WTO Protests in Seattle, 1999

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  • by Anup Shah
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At the end of November 1999, Seattle saw major governments meet at a WTO ministerial meeting to discuss various trading rules. Seattle also saw free speech cracked down on in the name of free trade. Enormous public protests ensued. There were many differences in the perspectives of developing and industrialized nations on the current reality of free trade and how it affected them. It resulted in a WTO failure to agree on many issues, without adopting any resolutions. Developing countries were sidelined and one delegate even physically barred from a meeting, according to the previous link.

On this page:

  1. Media Portrayal
  2. Enormous Public Turnout Despite Police Crackdown
  3. Most Protestors Were Not Against International Trade
  4. Labor Rights
  5. More Information

Media Portrayal

Once more, the mainstream media coverage in the US about such a major event was very much lacking. It was pretty much corporate led and therefore concentrating on the sensationalism of the violent aspects of the protests, without really looking at the real issues (such as the corporate domination with lack of accountability). However, a large group of independent media organizations worked together to provide alternative coverage.

For critique on media coverage and links to other media related sites for Seattle see the following:

Many journalists were also caught up in the much criticized police actions that eventually saw the Seattle police chief resign. At least one journalist was even arrested for just reporting what the delegates in the meeting were actually talking about. (Check out this link, a students first hand account of what he believed was a provoked violence response.)

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Enormous Public Turnout Despite Police Crackdown

Estimates ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 protestors. Protesters came from all over the world, not just the developed countries. They ranged from human rights groups, students, environmental groups, religious leaders, labor rights activists etc wanting fairer trade with less exploitation. Even right-wing protectionist groups were there also arguing against the current corporate-led free trade, (although the protectionists were there for very different reasons).

The fact that 50,000 to 100,000 people turned up in the pouring rain, through all the police crackdowns etc indicates the sheer number of people who are concerned at the current issues, as obviously not everyone could be in Seattle. How many more would have turned up had it not been raining so bad!

While the majority were non-violent protestors, a small group started some violence and looting that led to the Seattle police and National Guard declaring a state of emergency (it was even termed as Martial Law by the Mayor of Seattle at one point). This led to the issuing of curfews, arresting, tear-gassing, pepper spraying and even shooting rubber bullets at innocent, non-violent protestors. This became the mainstream media’s major coverage focus often portraying all the protestors as loony leftists or violent groups with no clue as to what they are talking about. (Remember, the mainstream media is corporate-owned as well and certain media conglomerates make up some of the largest multinational corporations that directly benefit from the current form of free trade)

The media’s portrayal of protestors interfering in global trading missed the point that as history has shown, progress has also been made thanks to a variety of public protests: women’s rights, civil rights, civil wars and revolutions in Europe, in Latin America and other former colonial countries such as, India, East Timor, and so on.

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Most Protestors Were Not Against International Trade

Most people were pro-democracy activists protesting at the dangerous unfairness at the current model of free trade, while agreed that international trade is beneficial to everyone, if it is fair. Instead, the mainstream media preferred to distort the protestors’ concerns saying that they were all anti-trade etc and concentrated mainly on the motives of the right-wing protectionists from industrialized nations. (The previous link has some detailed examples from the US).

This misconception that all who are against the current system of the WTO must automatically be against international trade etc is unfounded; the issue at Seattle was about protesting the current rules and implementations of these ideas. Most will agree that international trade will be beneficial and help developing countries raise their standards of living. Many will also agree that international trade can promote peace through internationally agreed standards or rules of that trade, helping reduce the likelihood of tragedies such as World War I and II which arose through trade battles between the former imperial countries, whose greed got the better of them.

However, that then doesn't mean that any form of international trade is acceptable without any thought! Protestors are concerned at the corporate drive in international trade where national safety standards, laws and rules are often deemed as barriers to trade and a largely unelected set of WTO officials can make these decisions. Criticism is also towards the corporate influence on the way the actual rules of trade are made (and what the rules are), as corporations are not democratic and yet the rules that they are pushing forth via the WTO affect everyone. Coupled with the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies making developed countries dependent upon industrialized countries, this is a concern as the beneficiaries of global trade in its current form is seriously skewed.

Both developing and developed nations could benefit from international trade. However, currently only the developed nations have really benefited (and that has also been at the cost of rise in poverty in their own nations). This has meant that those who have benefited (including enormous global media conglomerates) urge the same formula to continue—after all, if it works for you, why change it?

As developing countries have been increasing their frustrations with the WTO, many are alternatively suggesting that the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade And Development) would be a far more inclusive and democratic a body to house global trade issues.

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Labor Rights

Seattle saw President Clinton and others suggest that the WTO include core labor rights and sanctions and so forth if these were violated. At first glance, this seemed like a remarkably enlightened suggestion, especially for all those activists who have been campaigning on these things for years. However, a question of why the US would want to do such a thing is natural, given that past records on economics and trade do not suggest that there are many humanitarian concerns!

