Labor Voices: Remembering legacy of the ‘Battle in Seattle’
It’s been 20 years since the “Battle in Seattle,” when working people and our allies stood up to global corporations and governments to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings on Nov. 30, 1999. It was a turning point in the debate over unfair trade deals and the impact on workers in the U.S. and across the globe.
On that incredible day I joined more than 40,000 others in Seattle to protest the failed policies of the WTO, and we made history doing so.
Despite the loss of more than one million U.S. manufacturing jobs that had begun five years earlier with the enactment of NAFTA, the voices of working people were being ignored. Global trade officials wanted to push forward with the approval of permanent normalization of trade relations with China. Workers were rightfully concerned that even more of their jobs would be shipped overseas.
So we stood together and let trade negotiators know that we would not quietly stand by and allow them to give in to corporate interests while emptying the American heartland of good jobs. A blue-green alliance, Teamsters and Turtles, joined together in a united front against efforts to undermine regular people who just wanted to support their families, and have clean air and safe food.
The effort shut down the opening ceremony of the WTO that day, and protests continued for days to come. The Battle in Seattle garnered worldwide attention. It was the beginning of a movement, one that continues to this day.
The WTO was just beginning, and the fight has been and remains an uphill one. The pockets of the moneyed interests are deep and their desire to make even more at times seems unquenchable. Despite our best efforts, trade deals have moved through Congress during the past two decades that have hurt workers both here and abroad.
But the Teamsters, joined by others in the labor and environmental movements, have registered victories that have helped hardworking Americans. The first victory came just two years later when forces joined to eventually halt the WTO’s Doha, Qatar, round of negotiations. More recently, the Teamsters and other activists joined with a bipartisan collection of lawmakers to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Teamsters realize what is at stake with trade. That’s why the union has been an active participant in helping to shape policy as part of the process, while at the same time pushing back against language that would hurt hardworking Americans.
History shows these deals are not fair to workers. They let big corporations ship jobs overseas and dump wages and benefits overboard along the way. They lead to lost jobs, shuttered plants and hollowed-out communities. And in return the vast majority of Americans only get unsafe goods and foods that make their families sick.
The Teamsters have sounded the clarion call against these broken trade agreements and helped raise public attention to the issue. It’s time the productivity of American workers showed up in their paychecks.
Getting mad, however, isn't going to solve the problem or help this nation. Businesses need to invest at home, not abroad, and elected officials need to remember who they serve.
James Hoffa is president of the Teamsters.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers Acting President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.