| Monasteries or mobilization? Seattle and the case for action

Januar 2010  Druckansicht

By Ian Greer

On November 30, 1999 around 50,000 protesters filled the streets of downtown Seattle to protest the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.  At least half were trade unionists from around Western US and Canada protesting free trade and the threat it posed to jobs and worker rights.  Also present were representatives of hundreds of NGOs from around the world, and thousands of local environmentalists, feminists, anarchists, socialists, students, academics, and activists from various racial, ethnic, and religious groups.  ‘Seattle’ became an icon and inspired several large demonstrations against corporate globalization around the world.

Ten years on Bifo Berardi asks what the effect was.  He argues that  ‘neoliberal policy . . . has privatized every single fragment of production, communication, language and affection.’ Furthermore, ‘in every single aspect of life competition has replaced solidarity.’ ‘A third of humanity is in danger of death’, another third ‘doomed’ to precarious work, and a final third ‘armed to the teeth’ to protect their privileges.  Although the effectiveness of left-wing activism has been ‘reduced to zero,’ all is not lost.  ‘The small minority of the world population that wants to save the heritage of humanist civilisation and the potentialities of the General Intellect [sic]’ can still save itself.  Bifo proposes new monasteries in which a ‘new paradigm’ could emerge based on ‘frugality, culture-intensive production, solidarity, and laziness, and refusal of competition.’ Residents of this hybrid hippie commune and retirement home would develop the virtues of liberation while everyone else muddled through in a murderous and chaotic world order.

It may be true that protests have not stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or ended capitalism, but does this really add up to a state of military dictatorship in which activism is a waste of time?  Does Europe’s left intelligentsia really doubt the existence of solidarity and state-owned enterprises?  Regarding the proposed solution, how would critical social analysis evolve severed from politics, trade unions, and other parts of civil society?

In the real world, it is not unusual for intellectuals to work with civil society.  In a survey of 425 trade unionists I conducted with Lowell Turner, the share working with academic researchers were 27% in the US and 33% in Germany.  The issues ranged from attempts to retain manufacturing jobs – a goal that also motivated many of the WTO protesters – to union organizing and living wage campaigns.  Much of this work involves the same kinds of activists seen in 1999, and all of it presupposes that we are anything but ‘doomed’.

It is also not difficult to find examples of society coming together to combat injustice, and Seattle provides a good window into this process.  Much of the organizing work leading up to the WTO protests was carried out by staff of local and national unions and the local and state-level AFL-CIO.  This reflected a shift in the local trade union scene away from market-oriented business unionism.  With the support of the national AFL-CIO’s Union Cities programme, a new group of leaders brought trade unionism into the 21st century with a combination of broad social activism and organizing the unorganized.  Their work with other activists at the WTO protests thus came after a decade-long process of improvement in sometimes poisonous relationships.

How did Seattle change during the 1990s?  Trade unions began to adopt new forms of protest, including civil disobedience, to build awareness about various political issues and to support strikes and organizing campaigns.  Together with local religious leaders they set up Jobs with Justice to build local support beyond the trade union movement.  Local union membership grew from the 1990s on, partly because of organizing in established sectors such as health care, construction and the public service, and partly due to new local unions for precariously employed home-health aides, university research assistants, and high-tech workers.  Accompanying this process was a change in unions’ relationships with other parts of civil society.

One area that has seen improvement in the unions’ relations with civil society has been equal opportunities in employment.  Starting in the 1970s, activists from Seattle’s nonwhite communities – mainly black and Asian – have been battling the construction unions to end discriminatory practices built into the training and recruitment practices in the sector.  An airport runway was blocked, construction equipment destroyed, and a lawsuit filed and won.  The legal settlement created the funding for the local civil rights organization, LELO.

In the 1990s, union leaders decided it was time to confront the issue of racism directly.  LELO and the unions jointly advocated a new set of rules governing project sites to bring women and minorities into the trades, while maintaining union-negotiated training and employment standards.  These arrangements provide, among other things, on-the-job mentoring support to cope with the white-male-dominated culture of construction sites; additional preparatory courses for potential apprentices; help with transportation to work; and independent monitoring of implementation.

Relationships with environmentalists have also improved.  While there are long-standing conflicts between blue-collar employment and green concerns, mostly around logging and construction, several local figures have operated across this blue-green divide.  The result was joint campaigns by unions and environmentalists against rogue companies, the WTO protests (‘Teamsters and Turtles Together at Last’), the defense of industrial real estate from land speculators looking to create new retail and housing spaces, and – with the support of the blue-green coalitions the Apollo Alliance and the Sound Alliance – massive government investment in ‘green jobs’.  By creating union jobs in retrofitting of residential buildings, the latter initiative has helped unions to organize the unorganized and created more unionized apprentice places for young people from Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods.

In the wake of the collapse of third-way governments in the UK and Germany, collaborations like these could provide a basis for left intellectuals to seize the intellectual agenda in Europe, at the international, national, and local levels.  While allies sometimes disagree, the Seattle story shows that coalitions between people who are not like-minded in every way can still be very productive.  These new concepts to fight for both social and ecological goals cannot develop in isolation from real-world politics.  And, as events ten years ago show, such unlikely coalitions can have global resonance.