After the Battle in Seattle one thing is certain: The next WTO confab will be held somewhere like Singapore or Jakarta. The corporate-dominated trade regimen enforced by the WTO is generating so much opposition that it can meet only under the sort of armed protection provided by a militarized state. Indeed, one silver lining of corporate-managed globalization is that it has harmonized US domestic protest against it to unprecedented levels of European-style militancy. Bill Clinton planned his appearance before the WTO as a showcase for successful free-trade policies, but he wound up having to give his speech under the umbrella of a declared state of emergency bolstered by barricades, curfews, riot police and National Guard troops.
The media focus on a few broken store windows should not distract from the profundity of what has happened here. A phantasmagorical mix of tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators–husky, red-jacketed steelworkers marching alongside costumed sea turtle impersonators, environmentalists with miners, human rights activists with small family farmers–stood against the WTO, succeeded in closing down its opening sessions and thrust the once-obscure issue of fair trade onto center stage. “A week ago no one even knew what the WTO was,” said California State Senator Tom Hayden as he joined the demonstrators in the streets. “Now these protests have made WTO a household word. And not a very pretty word.”
The broader message coming from the streets of Seattle is unmistakable: A corporate-dominated WTO that puts profits before people and property rights before human rights can no longer sustain its current course. As the peaceful demonstrators who shut down the WTO chanted at the startled trade delegates blocked out of their meeting halls: “We don’t want you! We didn’t elect you! And we don’t want your rules!”
The scenes from Seattle are something not seen since the sixties, but in their totality unimaginable even then. At Tuesday’s AFL-CIO rally, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated for labor rights and environmental protections, and–putting the lie to charges that to oppose the WTO is to retreat into protectionist nationalism–they heartily cheered speeches by union leaders from Malaysia, Barbados, Argentina and South Africa. Infuriated by the Clinton Administration’s zeal to bring China into the WTO, even some of the most politically compliant leaders of Big Labor have found a new, more challenging voice. “We refuse to be marketized,” AFSCME leader Gerald McEntee, an avid Clinton-Gore advocate, told the cheering rally. “We have to name the system” that tolerates sweatshops and child labor, he said, “and that system is corporate capitalism.” Through the wisps of tear gas and among the forest of picket signs and banners held aloft, one could at last glimpse the rough outlines of the much-sought-after progressive coalition–an American version of a “red-green” alliance. Hardhats and longshoremen standing with granola crunchers and tree huggers, bus drivers and carpenters with snake dancers and organic food activists. Or as one hand-painted sign smartly put it: Teamsters and Turtles–Together at Last.
The trick now is to come out of Seattle strengthening these new bonds–and keeping them tight through the nasty fights looming, especially during the coming Congressional battle over China’s most-favored-nation status. It won’t be made any easier by a Democratic Party split down the middle on China. Or by an AFL-CIO livid with the Administration over trade but tethered to Al Gore through its early endorsement of his candidacy.
Bill Clinton, with his weather-vane sensibilities, understands the explosive potential of the public opinion shift on global trade that’s been jump-started in Seattle. The White House’s reverse spin on trade would be startling if it weren’t so transparently cosmetic. You half-expect Clinton himself to don a sea turtle get-up the next time he speaks on the WTO. At the November 30 Town Hall debate here on globalization, co-sponsored by The Nation Institute, Under Secretary of Commerce David Aaron went as far as to appropriate the slogans of the protesters, insisting that all world trade be “clean, green and fair.” Nice words. But this Administration’s verbiage on fair trade has never found concrete expression, either in the President’s policies or in Al Gore’s platform promises. As Ralph Nader quipped in that debate, referring to Clinton and Gore’s newfound sympathy for the victims of globalization: “Where were they five years ago when they rammed all this down the throats of Congress in an autocratic, fast-track maneuver?”
Clinton’s rhetorical shift on trade will likely have little success in deflating the growing protest against corporate-managed trade policies. He won’t be around to reap the freakishly altered crop he’s sown. But his successor surely will. Seattle is only the beginning. “We’re not going to sit idly by and let them seize our world without a fight,” International Longshoreman president Brian McNally told the electrified AFL-CIO rally. “Are you ready to fight?” he yelled to the roaring thousands. “Are you ready to fight?”