11 Years After the WTO Uprising: Seattle, Detroit, Cancun, Immokalee

Eleven years ago yesterday, on November 30, 1999, a public uprising shut down the World Trade Organizationand occupied downtown Seattle.

That same week in 1999, three thousand miles away in Immokalee, Florida, farmworkers carried out a five-day general strike against abusive growers paying starvation wages. Two weeks ago, on November 16, 2010 those same growers — the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange representing 90% of the industry — publicly agreed to every one of the farmworkers “Fair Food” demands.

Now seems like an important time to remind ourselves that when we organize, have some strategy and rebel, we can build power and win change. The Seattle uprising was just a warm-up for what is needed and to come as we face the crisis of wars, corporate capitalism and climate. We continue to win victories and build movements; from recent historic farm worker victory in Florida, to the successful US Social Forum in Detroit in the Spring to the climate justice mobilization today in Cancun, Mexico.


On November 30th tens of thousands of people joined the nonviolent direct action blockade that encircled the WTO Ministerial conference site, keeping the most powerful institution on earth shut down from dawn until dusk.  People did not back down in the face of tear gas, rubber bullets and even the National Guard being deployed.

Long shore workers shut down every West Coast port from Alaska to Los Angeles. Large numbers of Seattle taxi drivers went on strike. All week the firefighters union refused to turn their fire hoses on people. Tens of thousands skipped or walked out of work or school. Coordinated actions took place across the planet.

Thousands continued nonviolent direct action, marches, and protest throughout the week, despite a clampdown that included nearly 600 arrests, the declaration of a “state of emergency,” and suspension of the basic rights of free speech and assembly in downtown Seattle. Hundreds of independent media journalists founded Indymedia and did a run around corporate media getting the real story out.  A month later, after corporate media attempts to marginalize the uprising, a January 2000 opinion poll by BusinessWeek found that 52 percent of Americans supported the activists at the WTO in Seattle.

Mass action in Seattle and afterwards was a convergence of movements, networks and communities taking on the system, not a single movement focused on the issue of trade. Those movements, networks and people continue in Immokalee, Detroit, Cancun and everywhere.


Yesterday I asked long-time Coalition of Immokalee Workers organizer, Lucas Benitez, how the Seattle resistance related to the struggle in Immokalee.

He said,

At just around the same time as the protests in Seattle, we organized our third general strike in five years (we had our first general strike in 1995, a second in 1997, followed by the month-long hunger strike, and the third was at the end of 1999). Several members were arrested in the 1999 strike, on charges that were quickly dropped, and later we were told by the police that they had been on high alert due to rumors that “people from Seattle” would be joining workers in Immokalee for the strike — there were, of course, no “people from Seattle” in Immokalee, but it did affect the way the police reacted to the strike.

Lucas, reflecting on the impact of Seattle resistance on the farm workers struggle, said,

The Seattle protests showed us that there were large numbers of religious and union activists, youth and community people who were deeply committed to a vision of economic and social justice around the country. That news came at the same time that we were beginning to look beyond the confines of Immokalee, both in understanding the broader food industry and in finding new support — allies — for what would soon after become the Campaign for Fair Food.

Two weeks ago in a historic power-shifting agreement, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange agreed to extend the CIW’s Fair Food principles — including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process — to over 90% of the Florida tomato industry.

Benitez said of the agreement,

It’s been 15 years. This is a really significant victory.  Now we have the right to educate our people in the fields during work. Today we counted how many workers we trained about our rights and the new agreement in the fields in the last couple weeks — 1500 workers. Before people could not complain about conditions like lack of water and were at the mercy of the crew leaders. It has changed the whole structure in the fields.

Gerardo Reyes, also of the CIW, says, “For this new model to achieve its full potential, however, retail food industry leaders must also step up and support the higher standards. Key players in the fast-food and foodservice industries have already committed their support. It is time now for supermarket industry leaders to seize this historic opportunity and help make the promise of fair tomatoes from Florida a reality.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and tens of thousands of consumers across the country — many aligned with the CIW’s key ally organizations the Student/FarmworkerAlliance and Just Harvest USA — are mounting a national pressure campaign to force the supermarket industry to agree to the fair food principles. Last week I was inside a Trader Joe’s doing a “flashmob” singing of a re-written Lady Gaga song as part of this growingcampaign.

By far the biggest action to date in the CIW’s Supermarket Campaign will be held February 27 to March 5 and will take the form of a two-pronged major mobilization in Boston and Tampa near the headquarters, respectively, of Ahold USA (parent company ofthe Stop & Shop and Giant supermarket chains) and Publix Supermarkets. Mark your calendars today and download the “Save the Date” flyer here.

I asked Lucas what were the lessons learned. He said, “Real change doesn’t happen overnight. If you are serious about achieving meaningful change, be ready to dedicate your life to it, to day in and day out building the structures and the awareness that move your campaign forward inch by frustrating inch… If you are right and keep going, sooner or later victory will come.”


