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The Tear Gas Ministerial

Temblors shake World Trade Organization in Seattle

by Peter Costantini, with reporting by Abid Aslam and Danielle Knight

Seattle - December 1, 1999

The Wall Street Journal dubbed it the "Woodstock of globalization." Others see it as a grandchild of the Seattle general strike of 1919. While The Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation raises echoes of both events, it may have more in common with the earthquakes that periodically shake the city, the surface joltings and rumblings of subterranean cultural and economic forces grinding against each other.

Opinions assault the visitors from all angles. Protesters from the Rainforest Action Network broadcast their message by hanging from a construction crane and unfurling two banners: one arrow labeled "Democracy" pointed one way; another arrow labeled "WTO" pointed in the opposite direction.

Marchers in sea turtle costumes protest a WTO ruling they said would weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Raging Grannies, a group of 60s-vintage women activists, perform street theatre while a coven of Wiccans, neo-pagan lovers of magic and nature also known as witches, have arrived from San Francisco to strengthen the event's connection to the earth. Even the cinema across the street from the convention center seems to be making an oblique comment: it is showing "The World Is Not Enough," the latest James Bond movie, which involves oil pipelines in the Caucasus.

Seismic passions about something as eye-glazing as tariffs may seem odd. But trade is only the catalyst for the the Battle of Seattle; most of the protesters do not oppose international commerce per se, but rather its use as a weapon against social norms, economic development, and democracy to the benefit of rich nations and transnational business interests. They feel excluded from the deliberations of the WTO, which does not allow non-governmental organizations to participate in decision-making as do some other multilateral institutions.

Goaded by threats to environmental protections, consumer safeguards and labor standards won over decades, tens of thousands of protesters have streamed into this damp, green city on Puget Sound from around the world. Many are also outraged that the WTO has ignored the urgent needs of poor nations and social groups.

Organizers have built on the international coalitions that came together to defeat a proposal for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would have increased protections for foreign investors, and the common efforts within the U.S. to defeat fast-track trade negotiating powers for President Clinton in the U.S. Congress.

Many civil-society groupings support the slogan "No new round - turnaround." They oppose further WTO negotiations until there has been a thorough review of the effects of existing agreements.

In a country where social movements have a history of fragmentation, the WTO has brought together erstwhile antagonists from labor, environmental and consumer protection groups to stage joint marches and forums. For example, members of the United Steelworkers Union and the environmentalist Sierra Club say they will jointly dump imported steel into the Seattle harbor in an echo of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

"No one expects trade ministers to change their policies upon seeing thousands of people in the streets," wrote one citizen to the Seattle Times. "But as more and more people concern themselves with the direction and impact of WTO-style globalization, there will come a point at which the costs of ignoring public pressure will simply be too great. That's the nature of mass movements."

The biggest show during the opening day of the ministerial, billed as the "March of the Century," was spearheaded by the AFL-CIO, the national labor federation. Other groups including environmentalists and students marched from different locations and converged to flood the area where the WTO meetings are being held with thirty to forty thousand demonstrators.

At the opening rally, among the biggest ovations went for Indian physicist and feminist Vandana Shiva, a supporter of Indian peasants and critic of multinational drug and agricultural interests. During the march, waves of hard-hatted construction workers followed pierced and dreadlocked puppeteers, retired longshoremen mingled with families carrying hand-lettered signs reading "Infinite growth on a finite planet? Not likely" and "Global village? Global pillage." French trade unionists and Green Party delegates chanted loudly "Tous ensemble!" (All together!).

"Fix it or nix it," a female steelworker from Chicago said of the WTO. An African-American small farmer from Georgia was marching, he said, because he could no longer get the credit he needed to stay in business. Arrayed in Aztec costumes, Mexican farmworkers from Washington and Oregon said they could no longer make a living back home in the Mexican countryside. Free trade under the North American Free Trade Agreement had hurt them, and so they had joined the United Farm Workers Union to assert their rights as migrant workers.

Chinese members of the spiritual group Falun Gong asked passers-by in halting English to sign a petition opposing government persecution of their group. Boeing machinists opposed European subsidies to Airbus Industrie and lamented downsizing of their jobs, while supporting human rights for labor in developing countries. Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. told members of his union after the rally, "This is round one against the WTO and against China."

