World Free Trade Conference Demonstrations

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World Free Trade Conference Demonstrations

United States 1999


The World Trade Organization's week-long Third Ministerial meeting in Seattle, Washington, in November 1999 was the focus of protests by groups interested in a wide range of issues, including labor topics such as banning child labor and creating a global equitable minimum wage. International unions were most interested in drawing attention to the lack of worker rights. The event drew between 40,000 and 60,000 protesters from about 100 different nations and representing more than 700 organizations. Unusual alliances were forged during the event, including some between traditional foes such as environmental groups and union organizations. To date, it is still premature to label the event as either an uncharacteristic gathering spawned by millennial concerns or a significant demonstration of popular global concerns. The legacy of the Seattle demonstrations remains uncertain.


  • 1978: Terrorists kidnap and kill former Italian premier Aldo Moro. In Germany, after a failed hijacking on behalf of the Red Army Faction (RAF, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang), imprisoned RAF members commit suicide.
  • 1984: Indian army occupies Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar in June, and four months later, two Sikh bodyguards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assassinate her. Gandhi is succeeded by her son, Rajiv, who will later be assassinated himself.
  • 1989: Tens of thousands of Chinese students rally for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Protests go on for nearly two months, until government troops and tanks crush the uprising. Thousands are killed.
  • 1992: Four Los Angeles police officers are acquitted in April on federal civil rights charges stemming from the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King, an incident captured on videotape. Following the announcement of the verdict, Los Angeles erupts with rioting and looting.
  • 1995: The Aum Shinrikyo cult causes a nerve-gas attack in a Tokyo subway, killing eight people and injuring thousands more.
  • 1999: Though the U.S. House of Representatives has voted along party lines in December to impeach President Bill Clinton on two charges-perjury and obstruction of justice-the vigor has gone out of the entire case by the time it reaches the Senate, which acquits him of all charges on 12 February.
  • 1999: In March, NATO begins air strikes against Yugoslavia to stop Serb-led attacks on ethnic Albanians in the Ko-sovo region.
  • 1999: School shootings have been in the U.S. news for several years, but no incident attracts as much attention-or results in as many deaths-as the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students kill 13 others before turning their guns on themselves. Later in the year, there are several other non-school shooting sprees, including one in Atlanta's Buckhead fi-nancial district that kills nine.
  • 1999: A custody battle erupts around five-year-old Cuban refugee Elián González, whose father wants to take him back to Cuba. On 22 April of the following year, federa troops raid the home of his Miami relatives and reunite him with his father.
  • 2000: Stock drop on 25 February marks the beginning of the end of several years' worth of prosperity, much of it buoyed by the boom in technology companies. By April, signs are clear that the boom is over.
  • 2001: The Clinton administration ends with scandal and controversy, as Clinton issues a series of pardons, including ones for billionaire fugitive Marc Rich and a group of Puerto Rican terrorists.
  • 2002: The U.S. economy, already suffering with the end of the technology boom in 2000 and the drop in stock prices following the 11 September terrorist attacks, is not helped by revelations of malfeasance on the part of corporate executives. Some of these former business leaders are led away from their offices in handcuffs, and huge corporations such as Enron and Worldcom are forced into bankruptcy as a result of illegal accounting practices.

Event and Its Context

Background to the Meeting and Protests

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was chartered on 1 January 1995 as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO consists of 135 member states. Since its formation, the aims of the group were questioned by those who thought its members were grossly overstepping discussions of trade. They were not addressing basic labor issues. Rather than protecting citizens internationally, the organization appeared to be upholding corporate interests. As an example, nations attempting to ban imports from a particular country based on poor labor conditions could face WTO sanctions.

The Seattle conference was the third meeting of member states and global leaders. Well before the Seattle event, activists of various stripes had begun protesting outside other WTO summits as well as at meetings of other international political-economic groups including the G-7, International Monetary Fund, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. These activists were associated with a potpourri of groups, including nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, students, religious groups, and anarchists, with a wide variety of viewpoints.

Because these groups had no singular common cause, the protest issues have not been consolidated around a single group of specific economic or related political issues. The concerns are diverse: ecology, human rights, genetically engineered foods, and debt relief for third-world nations. Some acknowledge that this fragmentation has its advantages in that organizations that wish to be involved need not sacrifice their core issues to participate.

One of the most unusual alliances to emerge was between labor and environmentalists. Although traditional enemies, these groups had worked together previously, for example to defeat international plans for the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. Discussions between labor and environmentalists had begun in 1997. The unions' primary concern was the desire for trade rules and sanctions designed to protect internationally recognized labor rights. This includes fundamental issues such as the right to organize and protection of worker rights, issues that united the AFL-CIO and global labor federations. Unlike environmentalists, labor interests do not want to eliminate the WTO, but they want these types of multinational political organizations to provide basic social justice across the globe.

