'The Kids Are All Right'...and other thoughts from IUE visitors to Seattle

I went to Seattle with 15 members of the North Shore (Massachusetts) Labor Council. Eleven were from IUE Local 201 at the GE plant in Lynn and Ametek Aerospace in Wilmington. Contrary to the musings of Robert Reich and others that the primary loss of jobs in the United States through "free trade" would be unskilled work, both GE and Ametek aircraft engine work are headed to Mexico, Russia, China, Brazil, and other countries. The engineering and planning work is going as well.

So we were pissed. After seven or eight years working on trade issues in our local union, it was not hard to sign up people for the trip. We paid our own expenses and took vacation time. Our international union worked with other GE unions to publicize the trip, helped us build a float, and distributed 5,000 leaflets describing the situation facing GE workers across the country.

We talked with lots of students, farmers from Japan, people from India, professors from Boston College, steelworkers from Ohio, environmentalists of various stripes, church activists, as well as anyone who happened to be seated next to us on a plane or in the airport, and the waitresses and cabbies that we met in Seattle.

A year's worth of political discussion was compressed into six days: the role of the different movements, the role of the folks from other countries, the question of violence and civil disobedience, and more. Anyone who missed Seattle missed a great chance to build up the core of leaders and activists in their union or group. Trade unionists in the U.S. don't exist in a vacuum, and we see ourselves more clearly when we see ourselves in relationship to others.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT--AND HAVE MUCH TO TEACH US

The labor movement basically piggy-backed on the courage of the young environmentalists and anti-sweatshop and church activists.

Without the Direct Action Network, which disrupted the WTO, the labor march would have received a two-minute clip on the nightly news, with some narration like, "A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of roadkill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer..."

Then again, without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes--people who aren't worried about basic issues like having to earn a living. I guess the ideal mix was summed up in the now©famous sign seen in the Tuesday march: "Teamsters and Turtles, Together At Last."

The decision by the AFL-CIO not to plan direct action was a mistake. The literature and petition the AFL-CIO used for Seattle was mostly unreadable and unusable, with no edge. Despite some heroic efforts by union folks in Seattle and other places, the AFL-CIO campaign was reminiscent of the "old" AFL-CIO's campaign against NAFTA. Remember "Not This NAFTA"? If we had run a campaign against the Congressional "Fast-track" vote with "Not This Fast-Track," we would have lost that one, too. Did anyone really try to bring people to Seattle under the slogan, "We demand a working group"?

This is a period when, on certain issues, massive nonviolent direct action is in order, as the demonstration in Seattle shows. Every member who went on our trip reports that support for the demonstrations, even with the disruptions, is overwhelming. And not just from other workers in the shop, but family and others, regardless of what they do for a living. "We're being treated like conquering heroes," marveled one of our group.

PERHAPS...

Perhaps the AFL-CIO was driven by policy advisors in Washington who didn't understand how angry people are about this issue. Perhaps they did not want to embarrass Gore. Perhaps Sweeney had an agreement from Clinton to ask for enforceable labor standards. Perhaps they thought that most people would be turned off by civil disobedience. I don't know. There were plenty of people in the labor movement pushing for unions to join in the direct action. We lost.

Clinton's commitment prior to the demonstration, to support a "working group" on how the agreements affect labor, was not taken seriously by anyone outside of Washington. It was blown away as meaningless by Clinton's own trade negotiator, Charlene Barshefsky, as soon as Sweeney signed on to the administration's letter on trade goals at the WTO. Clinton himself left the "working group" idea in the dust when he came to Seattle, and proposed instead that enforceable labor standards be included in the next round of WTO talks. With Clinton's record of duplicity (remember the NAFTA side accords on labor rights?) this has to be seen as a sop to bail out Gore more than anything else.

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Still, it's good he said it, and indicates strength on our part. I did an interview on a radio "Trade Watch" program. On the same show was Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland. He predicted that during the primaries both Democratic candidates for president would start moving toward the labor movement on trade, and that the eventual candidate will pick a running mate that has a strong pro-labor and environment record on trade agreements. Sounds likely to me.

For our part, we have to just keep doing what got us here, and not put our hopes in any of the presidential candidates.

In Seattle, we were bailed out by the kids. The Steelworkers--hats off to them--and Longshoremen (ILWU) did a great job, with the Longshoremen shutting down all West Coast ports! The Teamsters made a major effort to mobilize for Seattle as well. Those were the unions that went all out, as far as I could tell. (Of course the local Seattle and Washington unions did as well.)

AN INTERNATIONALIST MOVEMENT

Even some of the mainstream commentaries noted that this is an internationalist movement. I was proud that the AFL-CIO rally had speakers from Mexico, South Africa, the Caribbean, China, France, and elsewhere. A Ford maquiladora worker got a huge response at that rally when she shouted, "Long Live the Zapatistas!" (It reminded me of a day in January 1994, after our bitter defeat on the NAFTA vote, when a member of our local union's Legislative Committee came into the union hall all pumped up. He had a newspaper story on the Chiapas rebellion that had just broken out: "Man, these guys really hate NAFTA!"

This was not a Pat Buchanan crew, and there could be no mistake about that. This makes building alliances easier, both within the U.S. and across borders. We've come a long way from thinking that the answer is just to "Buy American."

There will still be issues. I am told that even some of the third world unions, like many of their governments, are not in favor of enforceable labor standards in trade agreements. This will have to be worked out.

SO WHAT HAS CHANGED?

There is a second "Battle of Seattle" that is now underway: the battle for public opinion over what Seattle means. As has been pointed out in many other places, everyone is talking about the WTO. Add this to our victories on Fast-Track in Congress (twice), and the collapse of the talks on a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and we are driving the agenda.

I was optimistic about public support for the anti-WTO demonstrations, but even so I was amazed at how broad it was. A Seattle cabbie, picking his way through the gas, told us, "Good. You can't just lie down." A programmer for Fidelity Investments, of all companies, who happened to be seated between two of us on a flight from Philadelphia to Boston, told us: "You were there? Great. They were protesting in Italy, too." The head of the local community health center bumped into a couple of us at lunch and told us, "Hey, congratulations on Seattle."

At a church-community coalition dinner in which we are involved, it was a main point of discussion. Speakers used it as an example of how you can change things through action. In the press about Seattle, church services and marches by faith-based groups like Preamble or Jubilee 2000 were nearly blacked out. The development of a powerful faith-based movement in support of workers' rights and a just international economy is a key story of the 1990s and was very evident in Seattle.

What's great is that for most of the demonstrators in Seattle, this was not a one-time thing. They are already organized, and have already been working on trade, labor, and environmental issues for years. They return to their organizations energized for more.

Congratulations, everyone.