Labor meets the granola crunchers

"These are very beautiful, idealistic kids," says United Steelworkers boss George Becker.


Daryl Lindsey
April 18, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

It's the morning of the biggest protest against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, and I'm waiting in a hotel lobby for one of the movement's unlikeliest leaders: United Steelworkers of America president George Becker. The Steelworkers leading man is running a few minutes late -- he's been working out and making final arrangements for the day's events.

We scurry through the lobby and pile into a cab, racing off to the Ellipse, which sprawls between the Washington Monument and the White House, where the union leader, who has led the charge to halt the expansion of trade with China, is to give a speech before an audience of 10,000 students and union members on the perils of globalization.

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Becker is a man with a mission, and he wastes no time with small talk. Our taxi zooms toward the demonstration, following Constitution Avenue and passing the Vietnam War Memorial, which recalls another era of protest and civil disobedience. We arrive at the Ellipse just shy of 10 a.m., an hour before the rally is scheduled to begin. The grassy field is quickly filling as protesters, speakers and the famed puppets start to pour in. I see one woman breast-feeding her baby. Another is wearing a clever "Slavery" baseball cap, with the "v" replaced by the Nike swoosh logo.

Becker, dressed in a red, long-sleeved Steelworkers T-shirt and jeans, is an athletic man, who barely displays any outward signs of his 71 years besides his short mane of gray hair. His voice is eerily reminiscent of James Stewart and, as his handler has told me repeatedly, he owns two Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He comes off as part "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" and a little bit "Easy Rider."

Sunday he wandered confidently through the crowd. Occasionally someone we pass raises a hand in salute, identifying him or herself as a member of the Steelworkers. Becker is happy to see them, but he also seems a little nervous that union turnout won't be as high as he'd hoped. Helicopters buzz constantly overhead and riot-gear equipped police surround the perimeter of the park. Becker seems genuinely excited to be here, to be a part of the growing fight against globalization that has brought together strange bedfellows from the unions, environmentalists and the student movement.

The globalization protest movement got an important boost in Seattle last November when it joined forces with labor, with its deep pockets and mobilized membership, in battling the World Trade Organizations and other stalking horses for global capitalism. The resulting "blue-green" alliance has a cousin in the "green-red" alliances of Europe, especially Germany, where labor, social democrats and environmentalists have assembled a brittle ruling coalition.

For all the pretense that the Washington meetings would be a sequel to Seattle, they couldn't be. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are conducting prosaic semi-annual meetings with a small decision-making agenda, nothing like the quadrennial ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization that protesters effectively shut down in Seattle.

Besides, Washington has had weeks to prepare for the protests, to learn from the mistakes of Seattle and is better prepared to enforce order, as it has shown with its preemptive arrests and street closings this week. It feels more like a venue for a second date between these groups than a place where a tangible impact can be made. And the fact that Elian Gonzalez and the Dow carnage are still leading the news is telling of the impact of these protests.

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But there is something more important occurring here -- there seems to be a generational shift happening between labor and the students. Every steelworker I speak to seems inspired by the interaction with the students, almost as if it's reawakening the spirit of protest in each of them. There's an esprit de corps between protesters and the labor supporters in the staging areas. One man approaches Becker backstage and tells him, "What you're doing for these kids is great."

Julia "Butterfly" Hill -- the environmental activist who lived in a giant redwood in Northern California for two years to protest the clear-cutting of old growth redwoods by Maxxam Corporation -- stopped by to meet Becker. She seems optimistic about the unusual alliance.

"We're in this together. This is something that's been trying to happen for a long time," she tells me. "The reason it hasn't been able to happen until now is that it was hard to find that one common vision. Yes, we look at each other and we say, 'Oh wow, we're on different ends of the spectrum.' But we found a common vision and we were able to lock in on that goal."

How organized is the cooperation, I ask her? "It's grown into an actual coalition, we have membership meetings, there's a steering committee that's already hundreds of organizations strong and growing," she replies.

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"If these people can get over their prejudices and the people who are 'granola munchers' can get over their prejudices, we can truly find common ground, no matter how difficult it is," she says, as the sound of percussionists emanates from the nearby stage. "I'm totally inspired. These guys are the last people in the world you would expect to embrace tree-huggers. They risked ridicule. And we believe in this alliance -- I think it's wonderful."

Just after he finishes a taping for MTV, I approach Mike Roselle, founder of the Berkeley, Calif., Ruckus Society and co-founder of Earth First and Rainforest Action Network. "We approached it with a little bit of skepticism at first," Roselle explains. "We know they have their main message and in the past when we've tried to work together, it's been very difficult to get our message high enough in their priorities. We support them in their quest for justice and equality, but in the past they haven't been concerned enough about the environmental issues that really motivate us."

He continues, "Now, there's a certain number of the [labor] rank and file that are very concerned about this. They know that they've got to retool U.S. industry to make it competitive and they know that part of that competitiveness will be in how clean and how sustainable they are. They're actually looking to us for answers. In the past, they just wanted recruits ... In the past, we'd get all these animal rights people in a room with all these union people and these union people take opening day of the deer hunting season off."

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But, Roselle says, times have changed. "[Together,] we've gotten more attention to the World Bank in the last 10 days than all these wankers in Washington in the last 10 years. We're walking down the street with labor people, brothers and sisters, arm-in-arm, and you can see that the kindred spirit, the kinship, the camaraderie is real, not imagined. They may not like our dress, may not like our diet, but by God, they care about the same issues we care about and we know that the clock is ticking and we're running out of time. "

I try to ask Ralph Nader about his hopes for a blue-green alliance. But when I approach him in the hospitality tent in an attempt to ask the question, Nader looks at me like I'm a complete idiot. "I won't be talking to the press until after my speech, in the press area," he says, before turning away and ignoring me. With this kind of charm and a $5 million campaign, the rumors about Nader's taking the race seriously this time seem to be just that.

But Becker's happy to talk about it. A second generation Steelworker, Becker rose through the ranks to become the president of the 750,000-member union. He reserves some of his strongest words for the Clinton administration, which he believes has made Coca-Cola and other multinationals the basis of its foreign policy. But Becker was instrumental in the AFL-CIO (where he serves as vice president) giving an early presidential endorsement to Al Gore. "I literally gave it to him," Becker says of the endorsement. "He could not have gotten through the AFL-CIO, and that's what shut [Bill] Bradley down."

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One thing's clear -- Becker is riled up by the treatment police have given protesters in Washington this week. His anger nearly boils over when, shortly after we arrive at the Ellipse, police enter the staging area and strong-arm a Latino man with a mustache, bandanna with a Southwestern motif and long black hair in a ponytail. Becker starts to work his way over, but the cops are gone by the time we get there.

"This should be a sanctified area," Becker says in anger. "If anyone fucks with me," he says, "I'll go all the way. I don't accept abuse. It hurts me to see Steelworkers get arrested. That's an abuse of the system."

In a two-hour interview that takes us from one side of Washington to the other, Becker discusses, at length, the position of Steelworkers and others in the labor movement against the IMF, World Bank and the other horsemen of globalization.

How was the "blue-green alliance" between labor and environmentalists in Seattle created?

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We went to Seattle for a lot of different reasons. We went up there because of trade, these kids went there for human rights and environmental things and we came together. We were all fighting the same war. It's like fighting a war -- you don't look too close at your allies. What I saw when I looked at these kids was my children and my grandchildren. These are very beautiful, idealistic kids. They know something is wrong and they're willing to stand up for it. Our society has gone through this time and time again. These kids take positions and do so at risk and I admire them. They stood against the war on Vietnam on the college campuses and in the streets of America. Time and circumstances have made them right.

How closely have you been working with the student movement this week?

We feel a very close affinity to these youngsters. Incidentally, this is the raw power of a corporate state. There was no violence [he says, referring to the arrests of protesters at the demonstrations in Washington], they weren't parading this week. And the government is just out to stifle legitimate legal protest by putting boundaries around the areas where they want to protest and saying you can't go in there. They say you can't protest. That's illegal what they're doing, shutting off legal protest. They try to criminalize that aspect of it.

I'm outraged. If we stifle dissent in this country, if we stifle legitimate protest, what other mechanism is there to make the public aware? You're sure not going to get it in the newspapers. Were you in Seattle? There was no violence in Seattle. The first day, there was some property damage, done by a group that wasn't connected to the students. The violence was perpetrated by the police. The kids would come in down the street, holding their hands up like this [shows a peace sign with his fingers]. And then as the police rushed them, they would hold those peace signs up and say the whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

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The police kicked the shit out of them and tear-gassed them. That's the violence. We keep moving step by step away from some of our core basic freedoms in the United States. We don't have the right to organize anymore. The companies can shut us down. They fire, they intimidate, in violation of the law and they laugh at it because they break your organizing effort and there's no way to revitalize that and get it going.

Why are you fighting the IMF and World Bank? As labor targets, they don't seem as obvious as the WTO.

It's simple. We went to Seattle with about 20,000 working people, including more than 2,000 Steelworkers. We had been struggling with this administration on its trade policies -- which are biased in favor of multinationals and international finance -- for quite some time. They're not people friendly, they're not worker friendly. We've lost a tremendous amount of jobs in the United States, the [trade] deficit keeps soaring, we lost 336,000 jobs in 1998, with a deficit of about $265 billion. In 1999, approximately 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, with the deficit ballooning past $300 billion. We're clearly on the wrong track for trading policies in the United States, yet the administration keeps talking about all the jobs it is creating. Well, the deficit puts this in perspective -- it tells us what jobs are being created because of trade and those that are being lost. And we're coming up on the short end of the stick.

When the Asian economic crisis cut loose at the end of 1997, we cautioned the administration and we started tracking steel. Steel is the first thing that we're usually hit with surging imports of, because steel can be created in any country out of raw materials and then converted into hard dollars. We have the most efficient steel industry in the world -- we produce steel with the fewest man hours per ton than any other nation -- but we can't stand against the dumping that's coming in.