One continuation of the Seattle uprising is the US Social Forum, where 15,000 people converged in Detroit last April to weave networks, build movement, cross fertilize and nourish ourselves. Just before the Detroit Social Forum Ruben Solis, of the Southwest Workers Union (a participant in the Seattle shutdown, and one of the founders of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance) wrote “The fact is that the Social Forum and Peoples Movement Assembly process actually started in Seattle. The Social Forum took off from the experience of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ when the Brazilian organizing committee formed in 2000 and held the first World Social Forum in 2001. Ten years later, we come back to where this started.”

Steph Guilloud was a lead organizer in Seattle with the Direct Action Network. She has worked for many years with Project South, who co-hosted the first US Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. Last night I asked her a few questions about the Seattle and the US Social Forum. She writes:

The Social Forum is a clear evolution of US social movements. The demonstrations, direct action, and shutdown in Seattle opened an exciting opportunity for US movements to connect and stand shoulder to shoulder with global movements for justice. The US Social Forum is finally the expression of that true connection and solidarity. The Peoples Movement Assemblies offer an organizing strategy that matches the relevance and urgency of the Seattle shutdowns, led by locals and young people, as well as offering a space to vision and build the world we know is possible.

For the ten-year anniversary Stephanie wrote an insightful reflection, From Seattle to Detroit: 10 Lessons for Movement Building on the 10th Anniversary of the WTO Shutdown. I asked her to pick one of those lessons that seemed most relevant today. She writes:

“Leadership development through practice, action, and reflection remains as necessary now, if not more, eleven years later. As people increasingly lose their jobs, houses, and sense of safety, we will continue to yearn for effective ways to confront and transform this reality. Studying history and learning the craft of organizing remain essential components to understand what is happening and what we can do about it. There is no one who is coming to get us out of this mess. We have to move like we know what’s at stake and like we’re willing to take it on.”

“What have we accomplished over the last ten years? We are building. We have built a new foundation. A foundation that is not split by single-issues or isolated identities. We have built a foundation that is strong enough to hold us. We are now in a position to start building the scaffolds, the trusses, the skeletal versions of this new world. We must experiment with construction. Build and build. Invite people, masses of people, to test the soundness of it all. Build the rafters so we can braid morning glories through the windows and out the doors. We must remain in the trenches to fight off the attacks, but we also must start shaping our democracies, our economies, and our lives from a place of agency and confidence.”


Eleven years ago the central point of confrontation between global social movements and corporate capitalism was over corporate “free” trade agreements and the WTO. It’s worth noting that the WTO as the key vehicle for corporate capitalism has failed as a result of social movement resistance, along with attempted agreements like the Western Hemisphere Free Trade Area of the Americas. Today the central confrontation is over climate change and the point of confrontation is in Cancun, Mexico this week — the second day of the UN’s annual climate negotiations.

What Subcomandante Marcos said seven years ago in Sept 2003 when the WTO met in Cancun still rings true as the COP 16 climate negotiations take place in the same city;

“The world movement against the globalisation of death and destruction is experiencing one of its brightest moments in Cancun today. As if at war, the high command of the multinational army that wants to conquer the world in the only way possible, that is to say, to destroy it, meets behind a system of security that is as large as their fear. Those above, who globalise conformism, cynicism, stupidity, war, destruction and death. And those below who globalise rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and the construction of a world that we can all fit in, a world with democracy, liberty and justice.”

The global small farmer and peasant network La Via Campesina has lead caravans from across Mexico to Cancun for a series of mobilization that will culminate on December 7, the date of the mass farmers protest in Cancun and International Day of Action “Thousands of Cancuns”. La Via Campesina writes;

“Social movements from around the world are mobilizing for the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP 16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that will take place in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010. The COP 15 in Copenhagen demonstrated governments’ incapacity to tackle the root causes of the current climate chaos. At the very last moment, the US undemocratically pushed through the so called “Copenhagen accord”, in an attempt to move the debate out of the UN and the Kyoto promises and to favor even more voluntarily free market solutions.”

“The climate negotiations have turned into a huge market place. Developed countries, historically responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions are inventing all possible tricks to avoid reducing their own emissions. For example, the “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) under the Kyoto protocol allows countries to continue polluting and consuming as usual, while paying low prices supposedly so that developing countries reduce their emissions. What actually occurs is that companies profit doubly: to contaminate and to sell false solutions.”

“It is now time for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to embark on resolute policies to contribute to solve the climate chaos. Countries need to take strong and binding commitments to radically cut gas emissions and radically change their mode of production and consumption.

“Solutions do exist. More than 35,000 people gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia at the People Conference on Climate Change and for the Rights of Mother Earth broadening new visions and proposals to save the planet. These thousands of solutions coming from the people effectively confront the climate crisis.”

En route to Cancun, oysterfarmer and labor movement writer and strategist Brendan Smith writes of the potential for a global mass climate justice movement:

“As an oyster farmer and long-time political activist, the effects of climate change on my life will be neither distant nor impersonal. This coming crisis may be the first opportunity we have had in generations to radically re-shape the political landscape and build a more just and sustainable society.

“What is so promising about the climate crisis is that because it is not an “issue” experienced by one disenfranchised segment of the population, it opens the opportunity for a new organizing calculus for progressives. We could literally knock on every door on the planet and find someone — whether they know it or not — who has a vital self-interest in averting the climate crisis by joining a movement for sustainability.”

David Solnit is an artist–puppeteer who sometimes volunteers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and is the co-author of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle.