The Battle in Seattle, 15 Years On: How an Unsung Hero Kept the Movements United
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the “Battle in Seattle,” the historic protest against the World Trade Organization in 1999. The author, a labor and community organizer for 31 years, was at the time director of Seattle Union Now, a joint project of the King County Labor Council and the National AFL-CIO.
“There can be no separate peace.”
If you spent any time with Tyree Scott, you probably heard him say that. It was a lesson seared into his experience through years of struggle—first, in militant closures of Seattle construction sites intended to pry open the building trades to black workers, and then, in uniting construction workers with progressive Filipino cannery workers and farmworkers.
When it came to the World Trade Organization—the international group that sets the rules of trade between nations—Tyree insisted that no single justice struggle could be resolved apart from others; we had to stand together. A union electrician by trade, Tyree played a low-key but pivotal role in the 1999 protests against the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle.
Now 15 years down the road and facing today’s tremendous challenges, contemporary workers and their allies would do well to heed Tyree’s call for unity.
This month in 1999, behind the street drama of tens of thousands of people battling police and world trade leaders, a raw, visible friction was growing within the broad movement. Would this diverse collection of protesters—aging French farmers and young anarchists, truck drivers and tree planters, radical students and cautious labor leaders—hold together, or would divisions implode the anti-WTO forces?
Intuitively, most of us involved in organizing the protests recognized that to make an impact we needed to stay united. Throughout the week, that unity was sharply tested. At times, it nearly shattered. And at a key moment, when the violent police reaction threatened to drive a wedge into the movement, Tyree intervened decisively to preserve a commitment that we would stand together, and not abide a separate peace.
You’re unlikely to read about that in any mainstream account. Tyree didn’t give dramatic speeches to thousands of people, pen famous editorials, or seek out interviews. He never pursued a position of status or broader recognition. But over his lifetime he combined a sharp internationalist working-class perspective with smart, militant action. By the time I met Tyree in the early 1990s, his organization, the prosaically named Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, was connecting rank-and-file workers from a dozen countries in substantive discussions about how to build a worldwide workers’ movement.
Tyree had the gift of being able to pluck clarity out of complexity. Often, in the years leading up to the WTO, when I was working as a union and community organizer, I’d go visit him when I was wrestling with a vexing problem. Stocky, with graying dreadlocks and round glasses on a round face, he would sweep aside my mental gymnastics about personalities, egos, and institutional concerns, and return the issue squarely to unity and class interests. His method was always direct but empathic. I would leave these meetings slightly humbled to not have seen through the fog as deftly as he did.
For Tyree, “no separate peace” was not some gauzy paean to unity, but a battle call for rank-and-file workers to take on a fight for their class interests—against corporations, and if need be, against their putative leaders in unions. Years of struggle against black workers’ exclusion from the building trades taught him that the problem was not just employers, but also shortsighted union leaders intent on preserving narrow institutional interests.
He was withering in his condemnation of labor leaders who sold the working class short; for Tyree “no separate peace” was a challenge to all workers to think big and speak for themselves: “The low wages and exploitation of one will pull down the wages and conditions of the other,” he said. “Any advancement of one is tied to the advancement of the other. It is in this context that makes foreign policy, trade, and immigration central issues to the labor movement,” he said, defining the labor movement as all workers, not just those who paid dues to unions.
Going into the week of protest against the WTO meeting in Seattle, the tension within the movement was palpable. There were two main camps. The more radical was the loosely formed Direct Action Network, which included a wide array of environmental and human rights activists, many of whom were steeped in the confrontational strategies of civil disobedience. The Direct Action Network rejected the legitimacy of the WTO and was committed to blockading the ministerial meeting. Unions, led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, didn’t want to destroy the WTO, but rather to persuade the Clinton administration to give labor a seat at the negotiating table. Sweeney had affection for the younger protesters, but he was a conciliator, not a rabble-rouser. And since union leaders are more accustomed to bargaining than barricades, the question for the national AFL-CIO was, “What can we get from Clinton out of Seattle?”
And yet, at the big union-led march downtown on Nov. 30, 1999, the two camps looked united—as long as you didn’t look too closely. Colorful banners, enormous puppets, marching brass bands, and festooned delegations from around the world swarmed through the streets. Workers and environmentalists marched side by side, declaring “Teamsters and turtles, united at last.” More than 50,000 of us, from around the world and from every imaginable struggle for social or economic justice, marched united against unfettered world trade.
Union leaders were jubilant. But as the daylight faded and most of the protesters filtered out of downtown, it began to feel like we had birthed two separate movements: one that made its point and departed, and another that remained to confront the WTO and its police protectors.
I joined a group of labor leaders and organizers in a celebratory dinner Tuesday night at Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union.
“We’re done,” one leader declared. We’d made a powerful statement; union demands were now going to be taken seriously by President Clinton. There was nothing to be gained—and now a lot to lose—by mixing with those battling the police on the streets. We raised our glasses in a toast.
Our pagers and cell phones beeped throughout the meal, informing us of tear gas on Capitol Hill and rubber bullets and arrests downtown. Done? Especially for those of us who called Seattle home, it didn’t quite feel like that.
The following morning, Dec. 1, we joined the steelworkers’ rally on the waterfront—a city-sanctioned event outside Mayor Paul Schell’s newly declared “no-protest” zone downtown. After the last speaker had decried unfair trade, Teamsters union leader Bob Hasegawa grabbed the mic and challenged the crowd to stand up against the imposition of “martial law.”
“Brothers and sisters!” he cried. “They’re tear-gassing students downtown. Let’s-”
Someone shut the mic off on Bob.
We went anyway, probably 200 of us, and met up with a huge crowd of students at Second and Pike. Riot police in armored vehicles promptly ambushed us. Volleys of tear gas and concussive grenades sent us scattering in every direction. Police herded a group of protesters north, surrounded them just beyond the Labor Temple, and then cuffed them and bussed them off to Sandpoint Naval Yard. Union members spilled out of the Labor Temple and were appalled at the scene.
The police were angry, too; they didn’t want spectators, and they had the weapons to back up their wishes. They shoved us with nightsticks. One cop clubbed King County Labor Council leader Ron Judd. There’s nothing more radicalizing than a truncheon smack on the back of your neck. Judd returned to his office and started speed-dialing allies.
But the following day, Thursday, the movement was divided about how to respond. With Judd’s declaration that unions would fight back, movement leaders and activists had called for a mass rally at the Labor Temple for the next day—Friday at high noon. But what would we do? Enter the “no-protest” zone and risk mass arrests? Avoid provocation by marching outside the “no-protest” zone?
And what about the more than 630 people in jail, mostly young community activists and students? The debate was still unsettled Thursday night when 40 organizational leaders and activists met at the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office for a final planning session. It was a diverse lot—Direct Action Network activists, trade policy experts, radical students, Lawyers Guild representatives, union organizers, and Sierra Club staff, among others.
Some groups wanted a demonstration of unity but not anything that would provoke the police. The Direct Action Network organizers called for a march through the “no-protest” zone to the jail, to support a ‘round-the-clock vigil already underway demanding the release of the arrestees. There were many questions. How would we deal with hooligans who might try to hijack the protest with property destruction, as they had on Tuesday? Someone suggested we just do a big press conference. And what was the purpose of our action—should our focus be the WTO? Or the suspension of our right to free speech? Or the jailing of our colleagues? What are we demanding, and of whom?
For the first hour, speakers laid out their ideas, pressing their organizational positions passionately, gingerly avoiding incendiary provocations. Everyone sensed our unity was delicate. But the clock was ticking; tomorrow was coming fast.
At one point, a speaker suggested we needed to risk mass arrests. Teamster leader Steve Williamson spoke up. “Labor,” he said, “is not going to do it.”
The meeting exploded with overlapping shouting matches. Recriminations flew across the room. Suddenly, the battle lines that had simmered just below the surface all week emerged in stark relief.
“Who are you to come in here and say that?” Tyree said. “You don’t speak for labor.” Tyree had zero patience for union leaders who purported to speak for the broader working class.
In fairness to Williamson, he was as unfamiliar with the audience as they were with him. A longtime union organizer, he had absorbed more than his share of tear gas the previous night in a courageous stand with young protesters on Capitol Hill. But his words were poorly chosen, it was getting late, everyone was beyond exhaustion, and he didn’t know the group. I did, but I had my own distraction: urgent phone calls from top national AFL-CIO leaders, directing me to stop all organizing for Friday’s march. I had to step out of the meeting at a critical juncture to explain to my boss why I had no intention of cooperating with her order. This was my community; of course I would march.
Back in the room, Steve apologized. The tension lifted slightly. Perhaps the outbreak had released some of the pressure. Tyree spoke up again, more quietly. Who were we, he asked, if we didn’t resist the ban on protests, an attack on everyone’s rights? We had to march. And who was in jail? “These are workers too,” he reminded us. There could be no separate peace.
With Tyree’s words fresh in our minds, we agreed to march downtown and then back to the Labor Temple. And, although our march would not lead to the jail as some had wanted, we agreed that anyone who wished to could go to the jail solidarity action after the march. With these plans we would be risking arrest, but if there were enough of us, and if we were disciplined, we might just succeed.
With that fragile agreement in place, we adjourned the meeting.
The next day, with jitters still reverberating in the coalition—a few unions boycotted the march, and a last-minute pullout by the Sierra Club was averted only by Judd’s emergency mediation—we marched straight through the heart of the mayor’s “no-protest” zone. On just a few hours’ notice, more than 5,000 people—teamsters, steelworkers, human rights advocates, grocery clerks, janitors, students, construction workers, faith leaders, domestic workers, office workers, retirees, health care workers, musicians, and university workers—came out to reclaim our downtown.
Chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” we celebrated every delightful forbidden step down Second Avenue, left up University Street, and into the heart of downtown. We screamed as loudly and joyfully as our worn-out lungs permitted, our voices echoing through the canyons between the office buildings. Indeed, this was what democracy looked like. The police stood back. When we returned to the Labor Temple, a dance party erupted in the street.
Then we went to the jail. Hundreds of us trekked a second time across downtown, in small marches, knots of activists, or as lone pedestrians. The police dared not disturb us; we had wrecked the mayor’s ban.
We joined the hundreds of young activists already occupying the square outside the jail, giving courage to the detainees who waved their arms from behind the narrow windows and sending a message to city leaders that we wouldn’t go away until everyone was released.
Throughout the weekend, teamsters, longshore workers, construction workers, and others brought food, blankets, and tarps to the protest outside the jail. Religious leaders led an interfaith prayer service. And Judd pressed prosecutors to release the arrestees. He was a savvy negotiator, bolstered in this instance with a bit of leverage: The longshore union was threatening to shut down West Coast ports unless the jail doors were opened.
By the end of the weekend, the WTO ministerial meeting had collapsed in disarray, and our people were out of jail.
It’s easy in retrospect to trace an uncomplicated, made-for-TV narrative arc of WTO week, from the unity at the start, to the testing of our movement, to the restoration of solidarity leading to victory. But in the fog of tear gas, the cacophony of struggle, amid the raw emotions of trust and doubt, courage and fear, exuberance and exhaustion, deep compassion and blind rage, the right choices aren’t always self-evident and the path forward isn’t linear.
Life gets quite messy at street level. We make mistakes or allow creeping doubts to paralyze us. In a crisis, people often seek out commanding leadership to point the way; a Moses to provide clear answers, part the waters and lead us through. I’m grateful that we didn’t take that path, but rather trusted our instincts, struggled with one another, took risks, and heeded the words of a visionary worker who held no high office and sought no fame, but saw through the fog of battle and tenaciously pressed his conviction that there could be no separate peace on the streets of Seattle—or anywhere, for that matter.
Cancer stole Tyree from us in 2003, but his insistence on no separate peace provided an important lesson for our movement—one that we would do well to abide by more often today.
For five days in Seattle 15 years ago, the world watched as a popular uprising shocked world powers, teetered precariously, and—just in the nick of time—found its footing by remembering that we are all workers, and we had better stand together.