Some Messages and Lessons from Seattle

01 December 1999
John Cavanagh

Some Messages and Lessons from Seattle
Sarah Anderson with John Cavanagh

Institute for Policy Studies, December 1999

Youth Power: This is a movement with a future

Far more than any other international gathering around globalization issues, this one was buoyed by the energy, creativity, and leadership of young people. This is no doubt a tribute, in part, to the organizing around sweatshop issues that has mobilized more than 80 campuses to pressure their universities to adopt a code of conduct for suppliers of products bearing the school logo. This is an important lesson in the "transferability" of organizing work on related issues.

In the aftermath of Seattle, a number of parents have shared with us the exciting news that Seattle was the first event to pique the interest of their heretofore apolitical teenage children. This means we are faced with a tremendous "teachable moment" and must not let it slip by. To help this effort, we have written (along with Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO) a short, reader-friendly book entitled "A Field Guide to the Global Economy" that the New Press will release later this month. We plan to spend much of this year leading basic educational workshops on the global economy for the many who have become aware of these issues because of Seattle.

Steelworkers in Turtle Suits

Cross-sectoral coalition-building is not new. In fact, considerable progress was made during the debate around NAFTA in building links and awareness between union, environmental, religious, human rights, consumer, and family farm groups. However, the benefits of joining forces was made very clear in Seattle. While unionists made up the largest number of demonstrators, the turnout of thousands of activists from other organizations made it much more difficult for the pro-free trade side to discount the opposition. Perhaps the most poetic symbols of the united front were the Steelworkers who donned turtle suits for the environmental march. Also noteworthy was the enthusiastic participation of local churches, which was particularly helpful in blunting the charges that the demonstrators were a bunch of thugs.

Indeed, there are at least eight main citizen streams flowing into the growing river of popular opposition to corporate-led globalization (labor, environmental, farmer/peasant, religious, student, consumer, women, indigenous). These came together in different combinations at many events in Seattle. While there is no overall forum where all of these forces come together, there are many places where quite a few do (e.g. The International Forum on Globalization, the Alliance for Responsible Trade, the Hemispheric Social Alliance, the Citizens Trade Campaign).

There is More to Life than the Stock Market

In our decades of education work around globalization, IPS has typically emphasized bread and butter economic issues, assuming that these are the ones that are of greatest concern to the general public. The Seattle protestors reminded us that human beings are complex individuals whose passions and interests go beyond the pocketbook. We were moved by the level of passion expressed by people on other issues, whether it was a desire to escape consumerism, preserve a sense of local community, maintain a rural way of life, ensure access to safe food, or support cultural diversity. Even the corporate executive who sat next to one of us on the plane back to Washington said his company depends on exports, but that he nevertheless opposes the current direction of trade policies because of the negative impact on the environment.

North-South Unity

The media have given considerable attention to the point of view that the biggest losers in Seattle were the poor in developing countries. Indeed, North-South divisions raged between government negotiators, while tensions also existed between some nongovernmental groups. However, there was far more North-South unity on the streets of Seattle than was portrayed in the media. It is a shame, for example, that while 38,000 activists were gathered in the stadium to hear labor union and other activists from South Africa, Barbados, India, Mexico and many other developing countries, the TV cameras were riveted on a handful of teenagers breaking windows. We also wish the media would have captured the roar of the crowd at the IFG teach-in at the Symphony hall when Vandana Shiva denounced trade liberalization policies for contributing to the doubling of food prices in her country, India.

There is considerable North-South consensus at the civil society level that the current direction of trade and investment liberalization does not automatically improve the lives of the poor in the developing world. However, there is still a strong need for more dialogue around the issue of linking labor and environmental standards to trade. A major contribution was made by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), an umbrella group that represents unionists in 143 countries. In a document prepared for Seattle, the ICFTU advocates the incorporation of internationally recognized labor rights in the WTO, but as part of a broader package of proposals to support development in poor countries. These include increased development assistance, writing off the debts of the world's poorest countries, the use of capital controls to prevent financial destabilization, among others.

This approach of offering more comprehensive alternatives to the current institution has also been pursued by activists in other forums, such as in the context of the debate around NAFTA and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (we helped draft a preliminary IFG "alternatives" paper that was released in Seattle). It is the one that has the best chance of uniting people who, for justifiable reasons, might be skeptical about the true interests of social movements in other countries. We suggest that considerable time and resources be placed into cross-sectoral, cross-border work on alternatives and we are committed to helping with this work.

Copyright 1999 Institute for Policy Studies