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A Whiff of Democracy in Seattle

6 Dec 1999

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Democracy was certainly in the streets of Seattle last week, and a whiff -- perhaps carried by teargas -- even made it into the convention center where trade ministers from the World Trade Organization (WTO) member states met.

Many factors contributed to the collapse of the WTO talks -- an effort to expand the scope of the trade agency's authority -- but there is no question that popular protests played a central role.

Tuesday saw at least 40,000 people take to the streets to protest the corporate tilt of the WTO. A stunning coalition of teamsters, consumers, sea turtle protection activists, religious people, women's groups, environmentalists, students and anti-corporate youth and many, many others joined to "Just Say No to the WTO."

Approximately 10,000 people -- primarily students and youth -- joined together in an extraordinarily well organized and highly disciplined direct action to block every access way to the convention center, stopping most of the official and negotiating activities scheduled for the WTO meeting's first working day.

Notwithstanding city efforts to clamp down on all public dissent in the downtown area, protests continued throughout the week, with thousands demonstrating at separate environmental, farmer, steel worker and women's marches and rallies. Always on display were focused attacks on the WTO and strident criticism of the corporations that have drafted and lobbied for its anti-people rules.

On Friday, perhaps ten thousand joined in a labor-led march -- organized on about 24 hours notice -- to again protest the WTO and the city's infringements on civil liberties through the creation of a "no protest" zone.

Meanwhile, students and others in an overwhelmingly young crowd continued civil disobedience and direct actions throughout the week.

Inside the convention center, where negotiations began on Wednesday after riot-gear-equipped police and national guard forces cordoned off the downtown from most protesters, turmoil was building as well.

When separate working groups negotiating over a wide array of sectors failed to produce compromise agreements, the United States sought to forge a deal through the WTO's heavy-handed old-style tactics.

Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the rest of the U.S. negotiating team picked a handful of countries to commence negotiations in a closed "Green Room." The idea was for the arbitrarily selected bunch to work out a comprehensive deal, and then present it to the entire WTO membership as a fait accompli for adoption. But even the Green Room gambit failed, and the talks ended in complete disarray.

The complexity of trade negotiations -- with compromises made in one sector dependent on unrelated compromises in another -- means no single factor can explain the talks' failure. But it is possible to identify many of the key negotiating reasons for the collapse:

  • The European Union and the United States could not work out an agricultural accommodation, with the EU's commitment to export subsidies a critical stumbling block.
  • Many Third World countries revolted against the negotiating process, and their complete exclusion from the Green Room discussions. More than 70 developing countries, primarily from Africa and the Caribbean, declared on Thursday that they would not sign a final declaration negotiated in a process from which they had been excluded.
  • Many Third World countries resisted the U.S. call for formation of a working group to study the relationship between trade and labor issues.
  • A compromise deal that was floated early Friday morning would have entailed politically unacceptable compromises on the key issues of concern to U.S. labor unions -- anti-dumping (rules permitting countries to block the import of below-market-cost imports) and some progress on rules to promote adherence to core labor standards.

On each of these issues, the street protests helped heighten contradictions and conflicts. The simple fact of preventing negotiations on Tuesday helped impede agreement in the agricultural sector. As a delegate from Zimbabwe explained, the street demonstrations emboldened the Third World negotiators to object to the exclusionary processes inside the WTO. And the demands from the U.S. labor movement -- backed by mobilized rank-and-file members -- stiffened the U.S. negotiators so that they at least refused to cave in on their minimalist labor rights demands.

For now, street heat has stifled the corporate elite. Just as they blocked delegates from entering the convention center, so they blocked the corporations' attempt to extend the WTO's reach even further into nation's economies and societies.

But as spectacular as was the Seattle victory, achieving the second half of one of the week's primary slogans -- "No New Round, Turnaround" -- will be even more daunting. Launching a new WTO negotiating round is nowhere near as important to corporate interests as maintaining existing WTO rules and the prevailing model of corporate globalization.

Still, a little bit of democratic empowerment can be a dangerous thing. If the broad coalition that came together in Seattle can stay together -- a big "if" -- it may eventually be able to force new rules for the global economy, so that trade is finally subordinated to the humane values of health, safety, ecological sustainability and respect for human rights, rather than the reverse.

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999,

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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