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Tico Almeida

A few months after I graduated from college in 1999, I took a student-outreach organizing job with the AFL-CIO. That fall, I spent several months in Seattle speaking to high school and college students about sweatshop issues and organizing for the protests of the WTO Ministerial Meeting. My partner in the student-organizing project was Cathy Lowenberg, and we were hired to create student turnout to a labor-sponsored rally and march on November 30, now known simply as N30. Despite a strong progressive tradition in Seattle, and despite my previous experience with student organizing through the nation's first chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, this job turned out to be far more difficult than I had expected. On some of the more frustrating days, I got a first-hand view of the in-fighting among the member organizations of the "Seattle Coalition," but in the end, I was proud to have been one of so many participants in the launching of an international movement to globalize respect for workers rights and environmental protection.

I was impressed with the student activists at the University of Washington from the first time I stepped on their campus. In early October I attended a WTO protest planning meeting, and the room in the student union was full of well-informed and enthusiastic students. However, when discussion turned to planning strategy for the opening day of protests on N30, I first realized how challenging my job would be. The AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, Washington Council of Churches, Pubic Citizen and other groups had already announced that they would begin N30 with a large rally at Memorial Stadium-- with speakers from all of the participating organizations -- followed by a large march into downtown Seattle where the Ministerial meeting would actually take place. I had assumed - incorrectly - that students would want to start off their day of protest as part of this collective effort.

At that first meeting, one particularly influential student leader stood up to announce, "I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I don't want to march with the A - F - L --- C - I - O." She was able to elongate each of those letters and add such disdain to the pronunciation of each that I think many Republicans would have been jealous of her ability to express contempt for the American labor movement. Her proclamation was greeted with many nods of agreement. The majority of the students seemed to be in favor of skipping the rally being sponsored by the other progressive organizations, and instead marching downtown alone on a completely different route.

As I left the student union building, I tried to find an explanation for the anti-labor sentiment among these student activists. Some of the ugly chapters in the AFL-CIO's history are one possible explanation. Although the accomplishments of organized labor in the past century include things such as raising wages and benefits for millions of workers and supporting the civil rights movement before most white Americans warmed to the idea of equal rights for African-Americans, some of the AFL-CIO's past foreign policy positions have rightfully been questioned by progressives. One fellow Seattle organizer recounted that when he was organizing on campuses 20 years ago, students would refer to him as a member of the "AFL-CIA," in reference to Labor's cooperation with Ronald Reagan and other Republicans in the drive to squash unions in places like Central America. Also, the history of anti-immigrant stances by American unions is particularly disturbing. However, under new leadership, American organized labor has been building stronger ties with unions in the developing world and has completely reversed its position against immigrants. These much-needed changes, along with outreach to students through Union Summer and graduate student organizing, has warmed the opinions of many campus activists toward the AFL-CIO in recent years. Thus, I think the resentment of many Seattle students was based on a difference in policy position on the particular issue of the WTO.

The AFL-CIO's position - along with unions from more than 150 other countries - was that the WTO should be reformed, but not abolished. The WTO and other trade agreements include standards and enforcement mechanisms (including sanctions) for commercial interests such as intellectual property rights. However, parallel mechanisms are missing for the internationally-recognized labor standards that have been set by the ILO. The AFL-CIO's push for labor provisions to be included in trade agreements -- which was actually the position of the entire International Confederation of Free Trade Unions -- was labeled by many organizations in the Seattle coalition as "weak" and "timid."

Although each of the organizations participating in the N30 rally had its own position on the WTO -- ranging from abolition to "No new round" to reform - the UW and Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) students were hesitant to march with any organization that did not match their position on abolition of the WTO. Over the course of the next few weeks, their plans shifted back and forth between participating in the rally and boycotting it all together. In the end, the fact that they could not secure the police permits for a separate march route, as well as reiterated invitations by many of the other organizations, led to a compromise: the UW and SCCC students would skip the rally and instead organize their own series of speeches at a site away from Memorial Stadium, but they would then meet up with the other organizations and march together towards downtown Seattle.

The interesting thing is that the harsh feelings towards organized labor seemed to be only a local Seattle student phenomenon. Two national student organizations, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), both sent many student representatives to the rally at Memorial Stadium. Again, the policy stance of these organizations is a likely reason: The official USAS position paper on the WTO was very internationalist, and explicitly supported the ICFTU's position on linking trade and labor rights, whereas the local students wrote an extremely isolationist policy position paper that called for an end to all current and future trade agreements. However, despite the official position, there were still divergent opinions about the reform/abolish question among students in groups like USAS. Yet, some USAS students who disagreed completely with the AFL-CIO's reform position attended the Memorial Stadium rally anyway because, as one student told me, "after paying quite a bit of money to fly all the way to Seattle, I'd rather attend a rally where the speakers will be union activists from across the globe as opposed to a rally where the speakers will be mostly white 20-year-olds just like me."

