Teamsters and Turtles: They’re Together at Last

Marc Cooper is a Los Angeles-based journalist and a contributing editor to the Nation magazine

After this week’s Battle in Seattle, one thing is definite: The next World Trade Organization confab will be held in some place like Singapore or Jakarta. The corporate-dominated trade regimen enforced by the WTO is generating so much opposition that it can only meet under the sort of armed protection provided by a militarized state. Indeed, one silver lining of corporate-managed globalization is that it has coalesced U.S. domestic protest against it to unprecedented levels.

While Bill Clinton planned his appearance before the WTO as a showcase for successful free-trade policies, he ended up giving his speech under the umbrella of a declared state of emergency bolstered by barricades, curfews, riot police and National Guard troops. The media focus on a few broken store windows, however, should not distract from the profundity of what is transpiring here this week.

A phantasamagorical mix of tens of thousands of demonstrators--husky red-jacketed steelworkers marching alongside costumed sea turtle impersonators, environmentalists and miners, human rights activists and family farmers--stood against the WTO, delaying its opening sessions and thrusting the once-obscure issue of fair trade onto the political center stage.


A week ago, no one even knew what the WTO was, said California state Sen. Tom Hayden as he joined the demonstrators in the streets. Now these protests have made “WTO” a household word. And not a very pretty word.

The broader message coming from the streets of Seattle is unmistakable: A corporate-dominated WTO that puts profits before people and property rights before human rights can no longer sustain its current course. As the demonstrators who shut down the WTO chanted at the startled trade delegates locked out from their meeting halls: We don’t want you! We didn’t elect you! And we don’t want your rules!

The scenes from Seattle this week are something not seen since the 1960s, and in their totality unimaginable even back then. At Tuesday’s AFL-CIO rally, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated for labor rights and environmental protections and, putting lie to charges that to oppose the WTO is to retreat into protectionist nationalism, they heartily cheered speeches by union leaders from Malaysia, Barbados, Argentina and South Africa. Infuriated by the Clinton administration’s zeal to bring China into the WTO, even some of the most politically compliant of leaders of Big Labor have found a new, more challenging voice.

We refuse to be marketized, Gerald McEntee, leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and an avid Clinton-Gore advocate, told the cheering rally. We have to name the system that tolerates sweatshops and child labor, he said. And that system is corporate capitalism.

Through the teargas and among the forest of picket signs and banners, one could finally glimpse at least the rough but real outlines of the much-sought-after progressive coalition, an American version of a green alliance. Hard hats and longshoremen standing with granola crunchers and tree huggers, bus drivers and carpenters with snake dancers and organic food activists. Or as one hand-painted sign smartly put it: Teamsters and Turtles Together at Last.

The trick now is to come out of Seattle strengthening these newly forged bonds. And keeping them together through the nasty fights looming ahead, especially the coming congressional battle over China’s permanent trade status. None of this will be made any easier by a Democratic Party split on China, or by an AFL-CIO at once livid with the administration over trade but also tethered to Al Gore through its early endorsement of his presidential candidacy.


Clinton, meanwhile, with his weather-vane sensibilities, understands the explosive political potential of the public opinion shift on global trade. The White House’s reverse spin on trade has been startling if not transparently cosmetic. You might half expect Clinton to don one of the sea turtle get-ups next time he speaks out on the WTO.

Clinton’s rhetorical shift on trade--that the WTO would have to listen to the concerns of the peaceful protesters--is likely to have little success in deflating the protests against corporate-managed trade policies. He won’t be around to reap the freakishly altered crop that he has sown. But his successor surely will. Seattle is only the beginning.

“We’re not going to sit by and idly let them seize our world without a fight,” International Longshoremen’s President Brian McNally told the electrified AFL-CIO rally.

“Are you ready to fight?” he yelled at the roaring, assenting thousands. “Are you ready to fight?”