Wall Street Journal - April 7, 2000
Unions Debate How Fiercely To Protest China Legislation By HELENE COOPER and GLENN BURKINS Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Do U.S. labor unions want another Seattle?
Sunday begins another week of protests against the forces of globalization, this time in the nation's capital. Some 15,000 labor-union activists, environmentalists and students will converge here to vent their fury against free-trade policies around the world.
But on the eve of a week that is already being likened to protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year, which collapsed amid tear gas and riot police, a central question is emerging. Is it in labor's best interests to see the protests here turn into another Seattle?
"If another Seattle means we want people to understand how serious this issue is, the answer is yes," says Robert Glaser, subdistrict director with a United Steelworkers of America Wisconsin chapter. "If another Seattle means we want the administration to understand this is a priority issue, the answer is yes."
Images of Violence
But for labor, it isn't that clear-cut. While the Seattle WTO protests energized antiglobalization forces, it also scarred the city of Seattle -- and tarnished the protest movement, with its images of anarchists breaking windows and rampaging through downtown stores. While the overwhelming majority of the Seattle protesters were peaceful, television images focused on the small minority of violent demonstrators, scenes that unsettle many among the general public and could potentially sour them on labor's cause. At the same time, the violence helped grab public attention.
Jo-Ann Mort, communications director of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, adds that riots and violence do "capture more attention, and that's a shame."
To be sure, many Americans sided with the protesters after the Seattle meeting, which also featured TV images of Seattle police spraying tear gas on nonviolent activists. "Polls after Seattle showed the American public empathized with the protesters," says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, an anticorporate-globalization group here.
'We Did Not Want This Fight'
But even sympathetic attention could cause problems. Union leaders want to focus public pressure on U.S. lawmakers to vote against a bill to permanently normalize China's trade status. But with labor demonstrating so openly against one of the Clinton administration's top objectives, some union leaders worry that union voters, feeling apathetic, may turn out in smaller numbers in November.
"We did not want this fight in an election year," says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Peggy Taylor.
Next week's activities will include demonstrations at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But the event that is the centerpiece of the union's efforts here is the unprecedented April 12 mass-lobbying push against the China-trade bill, when some 15,000 union members plan to converge on the offices of their senators and representatives to urge the measure's defeat.
"It's a natural follow-up to Seattle," says Teamsters union spokesman Chip Roth. "The battle has moved to the legislative arena. We made our statement in the streets of Seattle, and our issues have resonated across America." Mr. Roth adds that some 3,000 Teamsters will make the trek to Washington, mainly to lobby their lawmakers on China.
A-12, A-16 and A-9
The Capitol Hill event, known in the protest world simply as A-12, should not be confused with A-16 (April 16), when activists plan to disrupt spring meetings at the IMF and World Bank here, or A-9 (April 9), when others plan to rally at the U.S. Capitol building to urge debt relief for poor countries.
Labor officials say they are far more interested in drawing attention to the China-trade issue, and far less interested in the IMF and World Bank. The AFL-CIO says it will have a token presence in some of the IMF/World Bank rallies, but won't take part in protests for which permits have not been granted.
"We don't have complete philosophical agreement" with the other protesters on World Bank issues, Ms. Taylor says. "If their solution is to shut it down, our solution is to reform it."
Meanwhile, some activists are concentrating on projecting just the right image. Some A-16 organizers are even trying to round up protesters in wheelchairs, apparently to form barricades around the IMF and World Bank that are less susceptible to police sweeps.
--Michael M. Phillips contributed to this article.
Write to Helene Cooper at helene.cooper at wsj.com and Glenn Burkins at glenn.burkins at wsj.com