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Are any IMF or World Bank programs part of the dumping?

The IMF puts very tight strings on these economies. In order to get the bailout money, they require these countries to curtail their domestic spending. To enter into an austerity program to lower costs, these countries went straight to the workers and drove their wages and benefits down. You had two things happening: You had their wages being pushed so they could produce steel even cheaper in their areas, and no domestic economy that could absorb any of that. It was geared to the United States. The Europeans threw up barriers and refused to let added imports come into their countries. Japan stopped the imports that had been coming in -- and didn't even maintain their regular level, and they're the No. 2 economic force in the world, which put a hell of a lot of strain on us. Plus, Japan itself started dumping into the United States. It went from Thailand to Indonesia to South Korea till eventually it went into Russia and Japan and down in Brazil and the pressures came from all over.

We went from importing 18-20 percent of our steel to 52.2 percent (according to our records). We lost five companies, which are still in bankruptcy and have not been able to get out. Even the big integrated mills, with their huge resources, started having quarters in the red, each one worse than the other. Bethlehem Steel, the second-biggest steel company, still has not been able to turn a positive quarter.

Did you challenge the government on the dumping?

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We took the government on right in their own backyard. We challenged the Fast Track authority that was coming up so Clinton could expand his trading policies down into South America. We stopped Fast Track three times and we shut off every piece of legislation that came up that dealt directly or indirectly with trade. In effect, we stopped the expansionist trade policies of the administration.

You've been outspokenly critical of Vice President Al Gore for his role in Clinton administration trade policy. And yet, you gave him your endorsement last fall.

I held it off for a long time and met with Gore to get a better understanding of what his trading policies were going to be. Gore has promised us that, under his administration, he will break with the traditional trading policies of the "Republican" Democrats and he would require labor accords, labor standards, the right of assembly, the right of building a free democratic trade union movement to be incorporated into core provisions of any trade agreement. He would also pledge to work with us on environmental accords. Gore is still trying to walk down both sides of the street -- eventually he'll have to be very definitive.

Do you think Clinton has been any worse than other presidents when it comes to trade issues?

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I believe he's 100 percent in the hands of the corporate entities in the United States. He's betrayed working people with the WTO and NAFTA. And he's looking now to establish his legacy. That's what this is all about. If this gets very disruptive, it could destroy the Democratic Party. What Clinton is doing is not for good reasons. Most Democrats who even support him on most policies tell me privately that they are appalled at what was done.

Labor is often accused of nationalism and isolationist policies, in contrast to the trend toward globalization.

How can you not be more concerned about yourself and your family and your communities? But that doesn't mean we're not concerned about others. We're not the enemies of the Chinese people or the Korean people or the Brazilians. We have a common enemy, and that's the multinationals and international finance, the WTO and the IMF and the World Bank. That's the enemy ... those are corporate entities and corporate entities are always out to maximize their profits at the expense of everything else. These multinationals hold no allegiance to the United States. They're world powers in themselves. If you put a ranking of the economic powers in the world, you'll find multinationals ahead of most countries.

We've become a corporate state. And that's what we're doing. We're not doing this for the good of man, we're doing this for the good of corporations. We are making a success out of communism in China. We're giving them the world wealth and the technology in order to continue to enslave those people. They would collapse if it weren't for that -- communism is a corrupt theology.

But we're also helping them to build structures that could help democratize them, like the Internet, things that take some of the power away from the government and put them into the hands of the people?

We hope so. I'll be frank with you: Nobody controls the Internet.

But if you go beyond sovereignty, if you have Coke in every country, like Iran and Iraq, for example, doesn't that make it more difficult for those countries to fight wars against each other?

If that was the case, then explain to me with all the companies that have built into China, with all the trade that's there, we're running the greatest deficit now with any nation now in the world with China, over $70 billion last year alone. Tell me why China feels comfortable in going after Taiwan? It's just for precisely the opposite reason. They believe that with the trade relations we've established in China, the businesses will not permit us to intervene on behalf of the Taiwanese people. It's precisely the opposite: It ties our hands.

Listen, the President's Export Council (and I'm a member of that council) tried to take a position that the governmental sanctions against Iraq and Iran should not stop them from doing business with them. Because if we don't then other people will. I asked them, What about military hardware? They said, Well that's no different because they'll just get the military hardware from someone else. So I said, Let me make sure I understand you. You're saying, We should supply the AK-47s, we should supply the missiles that they would use in defense against Americans and I couldn't get an answer from them. That's precisely what they're saying.

I think it ties our hands. We have become such a slave to corporate profits that we really don't give a damn about those people. The reason they want permanent most favored nation status is so the State Department doesn't have to compile a human rights record annually on China. They can just pretend it doesn't exist. Once they get the corporate ties into China, they can do whatever they want. Our business people would not permit our government to jeopardize that. I think it's just the opposite from what you say and what they're saying.


Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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