Sometimes it seems Seattle can't make up its mind about the global trade convocation it's hosting this week.
The city government has officially welcomed the 3,000 delegates to the World Trade Organization meeting, who like conventioneers everywhere are stoking the local economy with liberal spending on food, drink and hotel rooms. Yet it's also temporarily renaming a downtown street--for a day Pine Street will be Union Way--to honor labor union members who will parade down it Tuesday to protest much of what those delegates are doing.
The mayor turned up at the WTO's opening gala tonight to shake hands; he also stopped by a "people's gala" across town, which brought together people who believe the WTO is a big part of what's wrong with the world. The City Council signed a letter inviting Cuban leader Fidel Castro to attend (he won't); at one point it looked into whether it could put up protesters overnight (it decided not to).
Perched on the world's economic growth machine, the Pacific Rim, few cities in the world depend on trade like Seattle. Economists estimate that one in three jobs in the city of 750,000 depends on it. Yet, with a long history of social activism, few cities are better stocked with groups that by tradition distrust trade as the system is now constructed--old-style Democrats, labor union members and environmentalists.
Local politicians suggest that anyone who lives in Seattle understands there's no contradiction. People here like trade, they just want it to have a benevolent face--to respect workers and the environment. Any "dialogue" that begins between the people in the convention hall and the people in the streets will help bring that about, city officials say.
"Hopefully it's the beginning of how the people of the world can talk to each other on these very important issues," said Mayor Paul Schell. "We all need jobs, [but] we all share the same environment. We all need to be pushing for human dignity, human rights."
Today, some protesters smashed windows at a McDonald's restaurant, attacked a Niketown store and occupied a vacant building, while several others climbed a tall construction crane downtown to unfurl a banner. At lunch time, several thousand people staged a noisy parade through downtown. "Defend our forests--clear cut the WTO," read one banner. Some protesters chanted, "Free trade no, fair trade yes."
Police were out in force, some on bicycles and horses, some wearing armor and shin guards for riot duty. City Council member Nick Licata, who plans to march in the labor parade Tuesday, said police "understand that people who engage in civil disobedience have a point they want to make."
Everywhere you look in Seattle you can see signs of its ties to the world. Cranes that service container ships signal the presence of the country's second-busiest deep-water port. At a factory complex with a lengthy runway, Boeing Co. assembles jetliners and sends them off to airlines all over the world. Microsoft Corp., headquartered in a suburb, sells software in many foreign markets.
"Our businesses, our jobs, even our population, is very much global," said Schell, noting that 115 languages are spoken in the city. "It makes for interesting public education and 911 responses. . . . We're building an international city here that is trying to address the issues of the day."
While organized labor has withered in many American cities, it remains strong in Seattle, known in the history books as a hotbed of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, the militant turn-of-the century labor activists. Today, 165,000 people are members of 170-plus unions. Most port workers are unionized, as are machinists at Boeing.
Ron Judd, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, estimates that 40 percent of his members have jobs that are trade-dependent. But, he says, "we've seen a pattern of decisions [at the WTO] over the last five years that gives even the most trade-dependant city concerns." Unions believe that the WTO brings about the export of jobs to low-cost countries, "a race to the bottom." It does nothing to improve horrendous working conditions abroad, they say, and at times can overrule crucial U.S. regulations.
But with the meeting drawing militants and street theater groups from all over the country, there is fear in business circles, and relief--or hope--that most are not local people.
"It's that small core group that is making the fuss and dressing up in costumes," said Patricia Davis, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, a statewide nonprofit group that promotes foreign commerce. "We hope very much that these outsiders are not going to spoil the image of Seattle."
She dismisses the militants as protesting an economic system they've very much bought into. "They all have cell phones, they all have pagers," she said. "They're all wearing the best of clothing from around the world. They're all driving vehicles that are made all over the place."
A host committee headed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Boeing chief Philip M. Condit has raised almost $10 million from private sources in Seattle to pay for the gathering. The timing of the event has raised hopes among merchants that the visitors will get in some early holiday shopping as well.
Many Seattle people were avoiding downtown today, for fear of traffic and possible violence.
CAPTION: Animal-protection advocates wear turtle costumes to protest what they call animal-harming WTO rulings.
CAPTION: Police guard the street that leads to the front of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle, the trade meeting's primary venue.