Anyone awakening from a week in a coma could be forgiven for feeling disoriented: The
protestors now departed from Seattle’s streets have shifted the nation’s political reference
points by 20 years. While Wall Street and Washington reconvened Monday morning for
business as usual, it is already evident that Seattle is one of those critical incidents in
the political culture, like the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings or the Tet offensive,
after which the language of public debate is never the same.
A week ago, anyone who questioned the World Trade Organization and the broader logic of the global corporate
marketplace was spitting in the historical wind — an object of derision by free-marketeers,
a tedious, pietistic windmill-tilter to the media.
The remarkable events in Seattle changed that. “We’re seeing a lot of new things in Seattle.
Some things that haven’t happened in a long time, and some things that are not supposed to
happen at all.” That was CNN’s low-key but astute political analyst Bill Schneider, feeling
the earth move under his feet.
According to the conventional wisdom of post-Reagan America, nothing that happened in
Seattle computes. But with the crosscutting spectacles of street protest and collapsing
trade talks, the political center of gravity has moved several steps leftward. President
Clinton abandoned seven years of free-trade orthodoxy — and infuriated his advisors — by
proposing that labor standards be brought to the WTO table. Even laissez-faire Republican
William Safire writes this week that any commerce system that ignores sweatshops “does not
deserve the name ‘free trade.’” The question is not whether the terms of debate have
shifted, but why — and where the argument goes from here.
Many commentators quickly compared Seattle to the 1968 Democratic Convention. But a more
telling comparison is the emergence of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.
Like Solidarity’s birth in the Gdansk shipyards, Seattle was (as Canadian journalist Naomi
Klein put it in a keenly observed New York Times op-ed) the “coming-out party” for a
long-evolving coalition: not only those Teamsters marching happily alongside environmentalists in sea-turtle suits but
religious communities, college anti-sweatshop activists and advocates for third-world debt
And like Solidarity, Seattle happened because a new generation of union leaders listened to
thoughtful radical intellectuals, who proposed that the real issue was not simple job
protection but global democracy, and a broad vision of inclusive, equitable society.
Those reporters and commentators who portrayed Seattle as a festival of paranoid, Pat
Buchanan-style economic isolationism simply had not been listening to the labor movement
lately. “The real debate is not over whether to be part of the global economy,” AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney said in a little-remarked National Press Club speech last month, “but
over what are the rules for that economy and who makes them” — a comment that would be
unthinkable from the mouths of any of his buy-American predecessors, or from Sweeney himself until recently.
Indeed, resounding through Seattle’s protests and the media’s coverage were ideas uttered
until recently by only those stalwart dissenting intellectuals who had spent the early
1990s trying to understand why local social movements that normally had little to do with
one another all found themselves hard up against newly global corporations.
In the late 1980s, for instance, historian Jeremy Brecher and union organizer Tim Costello
began a series of articles about the future of the American labor movement. Both writers
have roots in the valleys of New England, where the Industrial Revolution came early but
where in the mid-1980s hard-working mill towns watched helplessly as corporations moved their
operations to lower-wage communities in the South or overseas. Brecher and Costello thought they were recounting how American unions and communities could fight such plant closings.
But as they looked closer, they realized they were on to a bigger story: How a
radically changing global economy gave corporations a new power to find whatever
locations had the lowest wages and weakest environmental laws. The global economy
pits one nation against another for capital flow and jobs. Environmentalists who had
succeeded in banning DDT from the United States found corporations dumping the carcinogenic pesticide on developing-world fields. Unions found manufacturing jobs disappearing abroad. Human-rights lawyers found that American corporations enjoyed the “efficiency” of locating their
labor force in countries with authoritarian military governments — like Nike’s child-labor
shops in Indonesia and Chiquita’s Honduras plantations.
Writing first in small-circulation political magazines, then in their now-classic book
“Global Village or Global Pillage,” Brecher and Costello coined a phrase to describe this
worldwide spiral: “the race to the bottom.” Instead of a rising tide lifting all boats, they
declared, the global economy has created unprecedented gulfs between wealth and poverty.
