The Battle in Seattle

20 Years After...

The Battle in Seattle - 20 years after...

The morning of November 30, 1999 was unseasonably warm as I jumped in my car to meet-up with my fellow members of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU) Marine Division of the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) at our headquarters on Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle. At the time I was serving as a business agent for the tugboat workers in the Puget Sound Region and running for National President of the IBU. Together we gathered 300 picket signs, bullhorns, and our union banner before heading down to the fountain at the Seattle Center. There we mustered with the other 500 ILWU members from up and down the West Coast, Hawaii, and Canada and together we headed into Memorial Stadium chanting “I L W U” in a spirited and united voice. Inside the stadium we joined with workers and guest speakers from around the world before marching downtown together on the first day of the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle.

It was a rowdy event! Brian McWilliams, the ILWU President, announced during his speech that “Today there will be No Business as Usual,” and indeed there wasn’t. The ILWU workers had shut down all the ports on the West Coast in solidarity with workers, students, environmentalists, and NGO’s from around the world who gathered that day in the Port of Seattle to say, “Enough was Enough.” Our message to the world was clear: Corporate Globalization and so-called “Free Trade” had gone far enough; we were ready to take a stand against the Neo-Liberal agenda, for together we believed “Another World was Possible.”

After the rally thousands of us from the labor rally marched downtown to join other protestors who had been in the streets since early morning blocking the start of the WTO meeting. Suddenly the word came down from the top AFL-CIO officials to divert the march away from downtown, as things had gotten “Out of Hand.” So, the labor rally marshals attempted to redirect the march. Luckily, I had a bullhorn and when a group of about 75 militant and spirited ILWU members came up to the marshals’ line I yelled, “ILWU over here” and they came through the marshals’ line. This group was led by the two ILWU Vice Presidents, Jim Spinosa and Leonard Hoshijo, who after a brief parlay agreed to continue into the fray rather than shy away from the desperate urging of the other protestors who were in a standoff with the Seattle Police at several barricade sites.

Looking back, this was one of the key moments in the week of action and one that still today makes me proud to be an ILWU member. It should be noted that some other Trade Unionists broke through the marshals’ line including a contingent from the reform wing of the Teamsters (the TDU) and various other members of the Labor March. Though sadly, most turned around and went back to the Seattle Center not knowing exactly what was happening.

What came next was a different surreal world, full of tear gas, Giant Puppets, Wobblies, and activists of every stripe who managed to shut down the WTO proceedings that morning using a variety of tactics.

President Clinton was in town and by this time was thoroughly embarrassed by the how things were unfolding so the administration began to pressure our Governor and local mayor to “Get Things Under Control.”

It should be noted that although several hundred members of other unions joined us in coming to the aid of the other protestors, we were not able to stop the ensuing gassing and mass arrests that transpired that week. The solidarity between organized and unorganized workers helped to solidify the “Teamsters and Turtles” Coalition that was born that week in the streets.

We managed to shut down the WTO that first day and thus helped give the developing world delegates the courage to speak out during the WTO sessions and shake up the world order for a week.

The rest of the week was a blur. In many respects, my whole experience is still unclear due to the pace of the events that unfolded that week. I do recall marching up from the waterfront on Day 2 after the Steelworkers rally and my first taste of tear gas, complements of the Seattle Police. I was fortunate that a young woman with a dolphin outfit on gave me some lemon juice for my eyes as we trudged along.

One of the other highlights for me was being able to agitate the local and top ILWU leadership, along with IBU member Robert Irminger, about doing something after the Labor March in order to help those activists from various movements who had been arrested get out of jail. Somehow on Day 3, we were able to create enough momentum so that there was a perception that unless the mayor let everyone arrested out of jail, there was going to be another shutdown of the Port. To his credit, Ron Judd, the head of the King County Labor Council, said he would carry that message to the mayor’s office. That pressure, along with the hundreds camped out in front of the jail in solidarity, and the work of our legal team, was enough to get those arrested for protesting released!

After the protests I worked with a handful of other activists from the Direct-Action Network (DAN), local labor leaders, activists of all stripes and helped call for a meeting at the Catholic Seamen’s Club on First Avenue to try and continue building the new Fighting Coalition.

As it turned out, the Global Anti-Corporate Globalization Movement was pretty much born in Seattle that week in what the newspapers in Paris called “The First Day of the 21st Century.” Later on, myself and a several other veterans of the “Battle in Seattle” from the ILWU stayed involved in the movement and some of us were fortunate enough to travel to Prague for the IMF World Bank Protest, Washington, DC for another IMF protest, and the World Economic Forum in New York.

We also helped the Steelworkers in Tacoma in what was later termed the “Battle of Fife.” This would have been a disaster were it not for the outstretched arm of solidarity that ILWU Local 23 Tacoma extended.

A year and a half later, I was hired temporarily as the lead organizer for a large rally on the Canadian Border to protest the FTAA Free Trade of Americas Meeting happening in Quebec City. Everywhere we went we were shown tremendous respect as the reputation of the street struggles in Seattle had crisscrossed the world with use of the internet. Tech-savvy activists created the Independent Media Center, the “IMC,” in Seattle and it proved to be a great tool in the ensuing years. This unique loose-knit group was instrumental in not only informing the movement about issues and upcoming Actions, but also helping to keep our spirits up long before Social Media was a mainstream thing.

The WTO protest was a seminal moment in my life. It broadened my horizon from a militant waterfront Trade Unionist to a real awareness of the impact of Corporate Globalization on the developing world. The WTO, FTAA, NAFTA, and other trade agreements made without popular consent, are merely tools for the 1% to control the world economy, environment, and political world. Though the Battle in Seattle was a victory, there is much work still to do. These days I am glad to see a new generation taking up the struggle with a focus on climate change.

I think back about lessons I learned during that week with regard to international solidarity, thinking on my feet, using leverage and sometimes bluffing when facing an overwhelming foe, working in coalitions, and of course the sense that “The People United will Never be Defeated.” These lessons have served me well in my career on the waterfront.

Though I lost the election for IBU President by 10 votes a week after the WTO, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job 16 years ago to be an inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation’s (ITF) Flag of Convenience (FOC) Campaign. Many of the skills I use to fight for justice for Seafarers on FOC ships, “an early Corporate Globalization effort by greedy International Ship Owners,” I began to develop during the “Battle of Seattle.” This is rich and important work that would have never happened for me had it not been for the eye-opening experiences from N-30, 20 years ago.

In retrospect, if we knew it was going to get as bad as things are today, we would never have left the streets. Sometimes if I listen hard enough, I can still hear the echo of activists marching down the streets of Seattle yelling, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”

In Solidarity,

Jeff Engels