By NAT WEINSTEIN
An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 trade unionists, environmentalists, farmers and other concerned people, including an unusually high proportion of youth, went to Seattle to protest at the end of last month. The protests were directed against the World Trade Organization (WTO), its so-called “free trade” policy, and against the multinational corporations that are in complete control of this global capitalist institution.
Most of the Seattle demonstrators, following the lead of the organizations that initiated this mass protest action, hold the WTO largely responsible for the ever-worsening social, economic, and environmental conditions that have accompanied the uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) expansion of global capitalism.
The Dec. 2 New York Times reported that Seattle Mayor Paul Schell started out with a seemingly tolerant stance toward the demonstrators, which he said was in the tradition of a city having a “strong union history and a tolerance for diverse views.” But he apparently bent to those he holds in higher authority and unleashed heavily armed, helmeted police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators.
Another Times report that day noted that while police were brutally assaulting peaceful protesters “up to 50 people unveiled hammers, spray paint, and large firecrackers [and] smashed windows of branches of virtually every major retail chain, including F.A.O. Schwarz, Old Navy, Planet Hollywood, and McDonald’s.”
But police failed to intervene because, as one of its spokespersons said, “their primary goal was to protect trade delegates [and when] violence began, they did not have enough force to [stop] the unruly crowds.” But virtually all eyewitnesses report that only a handful of frustrated youth were “unruly,” not the “crowds” of peaceful demonstrators.
The Times went on to report such eyewitness accounts of brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators: “It seemed like the police were everywhere except where the real looting was going on, and I just don’t understand that,” said Phil Pickers, the manager of a Planet Hollywood store on 6th Avenue. “They were containing the peaceful people while the anarchists were going crazy.”
Reports from around the world were remarkably sympathetic to the demonstrators and stunned by televised scenes of rioting Seattle police. For instance, the same issue of The Times, reports:
“In Britain, criticism tended to focus on the jarring spectacle of black-clad, heavily insulated officers repelling nonviolent demonstrators with what seemed like an arsenal of inessential weaponry. Glenys Kinnock, a member of the European Parliament, said on a British television program that the Seattle authorities had grievously overreacted: ‘They dress in very strange sort of Star Wars outfits, had tear gas, and I think it was quite a draconian response to the demonstration.'”
The protest demonstrations in Seattle were by all accounts entirely positive and highly significant. It serves as evidence of a rapidly increasing awareness by millions of people that the allegedly beneficent “tide that raises all boats” has not benefited the overwhelming majority of this planet’s six billion people.
The masses of outraged protesters made very clear that at least they were convinced that while the rich in their yachts are getting richer, billions of the world’s ordinary people are in a losing struggle to keep their heads above water.
The organizations and individuals that initiated and supported the Seattle demonstration list many legitimate grievances against the World Trade Organization. Their critique falls into two related categories:
First, is their charge that the WTO subordinates human rights to “transnational corporate profits.” They hold the WTO responsible for the destruction of the environment, supporting the exploitation of child labor and the driving down of the living standards of workers, working farmers and others victimized by what had been a little known and secretive global capitalist institution.
And second, is their charge that the peoples of the world are being stripped of any control over their lives by the WTO and other unelected bodies. Even the sovereignty of nations, they charge, is being rapidly undermined by this institution of world capitalism, further negating the democratic rights of the great majority of the world’s peoples.
In effect, those who organized the Seattle protests have sent the clear message that corporate greed is at the root of all evil. And because this perception seems self-evident to so many people, it helps explain why tens of thousands of ordinary people traveled hundreds and thousands of miles to protest in a relatively distant corner of the country.
The environmental and labor movements were the high-profile organizers of the Seattle protests. Each component contributed importantly to the action.
But first, it’s important to look at how the environmentalist organizations sought to mobilize people for the Seattle demonstration. It suggests that the leaders of the environmental movement sense that deep changes in mass consciousness are taking place. This largely explains why these organizations, as we shall see, have come the closest to saying that the problem is capitalism
The environmental movement’s leading organizations, for instance, ran three full-page ads in The New York Times, one of them headlined “Globalization vs. Nature.”
The ad’s sponsor, the “Turning Point Project,” was described as “a coalition of more than 60 non-profit organizations.” It listed 20 of the most prominent environmental organizations as signers of the ad-including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace U.S., and Friends of the Earth.
The political thrust of these ads was clearly designed to transmit a leftist anti-establishment message. And while none of these environmentalist groups claims to be anticapitalist, the message could have easily been interpreted as such.
The ads were evidently designed, moreover, to appeal to the incipient and inchoate anticapitalist tendencies developing among a growing sector of the population, primarily youth. Young people today are reacting against the status quo because, among other things, they believe they are destined to be the first generation that will not enjoy a living standard at least equal to that of their parents.
That’s something new and real, and is a harbinger of the far deeper, class-conscious radicalization to come.