In fact, many in the developing countries saw this as reeking of protectionism and that it would be too costly for the poorer nations to be able to afford such dramatic changes given the poverty and dependency they are in. It would also make it look as though the poor countries are the culprits and not hold any accountability to the foreign multinationals who demand these conditions before investing in that nation. As we see in the structural adjustment section on this site, the conditions are such that capital can pick up and go elsewhere if there are such conditions.

While in the mainstream media’s eyes the developing countries were looked at negatively for their incomprehensible reaction, a number of commentators in developed and developing countries did raise better perspectives, and a couple are quoted here as an example:

What about labor rights and support for U.S. laws banning imports of goods made by child labor or slave labor? Are such laws really protectionism in disguise?

Such laws, as well as provisions about labor and environmental standards in WTO treaties given how the WTO operates, can become new vehicles for protectionism and imperial manipulation. Suppose only violations of labor or environmental standards are recognized grounds for trade sanctions under new WTO rules. Effectively, only third world countries would be subject to complaints. Worse, third world countries would have waived their rights to retaliation when subjected to protectionist measures disguised as protections of labor or environmental standards. It is important that first world labor unions and environmental organizations recognize that our third world counterparts have good reason to worry that such provisions can easily become the new rationale for protectionism at their expense and for punishing regimes resistant to U.S. imperial policies. The AFL-CIO was oblivious to this legitimate concern going into Seattle and angered third world allies in the anti-globalization coalition as a result. While they did not abandon their call for labor standards in trade treaties, fortunately the AFL-CIO rethought the issue and passed some important resolutions reaching out to third world workers at its Executive Council Meeting February 16-17, 2000 in New Orleans.

Of course it would be a good thing if labor rights were made more secure and labor standards were improved anywhere in the world. The issue, however, is whether progressives in the U.S. should pressure the U.S. government to pass and enforce laws against imports from offending countries or to insist on such provisions in WTO treaties. I believe there are more effective and less dangerous ways to achieve this goal and to protect American workers from competition with third world workers who are even more exploited.

Many third world unions and grassroots organizations appreciate help from first world progressives in their campaigns for labor rights and standards. They would like us to help publicize abuses—particularly when our multinational corporations are the perpetrators. They like any financial or organizational aid we can provide—with no strings attached. Sometimes they like us to organize consumer boycotts—when they ask for them. Occasionally, when their struggle is at a crucial stage, third world movements for human, political, and labor rights ask us to pressure our governments and/or international organizations to take up economic sanctions, as was the case in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and is now the case in the struggle for democracy in Burma. But there is a difference between responding to requests for international solidarity and promoting measures many of our third world allies oppose.

Moreover, precisely because third world workers are terribly exploited, their employers will pass on much of the cost of improvements in labor standards achieved through international trade treaties to their employees in the form of lower wages. Since the primary concern of the AFL-CIO is to arrest the race to the bottom effect of trade liberalization, they can more effectively protect their interests by supporting programs that improve the bargaining power of third world workers more than international labor standards do. For example, campaigns supporting land reform and cessation of U.S. military aid to totalitarian regimes are far more likely to reduce the race to the bottom effect of international trade. The crucial question is not whether the initiative for standards or sanctions comes from capitalist politicians or from the U.S. human rights/labor/left communities. The crucial question is whether the initiative comes as a request from those we want to help in third world countries. If so, we should be as responsive as possible.

Robin Hahnel, Imperialism, Human Rights, and Protectionism; A question and answer session on globalization, ZNet, February 2001

And from the South Centre:

[A]ttempts to enforce labour standards through trade sanctions are likely to cause economic harm to most exporting developing countries, at least in the short to medium term, while doing little or nothing to improve their labour standards. Indeed, under wholly plausible circumstances, this approach could be seriously counterproductive and reduce standards overall. What is more, any cut-back in developing country exports due to sanctions will not provide protection to labour and industry in the advanced countries for long (if that were the objective). This is because the most severe competition for advanced countries comes from the small number of newly industrializing countries (NICs) whose productivity growth rate is much faster than that of advanced countries.

[W]hat cannot be gained regarding labour standards through multilateral channels such as the WTO, where consensus is required, is now being pursued though bilateral and regional agreements … The current initiatives of advanced countries intended to make core labour standards in effect compulsory by threatening sanctions are regarded by developing countries as being protectionist. They question why a country like the US, which has not ratified many of the core ILO conventions and whose own degree of unionization is barely above the average for developing countries, should push so hard for using trade measures as a weapon to enforce labour standards including the right to unionize.

Ajit Singh and Ann Zammit, The global labor standards controversy: critical issues for developing countries, South Centre, October 2000

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More Information

The following sources provide good information about the meeting. It is also a useful set of resources to see the criticisms of current globalization models and current forms of free trade practices.

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  • by Anup Shah
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