Amid the Tear Gas in Quebec, Thousands Oppose New Free Trade Deal

It had been a wild week--3,000 union members, farmers, and NGO representatives from every country in the hemisphere gathered in Quebec City to discuss alternatives to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. If passed, the FTAA would extend NAFTA-type provisions to the whole hemisphere. By Friday, April 20, the "People's Summit" participants were all talked out. It was time to march.

A giant legal march, organized by the Quebec Federation of Labor (FTQ), had been planned for Saturday. Friday was direct action day. Groups including the Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (Anti-Capitalist Convergence, or CLAC), planned to march directly to the infamous 2.5-mile security perimeter, a chain-link fence erected to separate protesters from George W. Bush and his fellow delegates to the FTAA Summit of the Americas.

In the end, the direct action forces and the union groups reached a compromise: while CLAC and others took on the fence, union members, students, and NGO representatives would march in support of them in other parts of the city. To facilitate what they termed "a diversity of tactics," protest leaders divided up the city into zones. Lower Town became a green zone, where demonstrators could march peacefully with minimal risk of violence or confrontation. Towards the fence, the zone shaded into "yellow," meaning that some direct action was planned. Then there was the red zone where the heaviest action was expected.

But it didn't work out that way. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, the labor march turned and headed up the winding streets of Old Quebec in a collision course with the security perimeter. The scene at the "wall," a surprisingly flimsy section of fence, was as festive as it was militant. The largely French-speaking crowd sang, danced, and chanted "so-so-so-solidarité," as the water cannon trucks began to make their way up the hill.

The scene changed in an instant. As demonstrators pulled on the fence, it suddenly began to give way. Protest leaders announced that the action, which had started out in the green zone, was about to turn yellow, meaning that while there was the possibility of arrest, they didn't intend to provoke police.

"I heard them say that we were in a yellow zone," said Cathy Ferreira, president of a Massachusetts graduate employees union. "But we had no time to move out of there before the police started with the gas."

The events of Friday afternoon set the stage for the next two days. Protesters would converge on the fence and try to tug it down. Someone used an enormous catapult to fire giant teddy bears into the crowds of police. In turn, from behind the fence, the police fired tear gas, concussion grenades, and water cannons into the crowd.

A POPULAR CAUSE

While the American media kept their cameras trained on the red zone, where "Black Bloc" anarchists were battling the police, Canadian media drew a distinction between these "bad eggs" and the peaceful protesters who participated in the FTQ's giant AFL-CIO-style march. Jean Chretién, the Canadian Prime Minister, went so far as to call the latter event a "parade." But the reality of the anti-FTAA protests was more complex than either of these depictions. Unlike the WTO protests in Seattle and subsequent rallies in Washington, D.C. and Prague, the FTAA events drew much of their support from the local population. Joining busloads of students and unionists from Ontario were thousands of Quebecois union members and residents.

Canadians in general, and the Quebecois in particular, viewed the ugly chain-link fence that encircled Old Quebec as an assault upon their democratic rights. Tearing down the wall, therefore, was seen as a legitimate response to a process from which the people had been quite literally barred.

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The muscle and money behind the events was provided by the 400,000-member Quebec Federation of Labor. The massive Saturday "parade"--attendance was estimated by Le Journal de Quebec at 67,000-was advertised on the radio for weeks. The winding march took three hours to pass through the heart of the city. It drew members of every Canadian union, families, churchgoers, local residents, and students. Students at fifteen universities across the province went on strike to be present; several Quebec City high schools also shut down.

But one labor group was noticeably absent: our own AFL-CIO. President John Sweeney made a brief appearance at the People's Summit, touting the federation's new project: to post the International Labor Organization's declaration of rights at work in workplaces around the world. By march time, however, Sweeney was long gone. Ed Fire of the IUE/CWA was the only other top-level American labor leader present.

There were, however, hundreds of union members from New England. Workers from General Electric and Raytheon rode buses overnight to march alongside an estimated 2,000 people from Vermont to Rhode Island. "I'm here because this globalization plan they have doesn't work for workers," said Don Rama, a pipefitter at the Bath Iron Works in Maine.

The New England union delegation was the product of months of grassroots organizing by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and the Northeast Labor Committee for Global Justice. No AFL-CIO Field Mobilization staff were assigned to this undertaking; with the exception of a $5,000 donation from CWA District 1, union members paid their own way.

"We have to give the Canadian unions credit," says Jeff Crosby, president of IUE/CWA Local 201 at General Electric. "They really understand that this issue affects all workers. For the most part, that isn't the case in the American labor movement."

NEXT STEPS

The next step here at home is to keep George Bush from securing "fast track" authority to negotiate an FTAA deal, which he'll soon try to muscle through Congress.

Activists in the US should feel emboldened by the success of the Canadian anti-FTAA protests. The fragile coalition of unions, civil society groups, and "direct actionistas" in Quebec not only held, it appears to have been strengthened.

But the Canadian model won't be easily replicated here in the U.S. Despite plenty of progressive talk, the AFL-CIO has largely stepped back from the role it played during the WTO protests. If the anti-corporate globalization movement in the U.S. is to grow beyond its current base of "turtles" and "butterflies," American unions will have to step up to the plate. "Not just the manufacturing unions," says the IUE's Crosby, "but the public sector and the service unions too. They shouldn't feel discomfort over tactics and strategy. As we saw in Quebec, this is a movement that has room for everybody."

Jennifer Berkshire is a Jobs with Justice activist in Boston and a freelance writer. A version of this article appeared in Counterpunch.