The following excerpt is from one of the three full-page advertisements. It was published in the Nov. 22, 1999, edition of The New York Times. (The quoted segment appears after a section describing the role of the WTO in leading an assault on the environment-under the heading, “The deeper problem.”)
The authors of the “Globalization vs. Nature” ad pose the problem facing humanity this way:
These attacks on environmental laws are symptoms of a larger environmental problem: globalization itself. Under globalized free trade, countries as diverse as Sweden and India, Canada and Thailand, Bolivia and Russia are meant to merge their economies, and homogenize their values toward maximum commodity accumulation. This puts the whole planet in a single giant economic (and political) structure with global corporations in charge.
Such corporations depend on never-ending resource supplies, ever-expanding growth, ever-expanding markets, and constant supplies of cheap labor. So, WTO rules give top priority to such goals. Older values like preserving nature, or protecting workers, or public health, or communities, or democracy are viewed as impediments to global corporate growth.
But how long can this go on? Already we see serious ozone depletion, global warming, habitat and species destruction, epidemic pollution; we are on the brink of a global environmental collapse. How long can we keep growing on a finite earth? This system is unsustainable. And one of its most unsustainable aspects is the emphasis on export production… .
Until recently, most people in the world were fed by small farmers, producing diverse staple food crops to serve local communities and local market. But under WTO rules small farmers are disappearing. In much of the world (including the U.S.) global corporations have taken over most aspects of farming, using chemical-intensive methods, and now biotechnology. Small farmers have given way to miles of single crop luxury monocultures for export to foreign markets….
This along with the other two ads get across the clear message that the quest for profits is at the root of all the evils attributed by the Turning Point Project sponsors to the policies of the WTO and its transnational corporate masters. It is not entirely accidental that the spirit of the above extract from the ad, in fact, bears an eerie resemblance to the spirit of the following passage from “The Communist Manifesto,” by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels:
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere….
All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.
To be sure, the sponsors of these ads are not Marxists. But it suggests they are responding to a widespread radicalization gestating deeply beneath the surface of mass consciousness, but surfacing first, for the most part, among environmentalist youth.
The role of the AFL-CIO officialdom
Now, as to the role of the AFL-CIO in the Seattle protests: The labor movement has a very big organizational advantage over the environmental movement. With some 16 million members in a hierarchy of organizations from local unions to city, state, and regional units, the AFL-CIO has a structure very well suited for mobilizing millions of workers and their supporters for effective action in their class interests.
Moreover, the trade-union movement has the objective capability of backing up mass street demonstrations with industrial action. And it was this objective power of this massive labor organization that enabled it to mobilize the largest contingent of Seattle demonstrators.
Such a combination of capabilities can change the world. The only thing the labor movement lacks is an intelligent and effective leadership that is totally committed to advance the interests of the entire working class and all its natural allies.
But that enormous objective potential for progressive change in the interests of the working class has been eroded by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s openly declared policy of partnership with American capitalism. That led them, long ago, to subordinate the class interests of working people to the profits of those American capitalists whom they perceive as their “partners.”
For the last half-century, the labor bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist policy has disoriented, demoralized, and eroded the social and economic power inherent in the workers’ movement. And that, in turn, has resulted in a decades-long series of setbacks and defeated strikes, which has resulted in a massive decline in union membership from 35.5 percent of the workforce in 1945 to 14.1 percent in 1997.
We come now to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who represents the most conservative segment of the American labor movement. Sweeney and the labor chiefs that preceded him have been among the foremost opponents of free trade, and have placed the blame for the crimes of the WTO on unnamed “transnational corporations.” But the real policy of the labor bureaucracy is really more complicated than that.
The fact is that Sweeney is on record supporting the WTO and has reportedly accepted an appointment by President Clinton to serve on a WTO advisory committee. He thereby commits himself and the movement he heads to serve as window-dressing for the anti-labor, anti-human rights, anti-environmental policies of the WTO.
Thus the AFL-CIO’s chief’s real stance toward the WTO is not to overthrow it, as he has made it appear, but to reform an institution that is absolutely unreformable.
And as far as U.S. President William Clinton is concerned, he welcomes Sweeney’s endorsement of the WTO, seeing it as providing the sugarcoating that will help the WTO’s bitter medicine go down working people’s throats. (It’s not for naught that Clinton has earned the nickname “Slippery Willie.”)
Then came a seemingly strange sequence of events. First, Clinton floated the demand to the assembled WTO delegates that sanctions be imposed on countries that refused to abide by fair labor standards “to enforce core labor rights around the world.” Then, following that “pro-labor” declaration, Clinton took it all back: The next few days were spent with his spokespersons assuring low-wage neocolonial nations that he never meant what he said!
Clinton sent them around to assure these countries, it was widely reported, that he merely was proposing that a “study” of the question of labor and human rights be made. And anyone with a modicum of experience with “studies” proposed by capitalist politicians knows that proposing a “study” is most often the last anyone is likely to hear of it.
A false thesis
Now in regard to the logic behind the labor bureaucracy’s strategy of class collaboration: It is based on the false thesis that without profits, there will be no bosses, and without bosses, no jobs. In other words, Sweeney and company (who know better) pretend to perceive American capitalists as the goose that lays golden eggs.
But that is merely the labor bureaucracy’s rationalization for pressuring the union rank and file to accept giveback contracts. The bureaucracy’s case for givebacks, in a nutshell, goes like this:
“Competition in the world market is intense. To stay in business, ‘our’ employers need concessions so that they can make a reasonable profit. You can’t blame them-why would anyone stay in business only to lose money? And, in any case, we’re all in the same boat, and if the boat sinks we go down along with our bosses. So, to save our jobs, we have to give a little. And then when the economic tide rises, we’ll get it all back.”
But in real life, experience has made eminently clear, the promised getback never follows the giveback!
Moreover, the labor bureaucracy’s “opposition” to free trade is as phony as a nine-dollar bill. The AFL-CIO’s real position is in support of free trade -that is, only when it strips away tariffs and other barriers to American exports. But the bureaucracy supports such barriers when it blocks foreign imports coming into the domestic American economy.
In short, the bureaucracy is for both free trade and protectionism at one and the same time, but only insofar as it suits the profit interests of their American capitalist partners in crime. Thus, nothing has really changed. The real policy of the labor bureaucracy remains as it has been all along-putting profits before human rights, the environment, and workers’ rights.
What workers want is something else again
But the rank and file of the labor movement are motivated by different needs and different goals. They want jobs, they want health care, they want living wages, they want air they can breathe and water they can drink. They have no interest in destabilizing the ecology of the planet. They have no interest in sending so-called “peace keepers” (i.e., their own working-class youth) around the world to kill and be killed in the service of profits.
Even if free trade or protectionist policies served the interests of workers-and neither are designed to do anything but increase corporate profits-why go that very indirect route to get better jobs, wages, working conditions, health care, and all the other things workers want? As Malcolm X once pointedly remarked: When chickens look to wolves or foxes to defend their interests, the chickens are in big trouble!
It is far better for real workers’ leaders to simply say what it is that workers really want. But most important, to educate and mobilize them for a struggle in the streets and workplaces of the land in which they live for these things!
Class struggle: the only way forward
Instead of putting our faith in what the bureaucrats allege are pro-labor capitalists and their political representatives, what is needed is to go back to the goals and strategy that built the world’s most powerful trade-union movement starting 66 years ago.
The struggle for a shorter workday and workweek with no reduction in pay best exemplifies the time-tested strategy of the independent mobilization of the working class and its allies for class struggle in its own class interests.
Starting toward the end of the 18th century, workers began engaging in a campaign for as long as it takes to reduce the workday and workweek-which tended then to be at least 12 hours a day and six days a week. By the mid-19th century a sizeable section of the working class in the industrializing countries had achieved the 10-hour day and 60-hour week. By the 1880s the movement for the eight-hour day was well under way.
But it was not until the 1930s that the eight-hour day, 48-hour week had become the norm. Then by the mid-1940s American workers had generally established the 8-hour day, 40-hour week as the norm, and a significant minority of workers had won a seven-hour day, 35-hour week.
Now, 50 years after the AFL-CIO bureaucracy won virtually absolute control over the labor movement with the indispensable help of the U.S. capitalist class and its bipartisan government, even the 40-hour week has become a myth.
Many other givebacks were handed over to the bosses by the labor bureaucracy along with the 40-hour week-and stifling and sabotaging any fightback-all in the name of protecting the profitability of their capitalist geese that lay golden eggs. But it’s the working class that produces the wealth, and it’s the capitalists who are laughing all the way to the bank with their loot.
The fight for an ever-shorter workweek with no reduction in pay is, of course, strategically important in itself, but it is also symbolic of the generalized struggle since it is organically linked to the defense of the social, economic, and political interests of the entire working class and its natural allies-the victims of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other forms of capitalist- inspired and cultivated bigotry.
Divide and conquer, in short, is the name of the game.
Moreover, the struggle against the endemic plague of capitalist unemployment by shortening the workweek is entirely logical and just. Technological advances have produced such a vast abundance of the things everyone needs and wants that there is not the slightest legitimate reason that anyone in the world should be without a job and be forced to go without sharing in the fruits of socialized human labor.
So what do we conclude from all the above? Three things:
First, neither free trade nor protectionism will solve a single problem for working people and other victims of capitalist anarchy.
Second, only by relying on its strategic position at the centers of production, transportation, communication and distribution-and by relying on the time-tested strategy of mass mobilization for struggle-can the interests of the working class and all its natural allies, the exploited and oppressed of this world, be advanced.
And third, only a world socialist society based on human solidarity and a system of production designed to satisfy human needs, not profits, can provide an alternative to the current accelerating trend toward capitalist barbarism.