Today, for instance, the world’s 200 richest individuals have more wealth than the poorest 2
billion people combined, and according to the World Bank 200 million more people live in
poverty today than in 1987.
Against such powerful multinational forces, American labor’s traditional tactics had little
power. As Elaine Bernard, director of the Harvard Trade Union Program, bluntly put it to me,
“The new trade regimes are making the old rules of labor organizing not work.”
The only way to stop the race to the bottom, Brecher, Costello and like-minded analysts
declared, is to raise the floor: The higher the wage, environmental and human rights
standards worldwide, the less capacity corporations would have to pit one nation’s workers
By the mid-’90s, as one AFL-CIO official told me, “a lot of local unions were already
redefining international affairs for us.” General Electric workers in Texas had begun
working with Mexican unionists employed by the same company, trading everything from
negotiating strategies to members’ union-logo-emblazoned windbreakers. Beginning in 1994,
4,000 American steelworkers and rubber workers went on strike against Japanese-owned
Bridgestone/Firestone corporation. The Japanese trade union council sent dozens of members
to the U.S. to help with leafleting and demonstrations; the Americans, in turn, helped
raise funds for Japanese railway workers being displaced by industry restructuring. Striking
workers at a Japanese-owned hotel in Los Angeles built similar bridges. Such cooperation
would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.
The important news from Seattle is not the tear gas and window-smashing. The news is the
acceptance of this globalist perspective at the highest ranks of the American labor
movement, in practice as well as rhetoric. Brecher, whose new documentary film based on
“Global Village or Global Pillage” opened the entire week of protest with a Seattle screening, says the demonstrators “effectively reframed the issue as rules
protecting corporations vs. rules protecting people and the environment.” Even Brecher and
Costello’s simple, clear shorthand analysis — the “race to the bottom” — was everywhere:
cited in dozens of news reports last week, uttered by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, by
protest leaders and even by defensive corporate officials.
And as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, the week’s largest rally brought onstage
“dozens of U.S. workers … who had lost work when their plants moved to poor countries.
Beside them were workers from third world countries who have won jobs in U.S.-owned
factories but are making less than a dollar an hour and are desperate to organize unions in
With the message of Seattle now at large in the political culture, what is
next? Will Seattle stand as the Gdansk of globalization, offering an alternative vision to
the worldwide “race to the bottom” the way Solidarity heralded the downfall of Soviet
Communism — or will a minor course correction by global free-marketeers like Clinton and
Gore divide and dissuade critics?
The first test is likely to come early next year, when Congress votes on permanent
most-favored-nation status for China. China, even without being admitted to the WTO, is the
very embodiment of the race to the bottom: the worst exploiter of workers and the worst
poisoner of the environment in Asia. President Clinton (wearing his pre-Seattle
free-trader’s suit) negotiated China’s admission to the WTO, but it depends upon that
congressional vote, tentatively scheduled for February. At a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the State Department, Clinton promised an “all-out effort” to pass the China-WTO deal, but admitted that the issue divides even his own party.
In the past, arguments against most-favored-nation status for China were cast in narrow terms: punishment
for Tiananmen Square or the 1996 weapons-and-contributions scandals. But this time, there is
an opportunity to raise a broader issue: What kind of global economy do we want? What
commitments to labor and environmental standards must be exacted in return for any nation’s
right to participate fully in the global trade system?
The test for the Seattle coalition will be whether that message can be broadcast and
enhanced — or whether the MFN opponents will fall back into the familiar trap of
anti-foreigner, anti-Asian bigotry and a return to protectionism. The test will be whether
China activates the sort of grass-roots cooperation that made Seattle a turning point — or
a return to lobbying-as-usual by disconnected issue groups.
One thing is certain: After Seattle, it is no longer possible for anyone to argue that there
is no American left. In Seattle, long-simmering cultures of opposition emerged with an
articulate common challenge to the worldwide corporate agenda. The century’s-end convergence of mass protest and collapsed negotiations in the world capital of the information-age economy mark the end of a 20-year infatuation with corporate
deregulation, a cult of the global marketplace that began under President Reagan and finally
collided head-on with reality in the streets of Seattle and the conference rooms of the WTO.