Shutting down Seattle

The World Trade Organization's talks are scheduled to be held in free trade-friendly Seattle this fall. So is "the Protest of the Century," as WTO opponents gather to give the ruling class a kick in the groin.

On a cool but soon to be warm, sunny, and perfectly serviceable midsummer Saturday morning, when you’d think otherwise rational people would have something midsummerlike to do, some 120 organizers filed into the Labor Temple in Belltown. They came to hear the true believers fire them up over global trade issues. They also came to prepare for days, months from now, when it will be cold and dark and wet.

And loud.

“It’s historic . . . the confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the 21st century will be built and who will be crossing it—transnational corporations or civil society.” That’s Michael Dolan speaking, field organizer for the Washington, DC-based Naderite group Public Citizen. If Dolan has his way, the opening talks of the Seattle Round of World Trade Organization consultations, set for November 29 to December 3 this year, will be a benchmark, a huge protest of corporate dominance of the global economy that will give politicians pause and CEOs cold sweats.

The WTO represents over 100 countries in an unprecedented effort to globalize commerce. Advocates see it as a means of boosting the world’s economy by bringing down trade barriers. But opponents believe the WTO is systematically gutting worker, consumer, and environmental protections, and deliberately usurping the rights of each country to make its own laws—especially when those laws might conflict with trade.

Dolan is working on behalf of the Citizens’ Trade Campaign (CTC)—a broad-based national coalition including Public Citizen; labor groups like the United Auto Workers; consumer groups; environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Clean Water Action; farm groups like National Farmers Union and National Family and Farm Coalition; church organizations; and many more. Over 700 international groups have signed on to the CTC’s demand to oppose the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), a controversial free trade proposal that will probably be on the WTO’s Seattle agenda. Instead of donating money to the cause of organizing against the trade meetings, the CTC has donated Dolan, who has spent much of the spring and summer meeting with community activists and lining up logistical support.

This month, the CTC opened a storefront operation downtown that will work until December to help coordinate protests. And that’s only one of the anti-WTO organizing efforts under way. The AFL-CIO has dispatched two full-time field organizers to coordinate a massive march and rally set for November 30, days after labor union heads from around the world will convene in Seattle for their own conference. The teamsters, longshoremen, and other industrial unions are each conducting their own mobilizations; the steelworkers’ union has reserved 1,000 hotel rooms in Tacoma and Bellevue. There will be teach-ins and alternative conferences and press conferences and rallies and marches and blockades galore. Farm groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Sustainable Agriculture, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, and the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America will be bringing outrage. There is talk of a procession of tractors. Scores of nongovernmental organizations will come to try to make their voices heard. The Zapatista-originated Peoples’ Global Action is bringing caravans across North America to descend on Seattle. The Sierra Club is mobilizing its membership.

Even peace groups like the War Resisters League are involved—free trade, by specifically exempting military spending from its agreements, acts to encourage the arms trade and military buildups by Third World governments. Art and Revolution is bringing its giant puppets and public spectacle from the streets of San Francisco. And the Evergreen State College, well, they might as well close the campus—they’ll all be in Seattle, as will students from around the country, led by the Boston-based Center for Campus Organizing.

Steven Staples, British Columbia field organizer for the Council of Canadians, estimates that “hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands” will be coming down from Canada, where activists are concerned about the WTO’s threat to their country’s education and health care systems. After Vancouver’s experience with heavy-handed riot police at the 1996 APEC meetings (pepper spray, preemptive arrests), Staples says, “people got a very clear idea of whose interests were being served.” All in all, Seattle will see traffic snarled and resources stretched to their limits by a week of international protests mingling with trade ministers, heads of state, and both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Republican King County Council member Brian Derdowski, who is working with the protesters, calls the scenario “a security nightmare,” and “the greatest security risk this region has ever known.”

Seattle organizers of the WTO meetings—operating under the well-financed umbrella of the Seattle Host Organization (SHO)—are fond of calling the Seattle meetings the largest trade gathering ever held on US soil. Opposition to it will almost certainly be the largest anti-free trade protests ever held on US soil.

Dolan is one of the early speakers to the Saturday morning gathering at the Labor Temple, and he speaks with the fervor of an evangelist. The crowd, with doughnuts, coffee, handouts, and reprints in hand, responds with enthusiasm. Dolan talks of a political opening, with the defeat last year of Clinton’s desired fast-track authority for negotiating free trade agreements and the subsequent derailing of MAI negotiations. He calls them “kicks in the groin of the ruling class.” Dolan recounts with glee a recent front-page Wall Street Journal article on the protests—”The bosses are scared!”—and reminds the assembled that there’s only 16 weeks to go, a short time for a logistical juggernaut that—unlike the meetings themselves—must be organized on a shoestring. Motel rooms and meeting spaces for the period are already gone; available flights into Seattle have all but disappeared. One of the greatest challenges for groups from around the country that want to come to Seattle will simply be getting here and having a place to stay. It’s not a good time of year for camping.

