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WTO: Workers of the World United? | The Nation

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WTO: Workers of the World United?

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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With a new film out about Webb, Kill the Messenger, we look back at Cockburn’s testament to the investigative reporter.

Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

In his December 20 "Beat the Devil" column, "Trade Wars, Trade Truths," Alexander Cockburn got it exactly wrong about what happened in Seattle, and he once again helped sow division in the ranks of the movement. Those of us who have been doing organizing instead of just talking about it were there in the frontlines of the Battle in Seattle, and we saw the AFL-CIO unions play a crucial role in fortifying our lines of resistance against the police riot everyone saw on their TV screens.

Cockburn's arm's-length and muddled analysis is revealed in his opening paragraph. He praises "Earth-First!ers chained together, Ruckus Society agitators, anarchists and other courageous troublemakers" for withstanding the police onslaught, while the trade unions allegedly twiddled their thumbs at a rally "some fifteen blocks from downtown." Had Cockburn actually been there, or bothered to talk to those of us in the frontlines, he would have had a more accurate portrayal.

The main coalition that educated and trained people to shut down the WTO was the Direct Action Network (DAN), which was initiated by four groups (Rainforest Action Network, Art and Revolution, the Ruckus Society and Global Exchange). Cockburn takes a cowardly cheap shot at my wife, Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Global Exchange. Where was Cockburn when Medea and I and GX staffer Juliette Beck were roughed up by police after we took the stage at the WTO opening ceremonies, demanding that the protesters' positions be heard?

DAN grew rapidly to include dozens of grassroots activist organizations with a shared goal: Stop the WTO from initiating a new round of trade talks. We committed significant time, energy and resources to this project, and we won! At all the training camps and teach-ins we organized for mobilizing people to come to Seattle, trade union allies, especially the Steelworkers, figured prominently. Earth-First!ers and other environmental activists had formed a strategic alliance with trade unionists (Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and Environment), and they played a crucial role.

The AFL-CIO march was originally planned to bypass by several blocks our positions blocking the WTO. AFL-CIO leaders changed the route of the march to bring it right alongside our lines. As the tens of thousands of unionists marched by the intersections we were blocking, thousands of them peeled off and fortified our lines. Anyone who was there could have seen this.

Had Cockburn been involved in the many months of organizing for the protest, he would have known that many rank-and-file trade unionists and even some people high up in the AFL-CIO supported our efforts to shut down the WTO. At a time when activists are exhilarated by our incredible victory in Seattle, largely the result of our unity contrasted with the lack of unity of the world's elites, Cockburn sows divisions in the movement.

KEVIN DANAHER
Global Exchange


Washington, D.C.

Offering no evidence, Alexander Cockburn accuses the labor/environmental coalition opposed to Bill Clinton's scheme to bring China into the World Trade Organization of fomenting racist fears of the "yellow peril" ["Beat the Devil," Jan. 3]. Thus, he ends up singing left-wing harmony to the braying chorus of neoliberals desperate to discredit the movement that put 40,000 people into Seattle's streets.

The real losers from the WTO wreck in Seattle, chants The Economist, are the poor countries whose starving children are being denied sweatshop work by selfish US workers afraid of losing their jobs. Just so, echoes Cockburn, referencing African and Caribbean trade ministers who regard labor and environmental standards as--horror of horrors--protectionist!

The issue is between classes, not countries. The WTO is no multicultural boys and girls club. It is an enforcer of the Washington Consensus, designed to protect the interests of the world's investors at the expense of the world's workers. The managers of China Inc. want membership to accelerate their own transition from socialism to state-subsidized capitalism. The deal with Clinton will lock in their access to foreign capital in return for bringing to Wall Street an immense labor pool kept cheap at the point of a bayonet.

Cockburn says globalization is nothing new--just an elaboration of the capitalist process. Exactly. In the last century, the creation of a continental economy in America required a continental struggle to restrain the brutality of the market by asserting the rights of labor. Now that capital has broken through the constraints of the nation-state, the struggle must be expanded to include entities like the WTO, where Big Dollar sets the rules for global commerce.

Forget it, says Cockburn. Capitalism dictates the choice, therefore nothing effective can be done "in the current era at least," whatever that means. Like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, he lectures progressives to stick to domestic issues, even as globalization increasingly places corporate power beyond domestic politics. Cockburn's left sentiments are irrelevant here. Big Dollar doesn't care if you arrive at your state of hopelessness through neoliberal analysis or a neo-Marxist one. The important thing is to reinforce the message that, as Margaret Thatcher so famously put it, "there is no alternative."

Cockburn tries to scramble out of this ideological cul-de-sac by suggesting that we all support the charity of his choice--reducing the debt of poor governments. I'm all for it [see Faux, "Debt: Just Forget It," Nov. 22, 1999]. But pleading with the international bankers to do what they themselves admit is in their own best interest is hardly a challenge to their power.

