Monday, November 30, 2009
Ten years ago, a coalition of environmentalists, trade unionists, student and radical activists faced up to a militarised police force and shut down the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle. The Anti Capitalist movement was born. To celebrate ten years of resistance, and to discuss where now for the movement against capitalism, join us for a screening of the film BATTLE IN SEATTLE today Tuesday 1st December at 7pm in Unite Union, 6a Western Springs Road, Morningside.
“Those who were arguing they were going to shut the WTO down were in fact successful today.” That was the frank admission of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper after the events of November 1999.
A huge protest had disrupted the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in the city.
US president Bill Clinton, government ministers from across the globe, and the heads of the world’s mightiest corporations were there to plan how they could increase their domination of the planet.
Instead, tens of thousands of protesters gave a glimpse of the power of ordinary people to challenge the rule of this global elite.
Demonstrators were met with pepper spray, beatings, rubber bullets, armoured cars and billowing clouds of teargas. But the demonstrators won – and they won because of a unity forged between trade unionists, students, environmental activists and many others.
The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Delegates simply could not reach it through the protest-filled streets.
And the “Battle of Seattle” opened up a new chapter in politics.
It became a focus for issues from child labour to debt, the environment, working conditions and union rights. The power of the protest showed millions that the corporations can be halted.
The first protests took place on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 November. On Sunday, as WTO delegates began arriving in Seattle, there were two somewhat larger demonstrations. There was also a rolling programme of teach-ins and meetings alongside the demonstrations.
On the Monday the sea turtle costumes that would become an iconic image of the Seattle WTO protests made their first appearance, in an environmental protection and animal welfare march. Other groups of protesters demonstrated outside the WTO’s evening reception.
The demonstrations and meetings had a carnival atmosphere. Diane Lively, a student from Alabama, had travelled thousands of miles to be there. “I just want to tell the WTO to get their hands off our planet,” she said. “I want people before profits.”
Tetteh Hormeku, from Ghana, asked, “How can there be a ‘level playing field’ between the US and, say, Burkina Faso in Africa? There, 86 percent of the population depends on agriculture, but there are fewer than 200 tractors in the whole country and 87 percent of the agricultural population is illiterate.”
Mike Ellison, a Seattle health worker and union shop steward, said, “The WTO is about corporations brushing us aside and seizing everything. Its rules mean poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America – and in the US as well.”
The defining moment of victory came early on Tuesday morning, when the direct action protesters out-manoeuvred the authorities and shut down the WTO.
The police assumed demonstrations and blockades would not start before 8am, and so did not deploy their forces until 7.30am. However, demonstrators gathered much earlier. Well before 8am protesters occupied intersections on all sides of the conference centre.
The police began using teargas and pepper spray to force demonstrators away.
Labour organiser Verlen Wilder said, “The cops told them to sit down. They shot percussion bombs into the crowd and they teargassed them. And they brought buses around and arrested them all.
“That’s when we said, enough, that’s it, we’re going to protest with them, we’re going to go right down the middle of downtown.”
A workers’ march moved off towards the town centre, but the trade union leaders were determined to keep the demonstration away from the convention centre.
Union officials tried to channel the demonstrators down a side street. Unwillingly the first group obeyed their instructions. Then came the longshoremen (dockers). Their large contingent was packed with people who had stopped work in protest at the WTO – 1,200 were out in Seattle, a similar number at Tacoma and hundreds more in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“We’re going to the convention,” shouted one crane operator. “I’m going to help those turtle kids,” said another docker, referring to the environmental protesters on the receiving end of police brutality a few streets away. For a minute the line of marshals held and then, slowly, it began to part. Chanting, cheering, the trade unionists swept straight on.
The two groups, the workers and the young protesters, met. “Union!” screamed the trade unionists. “Power!” replied the students and youth. “Solidarity! Solidarity!” they chanted together.
So in the centre of Seattle, by the citadels of corporate power, stood Boeing workers and students, post workers and people with floral headscarves – all together. “Disperse or you will be subject to riot control measures,” announced the police. Were they going to teargas the teamsters (truck drivers), steel workers and machinists (engineers)? They were not. They chose defeat on the day instead of risking wider rebellion.
For the two hours while the union-led march went past, the police fired no gas or rubber bullets. They were beaten. The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Only later, after the trade unionists left, did the police unleash their fury. Dozens of protesters fell choking, their eyes and noses burnt by the gas and pepper sprays. Others suffered wounds from the rubber bullets.
In 1968, when police smashed demonstrators against the Vietnam war at the Democratic Party convention, the protesters had chanted, “The whole world is watching”. Now the same chant was taken up.
Protester Tom Gorlick said, “I was part of the Chicago ’68 demonstrations. That defined a generation and Seattle will as well.”
That afternoon in Seattle, the mayor declared a state of emergency and a curfew. Large squads in riot armour and gas masks, backed by armoured vehicles, began sweeping through downtown using percussion grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to force remaining protesters and bystanders alike off the street.
Several hundred protesters retreated to a residential area and, when police followed, angry residents joined the protests.
The National Guard was called in before daylight the next day. Troops and officers lined the perimeter of the “no protest zone”. Throughout the day, police used tear gas to disperse crowds downtown, although a permitted demonstration organised by the steelworkers’ union was held along the waterfront.
President Clinton was unable to address a delegates’ reception.
By the Friday the protests continued and the police had essentially backed off. The WTO talks collapsed and thousands marched together again through Seattle.
Cory Mckinley was a worker at Kaiser Aluminium who was locked out by his employers for 14 months. He said, ”Never in a million years did I think I would be walking with these sort of people. My motto has been there is nothing more beautiful than a big redwood deck. Now I have learnt about ecology and those things.”
Protester Cynthia Smith said, “We are fighting for real justice in a world that denies justice to billions. Something is changing in America when you can have a day like this.”
Bob Hasegawa, secretary of Teamsters union Seattle local 174, said, “It was a once in a lifetime thing. I was amazed how seriously we kicked their butts! They still can’t get their shit together. They have been trying to have meetings, and they just can’t seem to.”
The following should be read alongside this article:
» The 1999 Seattle protests gave birth to a global movement
» Voices from the Seattle protests
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Unite, the union that organises thousands of low paid workers in workplaces such as cinemas, fastfoods and call centres, thinks that Don Brash needs a lesson on which way is up and which way is down.
Brash has proposed to reduce New Zealand's income gap with Australia by cutting the minimum wage to $10 an hour, re introducing youth rates for workers under 18, and slashing public services and conditions that benefit the working poor.
The union's Campaign for a Living Wage spokesperson, Joe Carolan, says-
"In order to reach Australia's income levels, we should increase our minimum wage to $15ph this year, and to two third's of the average wage afterwards. The poorest Australian workers benifit from a minimum wage of NZ$17.50 an hour, just over $200 more a week than their Kiwi counterparts.
We've been out gathering thousands of names in support of this demand every week on the streets and in the workplaces throughout New Zealand. 4 out of 5 people agree with us- Workers are sick of a low pay economy, and Brash's Taskforce 2025 shock therapy is the opposite of what Kiwi battlers want.
Economics 101- $15 per hour is a lot closer to $17.50 than $10 an hour. If there are cuts to be made to close our income gap with Australia, it should be in the inordinate amount of funding given by government to neoliberal has-been illiterates who can't tell up from down. "
Commentary: Cameron Walker, Socialist Aotearoa
It is sad that National, ACT and the Maori Party have voted to privatise prisons. Overseas experience shows that prisons run for the purpose of profit are incredibly open to abuse of inmates, poor treatment of staff and corruption. Earlier this year it emerged that two judges in Pennsylvania, USA, had been receiving payments from the owners of a youth prison in return for passing harsh sentences. One girl was sentenced to three months simply making a satirical Myspace page about her teacher.
The Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, claims that the experience of Auckland Central Remand Prison under the management of GEO Group Australia, earlier this decade, shows that private prisons are a success. However, the prison was brand new and utilised the latest developments in prison design and security system technology. Disruptive prisoners could always be moved to Mt Eden prison next door. As the American prison researcher Christian Parenti notes, private companies break into the prison market by taking on easy to handle contracts. If powerful interests profit from more people being imprisoned I doubt society will make strong efforts to tackle crime and its causes.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
COMMENTARY- Omar Hamed, Socialist Aotearoa
As the sun went down across a glassy Auckland harbour and inner-city workers scrambled for home, I met up with other Socialist Aotearoa comrades who went to see Labour leader Phil Goff speak at the London Bar. After getting there and buying a pricy bottle of beer, we retreated to the back of the bar as suited party functionaries and smart-casual looking centre-left students and intellectuals swilled around us.
The first bitter taste in my mouth came when the organiser of the event, from the group Drinking Liberally, kept using the word “We” to describe the audience at the event but implying that we were all Labour Party members. No wonder people accused the Labour Party of arrogance, when all you have to do is turn up to hear their head honcho to be a member.
Anyway, up to the stage went Mr. Goff, pint of beer in hand, to begins his ruminations. Launching into an articulate attack on the Tories first year, Goff covered his three stand-out issues for the year; cuts to adult & community education and the extra funding for private schools, the restructuring going on within ACC as a prelude to privatisation, and the bungled Emissions Trading Scheme and the legacy of debt it will leave to future tax-payers. All good points, and as Goff said, part of a strategy of the Labour Party returning to “core values”.
No doubt important issues but enough to swing voters away from the John Key and the National Party? Probably not and definitely not enough to reenergise the Labour Party in the coming year. The rising cost of living, unemployment, and the economic recession received passing mention but I didn’t get the feeling that these were pressing concerns for the Labour Party milieu that had gathered around their leader, shandies in hand. As I said to Goff afterwards, the Nats won the last election on tax cuts, Labour could win the next election on wage rises. I think my advice fell on deaf ears.
Into question time and a slightly more candid Goff emerged, drink having loosened the tongue I suppose. On Harawira, “Never let go off the Black Power rhetoric of the 1970s. Blah, Blah, Blah Harawira Blah Blah Blah Racist Blah, Blah.” No soul searching on how damaging the Foreshore and Seabed Act had been to the Labour-Maori relationship, and no surprise that there were few people-of-colour in attendance. The reality is that most capitalists in this world are “white motherfuckers” who really have been raping this land for centuries. Harawira told it like it is and many people respect that.
Socialist John Moore asked a question about Labours’ relationship with the market and Goff responded, “show me a command economy that ever worked”, “the market is the best mechanism to distribute goods” and “Labour saved capitalism”. It seems Goff never really shook the ideology of the fourth Labour Government of the late 1980s that turned New Zealand into one of the rich world’s most unequal societies.
With a BBC poll showing that a quarter of people it surveyed thinking capitalism is fatally flawed, you would think that the Leader of a party that was formed to institute democratic socialism in the depression of the 1930s would be able to criticise our current system a little more than just calling for an overhaul of the Reserve Bank Act. But no- all Goff would admit their role to is to tinker at the edge of the system.
Lastly, Goff’s response to my question over whether we could trust him and his return to a value based foreign policy when he was the one who had done a trade deal with the butchers of Beijing as the young monks of Tibet were murdered in the streets. Goff’s voice boomed across the bar to lecture us on how we could only do business with 1/3rd of the world if we were not to do business with tyrants. I couldn’t help thinking that 1/3rd of the world is still 2 billion people to trade with but I think my words would have been lost on the functionaries who had gathered to hear their leader.
In the end I left with the feeling that Goff was preparing to move his party to the left, just as Clark had done at the end of the 1990s with the rhetoric of “closing the gaps”, but that the core values of the Labour Party were still the suppression of tino rangatiratanga, commitment to neo-liberalism and a pandering to powerful foreign interests in return for trade deals.