By CHARLES WALKER
SEATTLE-The AFL-CIO strategists had a bold game plan. Hold a mass rally of unionists and their allies at a large Seattle stadium, march to the meeting site of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and then hold a “silent sit-down,” blocking the building’s entrances and preventing easy access to 3000 WTO delegates.
In effect, they would shut down the WTO’s opening sessions. Surely, tens of thousands of sit-downers on Seattle’s damp streets and sidewalks would have been vividly dramatic. Perhaps dramatic enough to gain the attention of the corporate media and put the spotlight on labor’s demands on the WTO.
As it was, the rally and march, as well as the speeches were greatly under-reported. The next day the city’s main paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ran a smallish union rally article on its 14th page. In an overview article, the next day’s New York Times devoted only the four final paragraphs to the union’s actions, again on the 14th page.
Perhaps the sit-down idea was taken from a page of labor’s history, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Or perhaps the more recent Tiananmen Square sit-down that challenged Peking’s ruling elite. Perhaps not. In any event the little publicized “silent sit-down” didn’t come off. Why isn’t clear.
Perhaps the Seattle cops’ earlier skirmishes with young alienated men and women and the youths’ many sympathizers made the organizers cautious. Perhaps the organizers didn’t have enough monitors on the march route to coordinate a large-scale action.
Or maybe it was simply that the organizers didn’t do a good job. That’s suggested by the unusual occurrence of having key labor representatives, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, deliver their stadium speeches after more than half of the marchers had left to begin the march. Actually, only a rear-guard of a thousand or less were present to hear Sweeney, the rally’s final speaker.
The many international presidents on the rally’s rostrum-from Steven Yokich (Auto Workers) to Jerry McAttee (Public Workers), to James P. Hoffa (Teamsters) and John Sweeney-sounded much alike.
Even the most leftist ones-such as ILWU head Brian McWilliams, who correctly said that workers’ interests transcend local and national boundaries-called for “fair trade,” as though profit-driven, capitalist international trade should be as “fair” to workers as domestic bosses and their capitalistic commerce are, and workers should settle for that.
The union tops also called for a seat at the WTO table, as though they would act in workers’ interest, unlike when they join labor-management groups, and tripartite set-ups of labor, bosses, and government officials that invariably swindle workers of the gains workers’ independent actions bring, especially when they hurt the bosses in the pocket book.
Like the others, George Becker (Steel Workers) agreed that organized labor should have a place at the WTO table. But he added that if the WTO wasn’t changed, then a movement should be started to get the United States out. “Fix it, or nix it,” he proclaimed.
Presumably, such a movement would include the environmentalists and human rights activists, 10,000 of whom joined the march as it moved along. While most of those organized oppositionists do a fairly good job of describing the problems of life under capitalism, they are not as good when it comes to proposing solutions.
Many seem to be calling for a return to yesterday’s status quo. Withdraw from the WTO, many say. But they do not propose answers to the capitalist trade relations and exploitation that would remain.
Some seem to be calling for a return to mom-and-pop capitalism as a replacement for corporate capitalism.
Some voice a nostalgia for a mythical Norman Rockwell small-town way of life.
Nevertheless, the basis for a new social justice movement was evident in Seattle. Even a movement whose anticorporatism is only implicitly anticapitalist would open a new and hopeful period in working-class politics here and abroad.
And unlike the Vietnam anti-war movement, such a new movement would join together unionists, students, and a broad array of activists. A marcher’s hand-made poster captured the new possibility: “Turtles and Teamsters-United At Last.”
The nearly 20,000-strong rally was generous in its applause. But it seemed that those speakers who sounded like they were calling for strong actions that included the ranks got the more enthusiastic responses.
And no one’s words got more cheers and shouts of approval than that of a Caribbean trade unionist, who proclaimed that the rally and march were not just an American union demonstration but a “demonstration of the world’s working class.”