Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    Teamsters and Turtles Unite Again

    Why Quebec City will witness the Labor movement’s return to globalization activism.

    Few people keeping an eye on the “Summit of the Americas” in Quebec City will be surprised to see the proceedings surrounded by masses of protesters. The climate of the once discreet, secretive meetings of trade ministers and business representatives has so drastically changed in the past year that vocal dissent now seems routine. A gathering devoted to an expansion of corporate power as grandiose as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) could hardly escape notice.

    But protest organizers know that activism cannot be taken for granted. Much of the vitality of an emergent global justice movement comes from the participation of groups representing a wide range of causes and constituencies: environmental advocates and anti-corporate anarchists, displaced farmers and downsized workers. Agreements, tensions, and negotiations between members of this broad coalition go far in determining what the demonstrations look like, and what they can achieve politically.

    By these standards, the Quebec City meetings are poised to attract the most significant coalition protests since Seattle. Why? Because the prospect of the FTAA has created a crucial opportunity for the Labor movement — one of the most important partners in the opposition to the WTO — to reconnect with its global justice allies.

    The FTAA is the grandchild of an old Labor nemesis: NAFTA. Back in 1993, NAFTA shocked political observers by generating a remarkably high level of popular concern and condemnation. The battle against it joined an oddly-matched collection of interests against the young Clinton administration’s vision of a continent open for business.

    At their best, the unions, environmentalists, and single-issue NGOs disrupted the stale dichotomies of “free trade” and “protectionism.” They built ties between U.S. and Mexican workers. They focused on the erosion of social protections caused by capital mobility. And they argued for a different type of trade policy that would protect public goods and workers’ rights.

    Though they failed to stop NAFTA, their coalition continued to mature. At the turn of the millennium, joined by an array of international allies and a militant youth counter-culture, they staged a resistance compelling enough to condemn an anticipated “Seattle Round” of trade talks to “Tear Gas Round” infamy. One of the most affecting slogans from the WTO actions symbolized their solidarity: “Teamsters and Turtles Unite!”

    While the “Turtles” — environmentalists, student radicals and the like — have since been busy trying to replicate Seattle’s success at subsequent conferences, the proverbial “Teamsters” have been harder to find on the globalization scene. In April of last year, many of the most significant NGOs that had organized against the WTO choose the IMF and World Bank as their next targets. They launched a major mobilization to confront the annual meetings of the financial institutions in Washington, DC. The activists reached out to the AFL-CIO and major unions, but Labor never fully backed the cause of “A16.” While some unions issued statements of support, and while the AFL-CIO granted last-minute endorsement to the legal “Ellipse” rally taking place on the main day of civil disobedience, participation remained limited.

    Several factors contributed to the lukewarm response. The IMF/World Bank constituted a new target for many global justice allies. Within unions, a process of internal education and policy debate had to occur before they even decided where they stood on questions of Bank behavior, far less whether attacking the institution should be a leading preoccupation. Unlike flexible student and youth networks, the slow-moving bureaucracies of the AFL-CIO were ill-fit to respond on short notice to the energetic “call to action.”

    But more significant was the fact that Labor had already staked out a different campaign as its post-Seattle priority. The AFL-CIO, along with the high-profile advocacy group Public Citizen, devoted its real energy to lobbying against Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China and, by extension, opposing the expansion of the WTO. Their decision to focus on PNTR reflected a top-down bias: AFL-CIO leaders felt more comfortable with the recommendations of their beltway lobbyists than with the vibrant, if unpredictable, creative energy of rank-and-file street actions. But it also showed pragmatism: unlike amorphous opposition to the World Bank, the PNTR campaign had clear goals and a set timetable. Plus, they could win it (or so they thought at the time).

    An even clearer set of conflicting agendas kept major Labor groups away from protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles last summer. Unions participated in demonstrations around the political conventions, but they were more likely to stage their own marches to publicize particular contract fights than to back the coalition-based efforts to influence national politics. On that level, the AFL-CIO’s allegiance to the Gore campaign supplied them with more concrete objectives than general dissent. And it made most unions extremely reticent to join in actions denouncing a corrupt two-party system. Absent a common enemy, solidarity languished.

    In Quebec City that won’t be a problem: the FTAA is imposing enough evil to regroup the many constituencies who would suffer under its influence. The agreement promises, in the words of an AFL-CIO statement, to “increase downward pressure on wages, living standards, the environment, public health laws, and public services in the U.S. and throughout the western hemisphere.” But all this is speculative: trade officials haven’t even made drafts of the agreement public, opting to disregard even basic standards of democratic transparency.

    Some of the unions most prominent in Seattle — such as the Steelworkers and the Longshoremen — have called out their members for the Quebec City protests. Jobs With Justice, a national Labor-community action group, is transporting activists to Canada and organizing those who can not go into events designed to “Localize the Movement for Global Justice.” The AFL-CIO has blessed both efforts, as well as organizing drives taking place north of the border. There, Canadian unionists promise to far outdo their U.S. counterparts: Nurses, autoworkers and paper workers, among others, have rented out train cars and chartered busses to accommodate thousands of members.

    For protesters, union support means more than just bigger crowds. In terms of age, race, and class, the Labor movement brings a more diverse membership to the mobilizations than most of the parties involved. The shop stewards and member-activists bring a different type of consciousness to the events, communicating anti-corporate concerns to many mainstream audiences who may not feel sympathetic otherwise. A direct action movement continually fighting against media marginalization and police repression cannot afford to miss the opportunity to sway public opinion in their favor.

    Historically, even when Labor has been reluctant to back innovative direct actions, they have used their resources to support allies at some crucial moments: it was the United Auto Workers who sent a crucial influx of bail money to Birmingham to secure the civil rights victory there in the 1960s.

    At a time when global justice activists are looking for ways to move beyond “summit hopping” and fuel lasting campaigns, these connections grow ever more vital. The Labor movement’s engagement with national mobilizations is grounded in an understanding of how globalization impacts the lives of working people on a daily basis. Its organizing experience and long-term commitment to social change can provide important models for how to sustain activism and institutionalize political gains. These lessons will be needed if protesters are to turn the excitement of dramatic mass actions into lasting changes in the way the world economy functions.

    Teamsters and Turtles, united again in opposition to the FTAA, can carry on the real process of building alternatives to corporate globalization: converting protest into power.

    — Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia, an editorial board member at Dissent, and co-author of "This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century" (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

      Send comment to author

      Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.