A flyer for the Saturday meeting calls the upcoming protests of the WTO meetings the “Protest of the Century.” It may not equal, say, Seattle’s 1919 General Strike, but organizers are thinking in terms of that kind of scale; they bandy about hopes of bringing 100,000 people into the streets. The stakes are extremely high; for any one of the contemplated eight or nine subagreements on the possible agenda of the trade ministers, a lasting regime of corporate dominance could ensure human misery, environmental catastrophe, and short-term profit affecting billions of people on a scale barely imaginable even a decade ago. The surprise is not that protesters by the thousands will be drawn from all over the world. The surprise is that more people aren’t up in arms.

What’s that giant flushing sound?

The WTO was created in 1994 as the successor organization to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The idea is to execute a series of treaties among member nations that would reduce and eventually eliminate tariffs and other restrictions on trade in various sectors of the world economy. The negotiations for those different sectors have been named after the locations where the first meetings of the particular “Round” take place. The next several years will be known as the “Seattle Round.”

One hundred and thirty-five countries—including all the major ones except China—are members; some 30 others have observer status. The United States dominates the proceedings, and the evolution of the WTO is one of the major reasons transnational corporations love Clinton. The WTO is exceptionally good news for transnationals. As with the North American Free Trade Agreement, on which it’s modeled, removing barriers to free trade generally means weakening, preventing, or striking down environmental, wage, worker safety, public health, and consumer laws. It’s a whirlpool effect—what Dolan calls a “downward harmonization,” or a race to the bottom as countries find all but the lowest standards eliminated as unfair trade competition. Or think of it as public interest laws simply being flushed down the toilet.

In Seattle, ministers will consider both new and old business. Left over from the previous Uruguay Round are agriculture, services, and government procurement; new to the Seattle Round will be many Northwest-appropriate topics, including the Forest Products Agreement, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (banking and finance), biotechnology, intellectual property rights, and electronic commerce. The “talks” will be largely for photo ops and political posturing; much of the real negotiating is taking place behind the scenes, in various meetings on different subagreements leading up to the event.

The global movement to challenge free trade is part of a larger movement challenging neoliberalism—the usurpation of public policy by the marketplace and the needs of transnational corporations. These corporations have steadily increased their grip over the policies of nation-states since the fall of the Berlin Wall and, previously, the era of Reagan-Thatcher. At stake is democracy itself, as corporations, through instruments like the MAI, gain the power to overrule the laws of elected officials at the national, state, or local level. Currently, governments, often at the behest of corporations, can challenge the laws of other countries as “unfair” to trade, with the issue decided secretly by a Geneva-based tribunal of corporate lawyers.

The initial trickle of rulings by the tribunal is starting to accelerate: overturning a European ban on US hormone-fed beef; ending a law designed to assist Caribbean banana exports to Europe; a ban on EPA-mandated safety devices for shrimping nets, designed by the US to protect endangered sea turtles; a challenge to US environmental laws prohibiting a Canadian gasoline additive; and, most recently, overturning a subsidy for Brazil’s fledgling aerospace industry. Ominously, on July 9, US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, responding to a new EU ban on genetically modified organisms, promised to go to the WTO to prevent it. So far, the secret tribunals of the WTO have not once ruled to preserve a challenged law.

It’s little wonder critics see the WTO, in one author’s words, as a “secret world government”; one U.N. official infamously referred to the proposed MAI agreement in 1996 as “writing a constitution.” King County Council’s Derdowski sees concern with free trade and the WTO’s course as transcending traditional conservative/liberal labels. “The issue for conservatives is the sovereignty of America, the constitution. State and local authority is in danger of being eroded through international treaties, ceding authority to foreign regulatory bodies . . . those are issues that resonate very much with conservatives.”

Wild in the streets?

During the WTO’s last consultations, last summer in Geneva, Switzerland, there were riots in the streets. In June’s meeting of the G-7 nations in Cologne, Germany, there were street demonstrations in Cologne and in dozens of other cities around the world, with extensive property damage in London and New York and so-called “riots” in, of all places, Eugene, Oregon. (Eugene’s anarchist rioters say they’ll be in Seattle for the WTO.) Slowly but surely, opposition to unfettered trade is coming to America. Its first major stage will be the streets of Seattle. This has certainly not gone unnoticed by Seattle police. The Seattle Police Department is heading a multiagency planning commission to deal with the WTO’s security headaches, involving the King County Sheriff, the US Secret Service, the FBI, the State Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and many others. In The Wall Street Journal , a spokeswoman for the SPD noted pointedly that “we have access to pepper spray.” Many area activists also participated in planning for protests at Vancouver’s APEC meetings and remember the heavy-handed tactics of the Mounties there. All are hoping for an orderly week, but with so many different groups and ideologies descending on the city, there will almost certainly be civil disobedience of some sort at some point. A July 28 King County Council memo estimates the county’s share of security costs—including itemized expenditures for things like bomb suits, “NATO Ballistic Shields,” and riot boots and helmets as well as the usual escort services for dignitaries at well over $1.1 million. That will be picked up by the taxpayers, and Derdowski thinks it’s underestimated: “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure things happen peacefully and safely.”

