Labor Eyewitness to the Battle of Seattle

by Jim Smith
L.A. Labor News

Seattle - It didn’t take long for an electronic fist to replace the velvet glove and happy face that the WTO - and its supporters in Seattle - have been trying to project.

The nearly 100,000 overwhelmingly non-violent protesters were greeted Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 30, with a barrage of tear gas grenades, mass arrests, a 7 pm curfew, the declaration of a state of emergency and the calling out of the national guard and state troopers. The overreaction was caused not by a few broken windows at Starbucks or political graffiti at Niketown but by the realization by officials that the WTO had been prevented from meeting and would probably not be able to meet all week in the face of the massive non-violent demonstrations.

I saw tens of thousands of demonstrators from a variety of organizations and viewpoints unite on the streets of Seattle to take on the World Trade Organization with determination and good humor. They included 40 or 50,000 labor union members as well as students, activists for the ecology, healthy food, animal rights and a hundred other causes opposed to the WTO. They ranged in age from 80-year-olds to babies. There were tattooed skinheads, long haired hippies, dreadlocked rastafarians and business-suited union reps. (Photos of the labor rally and march are on the L.A. Labor News website, click here.)

The only “violence” was aimed, on the part of a few, at chain stores which have bad records of international exploitation such as Starbucks, the Gap and Nike. As a number of demonstrators pointed out, this “violence” paled when compared with the daily suffering of millions because of the WTO and its neoliberal policies.

Despite wavering by its president, John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO mobilized thousands of members for its rally and march on Tuesday. Very large contingents included the Teamsters, Machinists and Longshore (ILWU) unions. The ILWU also stropped work for two hours in west coast ports to express their opposition to the WTO. Nearly every union also supplied its members with uniformly-colored jackets or rain ponchos.

The day began very early for participants in the Direct Action Network, which also brought thousands into the city. They poured into the downtown area and surrounded the convention center where the WTO was to meet. Even before the labor march got underway around 12:30 pm, the gridlocked WTO had bowed to the protesters and called off its meeting for the day.

Meanwhile, labor packed Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, near the Space Needle, for a 10 am rally. The rally consisted of greetings from foreign labor leaders and international presidents of AFL-CIO unions. To this reporter, most seemed to be quickly trying to catch up with their members who were out in front of them in opposition to the WTO. During the two-and-a-half-hour rally, only Linda Chavez Thompson spoke for the AFL-CIO leadership. Rich Trumka was reportedly sick and Sweeney did not speak until the stadium was almost empty. Some activists speculated that he might be afraid of getting booed because of a recent letter he co-authored with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which offered critical support to the WTO. The crowd at the overly long rally dwindled away as whole delegations left to line up for the march. It finally got underway as Sweeney and his entourage shoved their way past waiting union members in order to get to the front of the march.

March monitors allowed other groups to join with it, including anti-communist Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. However, once the march got into the downtown area, the monitors joining hands and held ribbons to steer labor marchers away from other groups.

In a half-way measure that has become typical of the Sweeney administration, the march thundered down the streets to within one block of the WTO’s convention center, then turned and went the other way, back to the staging area. No attempt was made to picket the arena or join with other groups who were peacefully blocking nearly every street in the area. However, many hundreds of labor marchers managed to remain in the convention center area and joined the festivities.

Within minutes after the last labor marchers had headed back the way they came, loud cannon-like booming was heard in several locations, followed by clouds of tear gas smoke. Whether officials would have been so belligerent had the labor march not abandoned the field will never be known. The violent actions of the police were met with violence from a few in the cloud. This only amounted to throwing the tear gas canisters back at the police, turning over newspaper racks and smashing a few windows.

The overreaction of the policy and government official more than compensated for the disorder. Perhaps hoping to quarantine the “virus” to Seattle, airport officials confiscated anti-WTO posters and signs of departing demonstrators, telling them they would not be allow to board with any political material. Their efforts were futile as anti-WTO demonstrations immediately sprung up in London and the Philippines.

The “World Terrorist Organization,” as the WTO was called by demonstrators, brought together the biggest and broadest coalition since the Vietnam war. It represents, for the first time in many years, an escalation in the size and militancy of protest. We'll have to be in for the long haul. It will take more than a few arrests and civil disobedience before the WTO is dismantled or turned into a people-friendly organization.

The AFL-CIO took a step in the right direction by mobilizing for this historic protest. Now, it will have to keep moving to the left if it is to join with the millions of discontented youth, workers and intellectuals who are becoming politically active.

If the numbers and the militancy of the protesters is any indication, we are witnessing the beginning of an upsurge of mass activism and opposition to corporate control in the United States and around the world.We may have just seen the future, and it is Seattle.

Jim Smith ( is a labor activist and editor of L.A. Labor News <>.