Will labor fight?

Unions are scaling back protests against free trade and the WTO.

The early, giddy estimates of 50,000 people on the streets of Seattle for World Trade Organization protests November 29-December 3 may have been premature.

The largest single event planned during a week of protests—and the probable focus of most media attention for the anti-WTO cause—is a November 30 rally and march planned by organized labor. But there’s increasing speculation that the numbers may have to come from elsewhere, because at the national and international level, not all of organized labor is on board.

Two issues have bedeviled the local labor hierarchy as it prepares for the most difficult mobilization it’s ever undertaken. First is the reluctance by many local activists to embrace the more conservative, reformist line—calling strictly for incorporation of workers’ rights agreements into the WTO—being pushed by the national AFL-CIO. And second is the seeming ambivalence of many in the national AFL-CIO to adopt even that modest critique, for fear of hurting the presidential aspirations of Al Gore.

The local tensions were illustrated by an incident at this summer’s state labor convention in Wenatchee. Four Seattle-area labor activists inserted strong language into a fair trade resolution that was hastily drafted at the last minute by the King County Labor Council (KCLC) after it was noticed that nobody had prepared anything on the WTO for the meeting. Two of the three amendments suggested by the grassroots activists passed unanimously; the third, by a slim margin. The good deed did not go unpunished. On September 10, KCLC fair trade representative Martha Baskin (one of the authors of the amendments) came to a mutual agreement with county labor head Ron Judd to leave her post. The departure, after passage of one of the strongest trade resolutions in the country’s labor movement, pointed up the pressures exerted by national AFL-CIO to go slower on trade, emphasizing reforms rather than the fundamental critique of the WTO favored by Baskin and others. “If the AFL-CIO thinks [the WTO] is going to incorporate worker rights and child labor laws within its undemocratic structure, then they are, perhaps, living on another planet,” says Baskin.

Beyond the almost inevitable clashes among labor activists over the message that labor should offer, there is another, more fundamental concern: whether labor really wants its big party at all. The AFL-CIO, according to one source, is poised to endorse Al Gore’s presidential bid at this week’s national convention in Los Angeles, at one of the earliest points in a presidential campaign ever. This “really undercuts the message,” comments Public Citizen organizer Mike Dolan. “I think labor’s making a mistake endorsing Gore this early without getting any sort of commitment on issues important to labor.”

Whether it happens this week or not, there is no question that much of John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO hierarchy is close to Gore, and Gore is firmly pro-free trade. A large protest in Seattle could potentially embarrass the vice president at a key point in his White House bid, with challenger Bill Bradley seemingly gaining momentum and George W. Bush raising record amounts of money.

While Bradley also supports free trade, Gore is a particular target for anti-WTO activists because of his 1994 pledge that “the US would never lose one law to the WTO.” The US has, of course, been losing quite a few lately.

The tension at the national AFL-CIO between those who want to push harder on WTO and those who don’t mirrors the split between those, particularly in service unions such as AFSCME and Sweeney’s SEIU, who are supporting an early Gore endorsement, and industrial unions like the Steelworkers, UAW, and Teamsters, who are expected to produce some of the largest numbers for the November 30 protest. Ironically, one of the items up for discussion for the WTO in Seattle is privatization of precisely those public service sectors now pushing for Gore.

The result is that while labor dithers, the clock ticks, and little time is left to educate union members on a series of relatively arcane trade issues. Mobilizing materials that should have been produced months ago are just now getting under way. “We should have started out six months out, not ten weeks out,” says Dolan. According to local activist Sarah Luthens, the efforts of two national organizers assigned by the AFL-CIO in July to work full-time on WTO mobilization “have largely been invisible to local rank-and-file activists. Their apparent paralysis seems to reflect ambivalence within the upper AFL-CIO as to how much resources to dedicate toward mobilizing.”

March and rally plans seem to be scaling back accordingly. Last week labor backed away from earlier interest in reserving the Kingdome for its rally and has instead booked the much more modest—and outdoor (note to national organizers: Seattle’s Novembers are rainy and cold)—dimensions of Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium. It’s also unclear now where the march will go; the Secret Service reportedly vetoed the initial request for a route through downtown Seattle that would have purportedly inconvenienced President Clinton.

Regardless of these early organizing difficulties, WTO fans shouldn’t get their hopes up; the protest will still clearly be the largest, by far, ever held on trade issues in North America. Nationals like the Teamsters and Steelworkers are working with the AFL-CIO, but are also mobilizing on their own. “Our national wants to have a more proactive position than the AFL. Wherever we have the opportunity [in Seattle] to have our voices heard, we’ll be there,” says Todd Thompson, the Teamsters’ National Field Director. Steelworkers in Milwaukee have reportedly chartered two planes to fly members to Seattle on the day of the march—because they can’t find overnight accommodations for their protesters.

Unions may not even be needed to generate the crowds. Throughout the region, anti-WTO organizers have been hosting well-attended neighborhood meetings and building a groundswell for the November 30 event. Students, churches, environmental groups, human rights groups, and others concerned with trade issues may well generate crowds of thousands. But labor will dominate the podium—with an ambivalent message that won’t go far enough for many of those who will turn out to oppose the WTO.