He speaks abstractly of "solidarity." But is it solidarity with Chinese workers to concede the codification of their oppression through the Clinton deal with Jiang Zemin? Already millions of Chinese workers have been structurally readjusted into the gutter, income is being rapidly redistributed upward, and the meager safety net is being shredded. Solidarity? How about trade unionists from more than fifty developing nations marching with American workers in Seattle, transcending race, culture and national borders in order to protest policies pursued by their national elites?

The solidarity among workers and between workers and the other constituencies demonstrated in Seattle needs nurturing, confidence-building and the experience of working together. It doesn't need reckless charges of racism to sap its strength and give aid to its enemies.

JEFF FAUX, president
Economic Policy Institute


COCKBURN REPLIES

Petrolia, Calif.

I should say straight away that Danaher's nineteen identical, sexist, patronizing faxes from a "husband" to a "fellow Anglo-Irishman," urging that I have a man-to-man chat with him while laying off the "skinny little woman," i.e., his wife, Medea Benjamin, have scarcely endeared me to his political outlook. Frankly, I'd rather believe my colleague Jeffrey St Clair's on-the-spot accounts on the frontlines of the battles in Seattle than Danaher's. And where exactly was Danaher when the first canisters of tear gas and rounds of rubber bullets were being fired on the corner of 6th Street? He and his consort were attending the opening ceremony for the WTO delegates in the Paramount theater, in search of a photo op, which they duly got. And what was the message that Danaher and Benjamin were seeking to impart to the delegates? The two were, to quote him, "demanding that the protesters' positions be heard." There, in a nutshell, is the issue: Danaher, Benjamin and the AFL-CIO leadership wanted a dialogue with the WTO. The people fighting in downtown wanted to shut the conference down, and they did. If there'd been only Danaher/Benjamin's little photo op, then a decorous mass arrest (previously brokered with the cops) of Global Exchangers and their coalition, plus the AFL rally, the WTO confab would have emerged unscathed.

As for the "cowardly cheap shot" at Benjamin, I let her off far too lightly. What supposedly militant foe of global sweatshops would have chosen, as Benjamin did, to defend not just Nike's wage structure in Southeast Asia but the Niketown boutique in downtown Seattle? Lately Benjamin has been claiming she was misquoted in the New York Times on how the anarchists should be treated by the police. Here's how Global Exchange's own document puts the notorious incident: "When asked by a reporter what she thought the police should do with those who were destroying property, Medea responded rather matter-of-factly, 'Arrest them.'"

Danaher scarcely improves on this with his arrogant assumption that policy formulated by his coalition should apply to everyone who went to Seattle, as though all those thousands were merely Global Exchange's street puppets. If Niketown had been attacked by a delegation of Vietnamese and Chinese workers what would Benjamin have done then?

Danaher claims that at the last minute the AFL-CIO leaders changed their plans and sent the march "right alongside our lines." The motive for this mythmaking is obvious: the ex post facto invention of a vast harmonious alliance in Seattle. It wasn't any such thing, any more than the Gironde and Hébert were agreed on policy toward Louis XVI in 1791. Indeed, I can imagine Lafayette sounding just like Medea as he defended Versailles against the sans-culottes. Then, as now, there were fix-it and nix-it factions. The AFL wanted a nice march and no contact with the unruly elements in downtown. Don't take it from me or even from Jeffrey. Listen to Jeff Crosby, president of a local of the IUE, who went with fifteen fellow union members from New England to Seattle: "Without the direct action, the labor march would have received a ninety-second clip on the nightly news.... There were plenty of people in the labor movement pushing for the labor movement to join in the direct action. We lost."

It's true that thousands of union members decided to bypass their own rally and join the people in the streets. But the sad truth is that in the big rally in the football stadium, no messenger alerted the thousands of union people that only twenty blocks away a desperate struggle was taking place, with police beating up those trying to stop WTO delegates from entering the conference. What a historic moment that would have been, if Sweeney and Hoffa had immediately called for a relief column of workers to speed to the help of the demonstrators. It never happened, and only the politically purblind could have hoped for it, since before the WTO conference Sweeney had signed a letter backing large portions of the Administration's trade agenda, and the AFL itself had endorsed Al Gore, a clamorous free trader.

Danaher invokes activists "exhilarated by our incredible victory in Seattle." I'd answer, as Chou En-lai did when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: "It's too early to tell."

There's a lot of noise and chest-thumping in Faux's letter, but I think my warning emerges unscathed. The left here should think twice about the post-Seattle call by Faux and others for the next battle to be one to keep China out of the WTO. Faux may feel his motives and credentials are impeccable, but there's a century's worth of yellow-peril racism to remember here. Grandstanding on trade issues is a tricky, risky business. Why join Pat Buchanan on the worst aspect of his kind of populism--nativism--rather than the best, freedom and Bill of Rights protections? By all means boycott prison-made commodities from China. But everything? There are unions in China, strikes in China, billions of very poor people in China. China's credentials for the WTO are just as good as those of the US, so the arguments for keeping China out seem pretty rickety and hypocritical to me. Keeping Chinese goods out isn't going to help Chinese workers. Letting China in would probably help the workers and--again to take Chou En-lai's long view--also the long-term cause of world economic justice.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN

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