The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which represents unions in 140 countries, also brought several hundred delegates to the march. ICFTU general secretary Bill Jordan and AFL-CIO leaders called for the WTO to incorporate labor standards and said that failure by the ministers to do so could set in motion "the beginning of the end of the WTO."

Some trade unions and other NGOs from developing countries, though, oppose adding workers' rights to the WTO negotiations. They criticize the trade organization as unresponsive to their problems and fear that such a "social clause" could be used as cover for protectionism by the industrialized countries.

The Organization of African Trade Union Unity, among others, sees the International Labor Organization as a more appropriate forum on international labor standards. Others have criticized the U.S. labor federation for softening its opposition to the WTO to avoid embarrassing Vice President Al Gore, whom it has endorsed for president in the 2000 elections and who supports the WTO.

At least one local labor group may have already benefited from WTO meeting. A Seattle taxi cab drivers association took advantage of the influx of visitors to press its grievances against city regulations. It carried out a one-day strike on Tuesday, the day many delegates arrived, adding to the chaos downtown.

Agriculture is one of the hottest topics inside the Ministerial. Outside, it was most visibly represented by José Bové, a French farmer who became a cause célèbre for a protest that pulled the roof off a Mcdonald's under construction to protest corporate standardization of culture. The protestors' slogan: "McDo dehors, vive le Roquefort" ("Out with Mcdonald's, long live Roquefort cheese").

Bové gave away 484 pounds of Roquefort outside a Mcdonald's in downtown Seattle to dramatize trade sanctions against European products imposed by the WTO in retaliation for Europe's exclusion of hormone-treated beef. He told the Seattle Times the WTO was dangerous because it permits trade to "dominate all human activities." Bové's delegation from the Conféderation Paysanne, a farmers' union, visited organic vegetable farms in the Seattle area and met with other farmers' groups.

For the opposition, not all the activity has been in the streets. The International Forum on Globalization sponsored a two-day conference featuring prominent opponents of the WTO, giving activists intellectual sustenance to ruminate on through the days of marching. On Tuesday night, the group held a debate ranging Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, economist John Cavanaugh and Vandana Shiva against former GATT adviser Jagdish Bhagwati, U.S. trade official David Aaron and Procter and Gamble executive Scott Miller.

Surplus store proprietor Yechiel Cohen told Fox News on Monday that a lot of fears about the demonstrators were overblown, but that he has sold several Israeli gas masks at $16, including one to a Seattle bus driver whose route goes through downtown. The masks proved to be a prudent investment.

Parallel to the large peaceful march, thousands of more militant protesters occupied various intersections and practiced non-violent civil disobedience in an effort to shut down the WTO meetings. A few protesters physically blocked officials from attending opening day meetings and roughed up delegates. These tactics succeeded in curtailing several WTO sessions and preventing many visitors from getting to their lodgings. United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan was reportedly unable to leave his hotel to attend the meetings.

Rolling confrontations between police and protesters continued all day, leaving the streets of downtown Seattle eerily empty except for overturned dumpsters and broken glass. Despite efforts of most demonstrators to keep the peace, small groups of angry youths smashed downtown store windows and tagged buildings with graffiti, and a few looted an electronics store. In the evening, police attempted to clear the streets by firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets; about 25 people were arrested, but no serious injuries were reported. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a state of civil emergency and called in National Guard troops to reinforce police from around the region.

Above the action in the streets in the hospitality suites, prominent corporate promoters of the WTO are wooing the 5,000 official delegates from 135 member countries and 30 observer countries. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Boeing CEO Phil Condit, co-chairs of the official Seattle Host Organization (SHO), are hosting a reception amid the fuselages of 777 jets under construction at a Boeing plant north of Seattle, billed as the most voluminous building in the world. And other corporate sponsors of the SHO are staging a glittering array of colloquia and galas to sell their messages to the delegates over Northwest wines and smoked salmon.

According to a study by the University of Washington, the Seattle area is the most export-oriented region in the country, with one job in three tied to trade. Besides airplanes and software, Washington state exports prodigious amounts of forest products, apples and wheat and is an incubator of the young electronic commerce industry, with firms like and

Peter Costantini, Abid Aslam and Danielle Knight covered the WTO Seattle Ministerial for Inter Press Service, a newswire based in Rome. Aslam and Knight are correspondents for Inter Press Service based in Washington, DC. An edited version of this piece went out on the Inter Press Service newsire December 1, 1999 without a byline under the headline "TRADE: Diversity of Opinions at WTO Conference."