Not all WTO opponents will be in the streets. Some nongovernmental organizations are coming for teach-ins or conferences such as one being sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization. While some groups, such as the Third World-based Peoples’ Global Action (a movement especially popular among peasant farmers in countries like India), wish flatly to destroy the WTO, others want simply to fix it. The Seattle Host Organization is attempting to create space for public dialogue with a series of “public sector programs” during the ministerials, including programs on labor issues, electronic commerce, agriculture and food products, environmental issues, and trade in services. These aren’t exactly all anti-free trade—the electronic commerce forum, for example, is being organized by Microsoft. But two are being organized by individuals who have publicly challenged the course of the WTO: Patti Goldman of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund is coordinating the environmental program, while labor is being handled by the King County Labor Council’s Ron Judd.

Tinkering with trade

“We are not going to be denouncing the WTO, asking that it be killed or go away,” says Judd, who will also help oversee the November 30 labor rally that will probably be the largest and most visible protest of the week. “We don’t believe the rules as presently written are working very well for workers . . . we want to make WTO make as part of their mandate sanctions against [countries that violate] workers’ rights: child labor, slave labor, the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, ending discrimination in the workplace.” Goldman, in describing the usefulness of working with the Seattle Host Organization rather than outside the doors, says, “I think there is some advantage to having some powerful speakers who can describe [the WTO’s] effects on the environment.”

The biggest challenge for WTO opponents will be deciding what they want and speaking with a unified voice. Public Citizen’s Dolan and the Citizens’ Trade Campaign are attempting to unify protest organizers around a demand that, rather than hammering out yet more agreements, trade ministers use the Seattle Round to take stock and analyze the effects of the trade agreements already in place. They are convinced, of course, that any objective analysis of the last four years will find enormous harm to the economies and resources of the developing world as well as democracy worldwide. Free trade proponents see no need for such introspection. In the state of Washington, it’s hard to find an elected official who doesn’t crow the praises of trade: Patty Murray, Slade Gorton, Gary Locke, and Jim McDermott are all on board. They tout free trade as beneficial for the state’s Pacific Rim-based economy (and, of course, for Boeing). The Seattle Host Organization claims that, as a hosting group, it takes no position on the WTO’s actions, but both privately and publicly a lot of time and money are being spent promoting the glories of free trade. The SHO is doing extensive public outreach in the coming months, including town hall meetings, business outreach events, a school curriculum extolling the virtues of free trade, and regional events concerning trade in different continents (the Africa forum will be convened by McDermott, busy promoting his Africa free trade bill in Congress).

“Remember Seattle?”

Can protests in the streets of Seattle challenge the dominance of free trade policies? In the short term, no. Free trade enjoys solid bipartisan support, led by the Clinton/ Gore Administration and the ever-accommodating Republican wing of America’s one-party state. Among both Democrats and Republicans, those who question the wisdom of unfettered trade are relegated to the fringes of the party. The coalition of labor, environmental, agricultural, consumer, human rights, and constitutionalist groups that hope to slow, if not stop, the momentum of an ever-increasing number of free trade agreements anticipates using Seattle as a springboard. By filling the streets for several days, snarling traffic, worrying the cops, and tapping out what few meeting places and motel rooms remain, they may just possibly galvanize a movement.

Seattle’s protests aren’t likely to change the outcome of the momentous trade talks that will be held here. But the first step in changing a policy is letting the public know that the political terrain is even contested. The hope of the tens of thousands of protesters descending on Seattle this fall is that it will be the start of something big. The goal, according to Dolan, is “to create something that later will cause politicians to say, ‘Remember Seattle?’—and it gives them pause before they advance the corporate agenda.” As Derdowski drily notes: “To give away your fundamental liberties for the sake of trade dollars is a very poor choice.”*

For a schedule of planned anti-WTO events in Seattle or to help with preparations, contact People for Fair Trade at 1-877-STOP-WTO. Volunteers are welcomed at the Public Citizen storefront: 1914 4th Ave in downtown Seattle. For help or information on the November 30 march/rally, contact the King County Labor Council at 206-441-8510. More information on the WTO is available through the following Web sites:;;