There are several examples of these types of alliances being forged prior to Seattle. Steelworkers and Earth First!, for example, united against corporations such as Maxxam on issues related to logging. The Paper, Allied, Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers and Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers allied with environmentalist organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to fight major corporations in the oil and chemical industries. One organizer noted that some unions have attacked others, such as the Steelworkers, for engaging in dialogue with the environmentalists, as environmental regulations often result in job elimination. The United Mine Workers, for example, view reduction of carbon emissions as bringing about an end to coal mining and thus have worked to shape labor policy on climate change.

These issues also spurred the formation of groups such as Unions for Jobs and the Environment, whose members include unions such as the UMW, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Teamsters. Unions in other industrial nations—International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the European Trade Union Confederation, and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers of Canada—have also been interested in these issues.

Protesters Converge on Seattle

The WTO's Third Ministerial meeting convened in Seattle on 30 November 1999 at the Seattle Convention Center. The week-long protest in Seattle brought together groups interested in labor rights, environmental protection, and other issues germane to the global economy. Labor issues of concern included the elimination of child labor and initiating an equitable minimum wage. The protests attracted, by various estimates, between 40,000 and 60,000 people. They represented more than 700 organizations. Protesters were from the United States and about 100 other nations.

The whole idea behind these demonstrations was to inject other views and voices into the political and corporate discussions about the global economy. The international unions were most interested in drawing attention to the lack of worker rights. They contended that so-called free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created rules designed to protect the interests of corporations but not of workers and citizens. Author and environmentalist Paul Hawken called the Seattle demonstrations "the most striking expression of citizens struggling against a worldwide corporate-financed oligarchy." Some contended that organizations like the WTO and its member nations wanted to create a blueprint for global capitalism that catered to corporate rights at the peril of human rights and healthy communities.

During the Seattle protests, the AFL-CIO and other unions were part of a coalition including environmentalists, labor groups, religious organizations, and consumer groups. Time magazine characterized Seattle as particularly well chosen for the protest, saying the Pacific Northwest city, "with its unionist past, grungy youth-culture present, and ever-Green future, is an anarchist hotbed."

Demonstrations were organized using new technologies such as e-mail, the Internet, and cellular telephones. The Direct Action Network served in a coordinating capacity to bring together diverse groups such as the Ruckus Society, Third World Network, and the Rainforest Action Network. Hawken called protestors "organized, educated, and determined" and stated that they were "human rights activists, labor activists, indigenous people, people of faith, steel workers, and farmers. They were forest activists, environmentalists, social justice workers, students, and teachers. And they wanted the World Trade Organization to listen." The ground rules: no violence, no weapons, and no drugs or alcohol.

Those in the Seattle streets the last week of November met law enforcement agents clad in riot-gear and carrying tear gas and pepper spray, even rubber bullets. In addition to the Seattle Police Department, the United States Secret Service, the FBI, and the Central Intelligence Agency were also reportedly on hand. Some protestors blocked a pre-convention cocktail reception on 29 November as well as the convention center on the morning of 30 November before police arrived. A group of 2,000 people started marching to the convention center at 7 A.Mto block traffic. Cordons of law enforcement attempted to prevent more protestors from blocking entrances to the meeting area.

Police and protestors alike had also staked out the Paramount Theater, site of a planned opening meeting. Police blocked the theater with city buses. Protestors gathered outside the bus corral. Reportedly only few of the 5,000 official WTO delegates, and none of the scheduled speakers, were able to enter.

As the initial events of the meeting were coming to a halt, Direct Action Network organizers continued to coordinate groups throughout downtown Seattle to prevent WTO delegates from moving about the city. The network mobilized about 10,000 people who were divided into groups with various functions. There were several designated as being willing to be arrested. As groups were hit with pepper spray, others moved in to take their place. During this same period, a labor march took place apart from the Direct Action rally. Some of the labor marchers joined the other demonstrators near the convention center.

Later in the day on 30 November, the U.S. government threatened to cancel the meeting if downtown Seattle were not secured. Local officials responded by calling a curfew and establishing "no protest" zones. Seattle was declared under civil emergency. An estimated 1,500 protestors remained downtown. At nightfall, frustrated police used tear gas against residents and protestors without discrimination. The authorities called in the National Guard to help. Anarchists and locals intent on vandalism entered downtown after dark. The organized anarchists attacked specific multinational businesses identified for their track record on specific issues. These included Fidelity Investments, Starbucks, and The Gap. The anarchist group comprised a fraction of those participating, but their actions attracted most of the media coverage.

The protests continued through the week as the WTO attempted to resume its meetings. Late on 4 December, the meeting was suspended. Another labor-led march took place as the meeting closed.


Even years after the WTO meeting in Seattle, it remains unclear whether this event was an uncharacteristic gathering spawned by millennial concerns or a significant demonstration of popular global concerns. This issue and its impacts on history and society both are still being debated.

Immediately after the Seattle meetings, pundits were mixed on the effectiveness of the protests. Some said that global trade politics would be forever altered even while decrying the attendant property damage. There were, as author Naomi Klein pointed out in The Nation, serious problems with the perceptions of the protestors "as tree-wearing, lamb-costumed, drum-beating bubble brains." Complicating the continuity of the movement was the lack of central organization needed to conduct follow-up protests. "This is the flip side of the persistent criticism that the kids on the street lack clear leadership—they lack clear followers too," stated Klein.

