AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is not a man to make trouble for his friends. He has, according to his Capitol Hill pal, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, "a kind, generous, sweet personality." So what is he doing out in Seattle, leading demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, an outfit revered by our trade-mad president? How come he's marching with people dressed up like turtles or carrying large paper whales? The answer is: He's trying to tell President Clinton that he has to come through on his pledge to "put a human face on the global economy."
Labor unions have spurned activism for several generations. Under George Meany and Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO supported U.S. foreign policy to the letter. They were militantly anti-communist, friends of the CIA. During the Vietnam War, union members in the construction trades beat up long-haired anti-war demonstrators. Now they're wearing ponytails themselves and shaking their fists at the World Trade Organization, which they think is on the side of the corporations, not the workers of the world.
The White House professes to be baffled by the rage of the usually mild-mannered John Sweeney. He was on the advisory commission of corporate and labor leaders that in October endorsed Clinton's free-trade initiatives before the WTO. Sweeney signed a letter with 34 chief executives. Several of the more militant unions, including the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, complained furiously that Sweeney had failed to understand the ruinous effect of world trade on U.S. labor. The president's people think that Sweeney's present actions indicate a fight for political survival.
Not so, said Sweeney over the telephone from Seattle. It was the U.S. admission of China to the World Trade Organization that made him boil over. His scalding statement at the time bears repetition: "It is disgustingly hypocritical of the Clinton administration to pledge to put a human face on the global economy while prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation." Sweeney obviously felt betrayed by the Nov. 15 announcement that China had been okayed for membership in the WTO. "They could have waited. Let it [China] come in after the new WTO rules were made."
"John went out on a limb for them with that letter of endorsement, and they sawed it off on him," says a Sweeney lieutenant.
Sweeney says labor demonstrations, 40,000 strong with brothers and sisters from 100 countries walking shoulder to shoulder, were entirely peaceful, devoted entirely to workers' rights, human rights and environmental protections. "All we were saying is that we want a seat at the table," he says. Environmentalists, who are glad to have so much company, are calling the new alliance the "green-blue coalition."
Among the hordes who brought the city to a state of emergency and necessitated the calling out of the National Guard for what was to have been a showcase ceremonial event were self-styled anarchists who smashed windows and slashed tires.
But Sweeney does not fear a backlash such as the one that set in during the Vietnam years, when Richard Nixon successfully encouraged voters to regard the demonstrations as worse than the war. Sweeney thinks that Seattle will stiffen voters' resolve to "make Dick Gephardt speaker of a Democratic House." A recent University of Maryland poll showed most people deplore global trade policies that turn a blind eye to sweatshops, child labor, prison labor and 70-cents-an-hour toil.
Apologists for labor point out that in World Trade Organization pacts, corporate concerns about intellectual property and patent rights are somehow always met, while worries about raw sewage in the middle of the street--a phenomenon in the Mexican border factory towns that sprung up in the wake of NAFTA--never make the agreements. So-called sidebar agreements, calling for tolerable working conditions and decent wages, are the wallflowers in the great global dance.
The stage is now set for a major battle in Congress over China's right to normal trade relations (formerly known as most favored nation status). Gephardt thinks it can be stopped in the House, where he has twice led successful fights against NAFTA fast-track agreements (the kind that cannot be amended by Congress).
Veteran Democratic Rep. David Obey says from Wisconsin that his constituents are expressing anger and apprehension about world trade. "They tell me about plants that have pulled out, they show me imports made from slave labor," he says.
"The trouble with the WTO is that guys in suits are making rules for guys in overalls."
Al Gore, who through Sweeney's efforts was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, is watching developments with anxiety. Unionists are not likely to vote Republican but they might not turn out on Election Day. They might be as mad as John Sweeney.