Twenty years ago I wrote a commentary for the Star Tribune reflecting on my experience as one of the lead organizers of the so-called Battle in Seattle, a week of street protests and rallies against the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in 1999 that was being championed by the Clinton administration.
I concluded that article by observing: “Bill Clinton said, ‘The era of Big Government is over in the U.S.’ The streets of Seattle have responded, ‘The era of global populism has begun.’ ”
I had no idea how oddly prescient that observation would seem two decades later, nor that right-wing populism and Donald Trump would have seized the advantage.
But I was absolutely right that the forces of globalization were unleashing a destructive wave that would have profound effects on the fabric of American society. Indeed, they already were.
As the director of District 11 of the United Steelworkers, which covered 13 states from Minnesota to Washington, I had watched how the effects of globalization had rippled through the manufacturing communities of those states throughout the 1990s.
Most of the industries in which our union represented workers — steel, aluminum, tire, iron ore, copper mining and many others — had become globally concentrated. They were no longer American companies, even if they had been founded here and still had headquarters in the U.S.
For instance, five global tire companies controlled 70% of all tire production in the world. Firestone had been bought out by Bridgestone, a Japanese company that provoked a national labor dispute in the U.S. by refusing to accept American labor standards and even canceling the Fourth of July as a paid holiday.
Similarly, five appliance companies controlled a 55% share of global production.
As the MIT economist, Lester Thurow, wrote at the time in his book, “The Future of Capitalism”: “By definition a global economy is one where factors of production — natural resources, capital, technology and labor — as well as goods and services move around the world. Capitalists make money by moving services, goods and natural resources from where they are cheap to where they are expensive and by moving the production of goods from where it is expensive to where it is cheap.”
Why would a tire company like Bridgestone pay a worker in Des Moines more than a tire worker in Brazil or Turkey? This profound change in labor markets is what led to the Battle in Seattle — a demand by American workers that their government stand up for the labor, human rights and environmental standards that their parents had spent a lifetime fighting for.
When I left Seattle in early December 1999, I thought we were at a turning point in American politics. I thought the consequences of what had happened in Seattle would follow the trajectory of civil rights in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, a moment when protest and politics collided and then merged to create a new era of social reform.
The following 20 months confirmed those hopes. Subsequent protests quickly grew in Quebec and in Genoa, Italy, where 200,000 people protested outside a G-8 meeting. The vigorous debate inside organized labor, leading up to Seattle, was over. Labor leaders now uniformly agreed that the absence of international labor, human and environmental rights had to be addressed in global trade agreements. Democratic politicians started to embrace the cause after only U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and California Reps. Maxine Waters and George Miller had joined us in the streets of Seattle.
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, we entered a new order, in which our country’s attention shifted overnight to an apocalyptic vision of a world of “others” who we could not understand or whose aspirations were unknowable and who were standing at the gate. Gone was the focus on creating a world where the wealth of nations would enforce the growth of human rights, labor and environmental standards through trade enforcement mechanisms.
In the years of war and conflict since then, the growing inequality in America has continued to be fed by the unregulated labor markets of globalization. Inequality has reached proportions unseen in our own country since the 1890s. The levels of private sector unionization have declined to those of 1905. Voting rights are under attack. Environmental regulations are inadequate to address climate change.
At the core of our problems in the world today are the absence of the universal labor, human rights, and environmental standards around which our global economy should be structured. Without them, our core values have been eroded in America and in every other democracy by laws of global economics.
We had a short time in the 1960s and ’70s in America when the National Labor Relations Act, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Clean Air Act were the respected heart of our democracy.
It’s time to march again.
David Foster, of Minneapolis, is the retired director of United Steelworkers District 11 and the founding executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. He was an official in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. He currently serves as a distinguished associate to the Energy Futures Initiative and a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.