Taking it to the streets

If Betsy Raash-Gilman is right, opponents of trade policies such as those discussed at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit held last week in Quebec are in for a long fight.

The movement, she said during a teach-in at Cobo Hall on Saturday, is still in its earliest stages, and much must be done to build the critical mass needed to alter the course we are on. But victory can be achieved.

Raash-Gilman, a member of a Minneapolis-based activist group called the Northland Poster Collective, described the stages movements typically go through. We’ve already seen what she called the “takeoff event,” when 50,000 people gathered in Seattle in 1999 to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

The public, she said, is still largely unaware of the issue of economic globalization, but “more and more people are beginning to feel the effects.”

According to the pro-union group Jobs With Justice, about 750,000 U.S. jobs have been lost as a result of this country’s entry into the North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993. The FTAA, which would essentially expand NAFTA to the entire hemisphere, would create the world’s largest free-trade zone, stretching from the Arctic to the southernmost tip of South America and affecting the lives of 800 million people.

Proponents say that such an agreement is necessary for the Americas to compete economically with Europe and Asia. Critics counter that these agreements are more about the free flow of capital, giving unprecedented power to multinational corporations while severely weakening worker rights, environmental protections and even national sovereignty.

Carol Phillips, director of the international department of the Canadian Auto Workers, criticized FTAA proposals that, like NAFTA, would result in “governments giving away more and more rights to corporations” and allow corporations “to sue governments to get rid of laws that protect people.”

Moving forward

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass media, activists say we’ve just experienced a significant step forward in the fight against corporate hegemony.

News media reported last week on the 30,000 demonstrators outside the fences erected to protect the leaders of 34 Western Hemisphere nations and the representatives of multinational corporations able to buy their way into the Summit of the Americas conference held in Quebec. The protest would have been even larger had Canadian officials not kept an undetermined number of U.S. activists from entering the country.

Largely overlooked, however, were concurrent demonstrations in cities across the United States. Demonstrations were held in more than 40 cities, according to Analia Penchaszadeh of the Washington, D.C.-based Jobs With Justice.

Actions were particularly intense in border cities such as Bellingham, Wash., where 3,000 people turned out. More than 1,000 people protested in Buffalo, N.Y. Actions were held in San Diego, Calif., and in towns in Vermont.

Here in Detroit, about 700 people, many of them labor activists attending a conference sponsored by the publication Labor Notes, turned out for a peaceful demonstration. As with previous demonstrations in other cities, the Detroit action reflected the diverse groups that have come together. Student anarchists with multicolored hair, Teamsters and autoworkers, environmentalists and human-rights activists were all part of the protest in Detroit on Saturday.

Like the trade agreements, the movement opposing them is transnational. Speaking to protesters along the Detroit River, with the city of Windsor serving as a backdrop, Brazilian labor activist Dirceu Travesso told a cheering crowd that the only way to curtail the power of multinational corporations “is to build international unity in the streets.”

That is happening, said Travesso, reporting that 20,000 people recently turned out to protest the FTAA in Buenos Aires.

If this past week served as a barometer indicating the movement’s strength in the aftermath of Seattle, every indication is that awareness is growing and activism is increasing, said Penchaszadeh.

“I think what we’re seeing is a maturation of the movement,” she explained. “This movement is more than conference hopping. And it involves more than just a bunch of people who can afford to get on a plane or a bus to go to some far-off protest.

“Last week there were actions in 31 cities. We’re starting to see events being held everywhere.”

Such local activity is crucial if the movement intends to block the “fast track” legislation George W. Bush seeks. That would allow him to enter into a sweeping trade agreement and present it to Congress on an all-or-nothing basis.

Sid Shniad of the Canadian Telecommunication Workers Union told an audience of about 60 people attending a teach-in following the rally that the real purpose of these trade agreements is to “enhance corporate rights at the expense of the rest of society.”

“The real agenda is deregulating corporate power and eliminating local and national autonomy,” he said.

“You can have 100 more Seattles and you are not going to change anything unless you make a difference in local communities,” said community activist Monica Kathleen, a 30-year-old Detroit child-care worker. “The movement is realizing we need more community organizing that focuses on what people need.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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