WTO Protests, 20 years later

WTO Protests, 20 years later

by Stan Sorscher, Washington Fair Trade Coalition

Many of us were part of history in November and December 1999, when activists and workers came from around the country to protest the WTO meeting in Seattle.

The entire city was caught off guard by huge rallies, dramatic marches, and very effective direct action that blocked diplomats, negotiators, and corporate lobbyists from the buildings where they were supposed to meet.

Peaceful demonstrators were tear-gassed, dragged off, and arrested, and downtown Seattle was paralyzed for days.

This was not a fight between trade and protectionism, no matter how often we see that in the press. No one is against trade. This was a protest against corporate-centric undemocratic, unaccountable rules for the global economy that would go badly for workers, communities and the planet.

Trade policy is like any other policy. We can have good or bad policies for health care, education, transportation, and energy. Trade policy is no different.

We can have good trade policy that raises living standards generally, or we can have bad trade policy that weakens worker bargaining power, de-industrializes our economy, and moves millions of jobs out of our communities to low wage countries where workers have no power. Bad trade deals block legitimate public policies that promote public health and protect our water, air, food, and ecosystems.

That was the message of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. That message was right in 1999, and is still right today. It’s time for a new approach to globalization.

On December 7, 2019, labor unions, activists, and organizations from civil society will come back to Seattle for 3 events to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1999 protests.


  • Rally at 10 AM in Occidental Park, in Pioneer Square
  • Interactive breakout sessions in the afternoon at Town Hall at 7th and Seneca,
  • Evening keynote with Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz at Town Hall.


The morning rally will recreate the spirit of the protests. Organizers have invited leaders from the AFL-CIO, also Mike Dolan a union trade specialist who played a major role organizing the protests in 1999, plus speakers from environmental and social justice groups.

The breakout sessions will look more closely at various policy areas.

The evening keynote speaker, Joseph Stiglitz, understands that we need a political system in parallel with our global economic system to manage globalization in a way that does as much for workers, communities, and the environment as it does for global corporations. Stiglitz was Chief Economist at the World Bank. He understands that global financial institutions like the WTO, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund serve the interests of investors, and put workers around the world at a disadvantage.

Instead, we could start by saying the purpose of an economy is to improve economic well-being and raise living standards. To that end, government plays a legitimate role in dealing with the defining problems of our time, such as inequality, de-industrialization of our economy and climate change.

We should have national strategies for education, health care, workforce training and lifelong learning, transportation and infrastructure, research and development, taxes, and strong protections for labor and the environment. If that becomes our domestic policy, we would need a new trade policy – one that reflects those new priorities.

The 20th anniversary events will come just as the presidential campaigns are heading into the caucus and primary season. The 20th anniversary events are well-timed to put presidential candidates on notice that we need a new approach to globalization.




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