Since the Seattle protests in November, it has been generally understood that the issue of free trade makes for strange bedfellows. So the ideologically motley crew of politicos who addressed 5,000 Teamsters here Wednesday at a rally opposing normalizing trade with China was not surprising.
The rally kicked off what is expected to be a long weekend of protests around the nation's capital as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank convene here Sunday and Monday for their spring meeting. Speakers included unreconstructed liberals such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and "reformed" xenophobic conservative Pat Buchanan.
Their messages boiled down to the same lesson: China bad, unions good. But there was a great deal of variety among the messengers. Dissident Harry Wu along with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., emphasized the need to promote better human rights in China, playing up international labor solidarity over an "us vs. them" worker rivalry. Despite this and the ubiquity of dramatic posters depicting human-rights violations, most calls to support Chinese "brothers and sisters" in their struggles for freedom drew only polite applause.
The real cheers came when Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Buchanan left the Amnesty International cuddling behind and got back to bashing the New World Order and the cheap foreign labor that drove Americans out of high-paying union jobs. Sanders warmed up the crowd by telling them that Capitol Hill was collecting corporate dollars to "sell out American workers." And when Buchanan said he'd tell Chinese trade negotiators, "You stop persecuting Christians, you stop threatening my country, or you guys have sold your last pair of chopsticks in any mall in the United States," he transformed a lukewarm greeting into a heated cheer.
Any heat was welcome. It wasn't just cool, but cold with a stiff wind rippling the many union banners and American flags that flapped above the crowd, weather that might have discouraged a less hearty bunch. But the Teamsters hung tough, with only a few drifting to the crowd's edge for an occasional cigarette break while the others stood nearly at attention throughout every speech.
That didn't signify lockstep obedience to the unions' party line. While a banner on the Teamsters' headquarters proudly announced "We're Teamsters and We Vote," two female union members from Philadelphia claimed a choice between George W. Bush and Al Gore in November might keep them away from the polls altogether. "I think my own thoughts," said Teamster John Luna, who was seriously considering voting for Buchanan for president, regardless of labor's traditional alliance with the Democrats.
Buchanan is aggressively courting the Teamsters' support. Teamster boss James Hoffa has publicly flirted with Buchanan, withholding support from Gore and praising Buchanan for his strong stand against free trade. Buchanan returned the compliment Wednesday, saying that if elected he would appoint Hoffa to a cabinet position.
"If I get there, it won't be [U.S. Trade Representative] Charlene Barshefsky sitting down in Beijing, it'll be Jim Hoffa," Buchanan said, as the crowd cheered and chanted Hoffa's name.
With few exceptions, the gathering shied away from partisanship entirely. Though the Clinton administration came in for considerable criticism, Gore and Bush, both on record in support of permanent normal trade relations for China, escaped relatively unscathed. Not even Hoffa, the clear crowd favorite, directly attacked the candidates in his closing speech.
At precisely noon, Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It!" blared over the public address system as the Teamsters made the quick trip from their own rally to a larger anti-Chinese-trade gathering on the Capitol steps. There they joined a slightly more eclectic group of other union members and a smattering of anti-World Trade Organization types in town for the weeklong protest-fest.
But most labor activists weren't interested in much beyond China trade and its possible effect on their jobs. "What's the WTO?" one union member asked. Others said that Wednesday's rally was the sole Washington demonstration that they were interested in.
"America's going down every day," because of unregulated free trade, said a Philadelphia Teamster, and reversing that trend was his first and only priority. To him the WTO was just "another group of unorganized people who've never really worked, making our decisions for us." It was the WTO meeting in November that prompted rioting in the streets of Seattle.
There were exceptions to the one-issue rule. A Chicago leader of the Service Employees International Union said the protests were "a broader commentary on precisely how unfair our trade agreements have been," and expressed concern about how environmental standards were being left out of World Bank deliberations.
Further along the Capitol lawn, over a dozen mostly young Animal Welfare Institute members donned green cardboard turtle costumes to protest how global free trade harms exotic animals. But when pressed, one turtle seemed as unclear about the specific sins of the World Bank as did many union members. One turtle lady commented, "Free trade, basically, is killing more animals because there's not, like, a grip on exactly what it's going to do."
In spite of the confusion, all the protesters were united in being opposed to what free trade is going to do, even if some were unsure of exactly what it is.