Despite this disorganization and the seeming lack of ideological cohesion, "The victory in Seattle has emboldened labor, environmental, and other anti-WTO forses to redouble their efforts," according to a Business Week article published in December 1999. Among the post-Seattle protests in which labor groups such as the AFL-CIO participated were an antisweatshop vigil in Manhattan and attempts to block China's membership in the WTO.

Other issues besides the demonstrations hampered meaningful progress in the WTO meeting. Observers contend that the novelty of the WTO plus the large numbers of participants in the talks are two major impediments to progress. The issues involved are also too complex to discuss thoroughly in a few days' time.

Business Week also observed that the Seattle debacle convinced some policymakers and business leaders that the public may be wary of globalization and the changes that attend it and reported that David L. Aaron, United States undersecretary of commerce, stated, "A lot of people have the sense that global corporations can't be controlled, that we have lost our cities and towns to chain stores that are the same everywhere, and that we have lost the guarantee of a job and security for life." The impact of this observation may be evident in President Bill Clinton's statement to the press that he wanted enforceable labor standards as a condition of free trade. Clinton's comments angered WTO members as well as international business leaders. Labor and environmental issues continue unresolved.

As Klein noted, this type of popular uprising is not likely to catch the establishment unprepared in the future. Law enforcement across the United States and other nations have now subscribed to e-mail lists in which these types of protests might be publicized. Some police departments have made sizeable investments in equipment and training to protect their cities against such protests.

David Moberg, writing in The Nation, observed that if the unlikely coalitions between unions and environmentalists are sustained, "it's ultimately an issue of labor and environment together, the people against the corporations."

Key Players

Barshefsky, Charlene (1950-): United States trade representative who was cochair of the WTO meeting in Seattle. She was to have given the opening address in Seattle but was reportedly unable to get out of her hotel a block from the convention center.

Becker, George: President of the United Steelworkers of America at the time of the Seattle WTO summit.

Chavez-Thompson, Linda (1944-): Born in Lubbock, Texas, Chavez-Thompson was executive vice president of the AFL-CIO at the time of the Seattle protests. Chavez-Thompson is the first person of color to serve on the union's executive council. She began her union career in the Laborers' International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFLCIO. She has been the national vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, AFL-CIO, since 1986.

Dolan, Mike: Principal Seattle protest organizer.

Hyde, David: Student leader of the Seattle protests.

Nova, Scott: Director, Citizens Trade Campaign.

Roddick, Anita (1942-): Chief executive officer and founder of the Body Shop, a United Kingdom-based company noted for its progressive policies. Roddick was reportedly on the streets during the WTO meeting, assisting protestors who had been injured by police pepper spray.

Schell, Paul (1937-): Seattle mayor during the WTO protests.

Sweeney, John J. (1934-): President of the AFL-CIO at the time of the Seattle trade talks.

Wallach, Lori M.: Trade lawyer and director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. She founded the Citizens Trade Campaign and is also a member of the International Forum on Globalization.

Yokich, Stephen P. (1935-): Born in Detroit, Michigan, Yokich was UAW president at the time of the Seattle protests. A third-generation UAW member, he reportedly participated in his first strike at 22 months of age when he walked a picket line with his mother. He served in the United States Air Force and was a tool-and-die worker, which is when he became active in the UAW.

See also: North American Free Trade Agreement.



Wallach, Lori, and Michelle Sforza. The WTO: Five Years of Reasons to Resist Corporate Globalization. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.


Butkiewicz, Jerry. "WTO's Seattle Summit Reveals New Age of Activism." San Diego Business Journal 21, no. 8 (21 February 2000): 51.

"Free Trade Needs a Nod from Labor." Business Week, 22November 1999, p. 150.

Hawken, Paul. "Journal of the Uninvited N30." Whole Earth(spring 2000): 28.

Klein, Naomi. "The Vision Thing: Were the DC and Seattle Protests Unfocused, or are Critics Missing the Point?" The Nation, 10 July 2000, p. 18.

Krantz, Michael. "How Organized Anarchists Led Seattle into Chaos." Time, 13 December 1999, p. 38.

Malone, Scott. "Marchers Rail Against Sweatshops, Child Labor." Women's Wear Dailey, (10 December 1999): 20.

Moberg, David. "For Unions, Green's Not Easy." The Nation, 21 February 2000, p. 17.

"The New Radicals: Seattle Wasn't Exactly the '60s, but, Along with the Tear Gas, There is a Whiff of a Very '90s Radicalism in the Air. Behind the New Face of Protest." Newsweek, 13 December 1999, p. 36.

"The Seattle Protestors Got it Right." Business Week, 20December 1999, p. 25.

Weissman, Robert. "Democracy Is in the Streets."Multinational Monitor 20, no. 12 (December 1999): 24.

"What Really Sabotaged the Seattle Trade Talks." Business Week, 7 February 2000, p. 26.

"Whose World is it, Anyway?" Business Week, 20 December1999, p. 40.

—Linda Dailey Paulson

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World Free Trade Conference Demonstrations

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World Free Trade Conference Demonstrations