The Kaiser meltdown

What a debacle.

At the last minute, the steelworkers' union canceled four days of protest at Tacoma's Kaiser Aluminum plant, where workers have been locked out for over a year. The event was supposed to be a showcase of the new post-WTO cooperation between labor and community activists; instead, it may have been the funeral.

With only one week's notice of the steelworkers' withdrawal of sponsorship—other labor groups also pulled out when the steelworkers withdrew—the environmental and community groups that had cosponsored the Kaiser actions did their best to salvage the event, calling the leftover occasion "picket-line support." But when some 2,000 people were expected at a Saturday rally and another 1,000 for direct action on Monday, you can't suddenly call things off on one week's notice; it's like trying to apply the brakes without enough stopping distance.

Such a sudden cancellation, without any kind of consultation, simply isn't how you treat a full political partner. Anti-Kaiser organizers did their best to smooth over the ruffled feathers. The steelworkers' Jon Youngdahl attributed the withdrawal to the union being swamped by the sit-ins, rallies, and other efforts to pass two strike-related bills through the state Legislature in Olympia. He rejected as "just not true" rumors reported in an abominable Tacoma News-Tribune story that labor pulled out because of fear that disruptive elements—namely, the dread anarchists from Eugene—would come trash the Kaiser plant during the demonstration. He also held out hope that if negotiations with Kaiser were still stalled in May, another round of cosponsored demonstrations might be organized.

But locally, time to capture the momentum from last fall's tremendous anti-WTO victory is running out. Scores of area activists are traveling to Washington, DC, next month for protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; nationally, those protests are the follow-up to Seattle. But in Seattle itself, two high-profile efforts to unite post-WTO environmental and labor groups have now fizzled, with an anti-Microsoft effort failing to gain labor support in early February.

Despite protest leaders' conciliatory words, there's plenty of bewilderment and resentment among activists over the sudden cancellation. If Olympia was the reason for the pullout, why only one week's notice? Olympia-watchers have known for many weeks, even at the time the Kaiser protests were scheduled, that the Legislature was unlikely to grant the steelworkers' plea for help. Plenty of folks suspect that labor was concerned about possible bad publicity from the Kaiser protests, or that labor was worried it was losing control, preferring tightly scripted acts to the community activists' freewheeling style.

There are also contradictions in the enviro-Kaiser alliance that aren't easily reconciled. After all, environmentalists want to tear down Columbia River Basin dams—and those dams exist to supply the aluminum industry with cheap, subsidized hydroelectric power. Why are enviros fighting for aluminum jobs? Kaiser is a nasty employer, but shouldn't environmentalists be encouraging different lines of work?

These sorts of issues have always plagued efforts to bridge labor and community activism in Seattle; it's a shame that they may have torpedoed a tremendous show of community solidarity for locked-out Kaiser workers. It will take a strong, concerted effort by organizers to allay suspicions next time. Hopefully there will be a next time, and hopefully it will be before the embers of anti-WTO activism have so cooled that the fire must be built entirely anew.

"Some relief, little triumph"

Meanwhile, labor was celebrating one of its most stirring victories in years. But you'd never know it from reading The Seattle Times.

The Boeing contract that settled a 40-day SPEEA walkout was a breakthrough for white-collar labor representation. One worker was quoted in a front-page Times article saying that "If [Boeing] had offered this back in November, we would have been very happy with the Boeing Company." Another: "The package as a whole can be viewed as a victory for the union." Another: "I think we beat the hell out of Boeing."

Yet somehow the front-page headline was that workers felt "Some relief, little triumph." The phrase was repeated in the first paragraph and again on the jump page headline, with a sidebar headline reinforcing that "One thing is clear: Strike has taken a toll on workers."

The lesson, according to the Times' clumsy editorializing, is presumably that strikes are nasty things that are never a good idea. But the quotes in the Times' own stories—let alone virtually every other media outlet—yield a different conclusion, that worker solidarity in the face of one of the world's largest corporations paid off. It's too bad that after 40 days of reasonably balanced coverage, the Times took that opportunity to get its pro-corporate licks in.

Those crack guerrilla warriors

And speaking of the new morning Times and ridiculous, another recent page one story pushed the findings of LA County Sheriff's Department consultant Richard Odenthal, who in a report to the Seattle Police Department blasted the local police for their lack of preparation and forcefulness during the WTO protests. Fair enough.

But Odenthal got patently absurd with his contrasting praise for the preparations of protesters—preparations that were entirely mythical. According to Odenthal, monolithic, all-seeing protesters videotaped cops to probe for weaknesses in their lines; took over a building on 9th and Virginia to track police activity at the nearby West Precinct station; and had a better communications system than officers (!).

This is a very good example of someone in a hierarchy not understanding a nonhierarchical opponent—and someone who screwed up now compensating by overestimating their opponent. If Odenthal's "expert" assessment of SPD is anything like his understanding of the protesters, he's best ignored. Or lampooned. One bad outcome of the WTO meetings: The consultants are already out in force.

 
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