists from
Portland up the coast. The Steelworkers have rented more than 1,000 hotel
rooms in nearby Tacoma and are planning a national caravan to Seattle. The
Machinists' union has pledged to provide 1,000 shop stewards to serve as
marshals for the march, and there is talk that the Seattle area's huge
aircraft factories--where the Machinists have some of their largest locals
in the country--will stand idle on the afternoon of the rally. "I don't
think the WTO realized when they planned this for Seattle that they were
setting down in one of the most heavily unionized cities in the United
States,'' says Bob Gorman, who is coordinating organizing efforts for the
union march. "There are 120,000 union members in Seattle and more than
400,000 AFL-CIO members in Washington State. Add to that members of
non-affiliated unions like the teachers, who are backing us, and close to
80,000 retirees, and you're talking about a real base to work from. And
believe me, we are working it.'' Throw in Canadians coming in from nearby
Vancouver and across that country, as well as labor activists from as far
away as India, the Caribbean and Britain, and you've got the makings of a
crowd that will be difficult to dismiss as the "grumpy, geriatric
communists'' the WTO's Moore says are his organization's chief foes.>>

Isn't it obvious that this kind of mobilization would have made the
difference in a dozen battles in which the union movement went down in
defeat over the past 20 years? If the AFL-CIO had rallied in defense of the
P-9 meatpackers, the Arizona copper miners, PATCO or Greyhound bus drivers
with the same kind of muscle, the trade union movement would be in much
better shape today. The problem with the protests in Seattle is that they
do not relate to a concrete struggle where the chips are on the table. In
essence, they are demands that the aristocracy of the American trade union
movement not be sacrificed at the altar of "globalization". The Boeing
machinists are obviously acting in their own class interests when they
fight to maintain the status quo on where and how airplanes are built. What
this has to do with the overarching needs of the working class as a whole
is another story.

Ironically, Seattle was the site of a powerful general strike in 1919 that
expressed the kind of working class movement that is totally absent today.
You can find a leaflet put out by the labor movement in Jeremy Brecher's
classic "Strike", available from South End Press:

"What does Mr. Piez of the Shipping Board care about the closing down of
Seattle’s shipyards, or even of all the industries of the northwest? Will
it not merely strengthen the yards at Hog Island, in which he is more

"When the shipyard owners of Seattle were on the point of agreeing with the
workers, it was Mr. Piez who wired them that, if they so agreed—


"Whether this is camouflage we have no means of knowing. But we do know
that the great eastern combinations of capitalists COULD AFFORD to offer
privately to Mr. Skinner, Mr. Ames and Mr. Duthie a few millions apiece in
eastern shipyard stock,


"The closing down of Seattle’s industries, as a MERE SHUTDOWN, will not
affect these eastern gentlemen much. They could let the whole northwest go
to pieces, as far as money alone is concerned.

"BUT, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of
Seattle, while the WORKERS ORGANIZE to feed the people, to care for the
babies and the sick, to preserve order—THIS will move them, for this looks
too much like the taking over of POWER by the workers.

"Labor will not only SHUT DOWN the industries, but Labor will REOPEN, under
the management of the appropriate trades, such activities as are needed to
preserve public health and public peace. If the strike continues, Labor may
feel led to avoid public suffering by reopening more and more activities,


"And that is why we say that we are starting on a road that leads NO ONE

Marxism's decline of influence in the trade union movement explains much of
the failure of the anti-WTO protests to demonstrate a sharp class analysis
of the sort found in the 1919 leaflet. The past 80 years have been mostly a
story about the need to defeat Marxism overseas, while purging it from the
labor and social movements at home. Unfortunately, Marxism has often been
an unwitting assistant to its own marginalization by making serious
opportunist or sectarian mistakes.

There are embryonic forces in the American labor and social movements that
will eventually reclaim this power. The reason for this is obvious. Left
liberalism does not work. We are at the tail-end of a long process of
political implosion that is related to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While in contradictory fashion the USSR sustained the hopes and morale of
the socialist movement, it also created distortions that inhibited further
growth. One wing of the radical movement was uncritical in its attitude
toward "existing socialism", while the other wing dialectically opposed
itself to everything the more powerful wing stood for. Stalinism and the
antipodal currents of Maoism and Trotskyism were both dead ends. In its
victory over the Soviet Union, imperialism destroyed the foundations of the
old left. In its haste to consolidate its victory, it is unleashing
powerful forces that will eventually create a new left. Ultimately,
capitalism creates its own grave-diggers.

Louis Proyect
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