At other campuses, such as Seattle Pacific University and the University of Washington-Tacoma, as well as at many high schools, I encountered much less resentment towards the AFL-CIO and a greater openness towards attending the Memorial Stadium rally. During my time in Seattle, I gave more than 50 classroom presentations -- ranging from small high school classes to large college lectures -- in which I recounted my experiences visiting sweatshops in Central America and combined that narrative with an argument in favor of linking labor standards with trade agreements. For many of these presentations, the teacher or professor had also invited speakers from other organizations, so at times I was joined by speakers on my left who argued against all international trade and at times I was joined by speakers on my right who argued that the international trading system should not include rules for workers' rights or the environment.

I'm not sure what percentage of students to whom I gave a presentation attended the UW student rally vs. the Memorial Stadium rally vs. neither, but I think that my most valuable contribution to the student discussions that went on across Seattle during those months was a challenge to many students to think of the trade debate in a different way. In some of the classrooms or lecture halls, the teacher or professor would begin by announcing that students would be hearing from both the "pro-trade" and "anti-trade" sides of the debate; And I really enjoyed being able to begin my presentation by arguing that the AFL-CIO and ICFTU, the organizations I was representing, didn't really fit into either of those categories. I hope that the effect of these class discussions was to let more students -- whether they were activists or not -- know that there is a third option that combines the expansion of international trade along with enforceable rules for labor rights.

My most frustrating experience came just a few days before N30. Cathy Lowenberg and I had arranged for the AFL-CIO to pay for two buses to pick up 100 students at UW-Tacoma and bring them directly to Memorial Stadium for the rally and then drive them back to their campus at the end of the day. Without this help, many of these students probably would not have been able to attend the protests in Seattle, and the AFL-CIO was happy to expand the range of people that could participate. However, just days before the event, we received a call from one of the lead UW-Tacoma students in order to inform us that they had been convinced by the Public Citizen student organizers to boycott the Memorial Stadium event and attend the smaller UW student rally instead. This made for quite an embarrassing situation for Cathy and me; at the daily morning meeting at which all of the AFL-CIO organizers announced how many more people they had gotten signed up to attend the rally, we had to announce that we 100 less. It was also quite disturbing that one of the coalition partners, which had endorsed the Memorial Stadium rally and even had a speaker there, was willing to spend its resources trying to convince people to attend one event versus another rather than trying to increase the total number of people who would turn out. Luckily, by the day before N30, we had convinced the UW-Tacoma students to change their minds and they came to Memorial Stadium.

The first half N30 was quite inspirational. It used to be that the politics of trade pitted American workers against foreign workers in an "us vs. them." But the 35,000 individuals who gathered at Memorial Stadium on that Tuesday heard something very different. We heard workers and unions from rich and poor countries alike stand together and say, "We want rules for workers' rights to be integrated into the global economy." There was a speech given by a worker from the US, a worker from Mexico and a worker from South Africa, together. There were also speeches from workers' advocates and union leaders from Malaysia, Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America, as well as from the US, Canada and Europe: all of them in solidarity with the same demand for the core labor standards to added to the WTO rules and to be linked to all trade accords. As Zwelinzima Vavi, of the South African trade union confederation, argued at the massive rally, we want to "link worker rights to trade rules to change the balance of forces for workers in the developing countries."

After the rally, the UW and SCCC students -- with amazing street puppets and enormous signs in hand -- all joined in and began the march towards the Ministerial Meeting together with the other protest groups. I was so glad that this happened. Despite our disagreements on highly technical points about the WTO, all of the groups that made up the Seattle Coalition agreed that the current set of trade policies were hurting workers, consumers, farmers and the environment, and for the first few miles of the march, we walked together in opposition to the status quo of trade policy.

Eventually, the marchers split in two directions: tens of thousands heading towards the WTO meeting with the hopes of "shutting it down;" and other tens of thousands favoring a peaceful sit-down protest in the streets surrounding the hotel where many of the WTO delegates were stuck waiting while the events played out further downtown. This second action was particularly important because it created a safe protest option for families who had brought children, for senior citizens, and for those who hoped to reform, but not abolition the international trade system.

A few blocks away from this sit-down protest, members of the anarchist "Black Block" were beginning to smash windows and light fires. The Seattle Police Department was beginning its crackdown on both the violent and non-violent protestors. And I imagine that at that point, any journalists who had written news stories about the international union solidarity witnessed at Memorial Stadium just a few hours earlier were scrapping those stories in favor of accounts of the storming of Starbucks or NikeTown.

In the end, I think it was the series of teach-ins and marches and peaceful protests - at times with slightly different messages, but with a common goal of democratizing the global economy - that made the "Battle of Seattle" such an important event. Those who focused only on broken glass, tear-gas and rubber bullets missed the story entirely.


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