Labor Unions Revive Powerful Past as WTO March Looks to New Future
For Mike Miller and Sylver Pondolfino, the real work started months ago, long before the World Trade Organization talks opened this week. It started on the warehouse floor, on coffee breaks, at lunch. Did their fellow United Parcel Service workers know about how an American baby food company was undermining pro-breast-feeding laws in Guatemala, they wanted to know?
The two Teamsters Union representatives found the baby food argument their easiest sell. It worked even better than telling drivers and warehouse workers about how the globalization of trade would help big companies like UPS expand operations in foreign countries and undermine American workers.
It worked so well that scores of Teamsters were in the streets of Seattle with anti-WTO placards Friday, and hardly one of them didn’t have an opinion about infant formula in Guatemala.
“We’re tough and we’re Teamsters, sure, but the message I gave to people is: We’re all in this together and we all got to stick together. Teamsters have families, they like clean air just like the rest of us. Teamsters care about turtles, believe it or not,” Pondolfino said.
An estimated 2,000 people, most of them labor union members, marched through the Seattle streets Friday in the last major organized protest against the WTO. Coming on the heels of a Tuesday AFL-CIO march that drew 30,000 supporters and a later parade organized by the United Steelworkers Union and the Longshoremen, labor has been the strongest organized voice in the wide-ranging dissent that surrounded the global trade talks.
The protests--in which steelworkers, electrical workers, stagehands, teachers, carpenters and dock workers flooded the streets, in far greater numbers than the young activists who made most of the headlines--represented one of the biggest demonstrations of labor activism in America since World War II.
The mobilization showcased a re-energized labor movement that has been building alliances and political support as it struggles to remain relevant in the new global economy.
“A week ago, very few Americans knew what the WTO was and what it meant. But today we have discussions among working people about the significance of labor standards and how they relate to trade. I think we have put our agenda for international trade front and center in the consciousness of the American public,” said Teamsters spokesman Chip Roth.
“Even a few years ago, people had considered us in a dying role or a very limited role,” said Kirk Adams, organizing director for the national AFL-CIO, which organized the major march Tuesday. “This week showed we’re much more than that. In that sense, it’s pretty powerful. Now the question is: Can we do something with it? Can we go out and build numbers around it?”
Work toward the massive mobilization began as early as last February, when union leaders began working to educate union members about the importance of the WTO talks.
“We went into churches, community groups, neighborhood organizations, environmental meetings, schools, high schools, colleges, universities and labor halls, even in people’s homes, to talk to them about the WTO and how it affects their lives,” said Ron Judd, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council.
“We kept the message very simple, very dinner-tablish. We told people, if you pick up a CD or a paper cup or a stereo, we told them under this system, this product has more protections than the workers producing it. That resonates,” Judd said.
Message Tailored for Workers
Local labor leaders in Seattle took WTO education material from the national AFL-CIO and drafted organizers from each trade to tailor it for fellow workers. Brochures and fliers were printed for each union.
Volunteer organizers like Miller and Pondolfino were designated for each work site, and they were prepared with five-minute, 15-minute and half-hour WTO spiels to give their fellow workers at the soft drink machine, in the cafeteria.
What resulted was not only a dramatic increase in awareness of global trade issues but also a dramatic increase in union mobilization.
“One of the best things that has happened out of this is we have new rank-and-file activists who were not involved with their union, but they are now. The WTO mobilized them. This has been a dilemma in the labor movement for years, how do you get people involved in the labor union process,” said Verlene Wilder, union cities organizer for the King County Labor Council. “We have turned it around. We have activists in every single local who say, ‘We want to be involved.’ ”
Analysts said the huge street presence of organized labor and allied groups was likely to have a lasting effect on both the method and outcome of WTO deliberations.
“The WTO will never be the same after Seattle in 1999. They have not been able to conduct their business as they usually do, they will not be able to conduct their business in the future as they have in the past, and that is a function of both what organized labor did and the associated events in Seattle,” said David Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington who specializes in labor studies.
Though the organization continues to resist labor’s demands for global labor standards, labor leaders said they won important backing from the Clinton administration and said they have placed the debate at the top of the agenda for upcoming talks.
Labor leaders have asked the WTO to adopt and enforce international guarantees, like those adopted by the International Labor Organization, against child labor and forced labor, antidiscrimination provisions, and recognition of the right to form unions and bargain collectively.
“We’re not going to get everything we’re looking for, but Seattle is the cornerstone on which we will get change in this system,” said Judd. “I think our challenge now is how do we take the tremendous victory we had in Seattle and build on that. Seattle has got to be more than a cornerstone. We’ve got to build the structure now. And it’s got to be international in scope.”
Union activists from Los Angeles to Washington said they plan to press for local and state legislation limiting trade with countries that have questionable labor standards, such as the union-backed law in Massachusetts prohibiting trade with Myanmar.
And labor hopes to be a strong presence in next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns, building support around national campaign issues, such as the living wage.
In the Seattle streets Friday, protest leaders included community organizations, churches, synagogues and Native Americans. But the bulk of the manpower under the protest signs belonged to the labor unions.
“Anything we can do to spread the word,” said Mark Orr, a longshoreman at the Port of Seattle. “This is a real movement for the future, and we’re making the first big step: bringing the poor countries up to our level, not us down to their level.
“There’s nobody here who isn’t aware of the issues,” he said, pointing to the burly dock workers of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union marching around him. “This is a New Age ILWU. People are smart.”