For nearly two years after its raucous coming-out party at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, the anti-globalization movement gathered astonishing momentum, forging alliances among widely disparate groups and bringing tens of thousands of people into the streets of cities around the world. But for this young movement, as for seemingly everything else in American society, the Sept. 11 terror attacks could change everything.
Faced with a dramatically altered political landscape, in which the plight of Asian sea turtles seems trivial and dissent itself can appear unpatriotic, groups making up the anti-globalization coalition are pursuing markedly different agendas.
Some of the coalition’s members have hastily diverted their energies to protesting the US attacks on Afghanistan, but at least one vital player in the movement — organized labor — has thrown its support forcefully behind the Bush administration.
“We stand fully behind the President and the leadership of our nation in this time of national crisis,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney in a statement the day after the attacks. Other coalition members, particularly environmental groups such as Rainforest Action Network, are for now quietly opting out of the debate while continuing with their usual campaigns.
The results of this abrupt divergence have already been seen. Anti-globalization groups had hoped to draw as many as 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. in late September to protest the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. Those plans were scrapped in the wake of the terror attacks, but a handful of coalition members subsequently pushed to convert the event into an anti-war march. The change in focus prompted several key sponsors, among them the AFL-CIO, to withdraw their support. In the end, fewer than 10,000 people turned out.
What remains unclear is whether vigorous opposition to the attacks on Afghanistan by some coalition members will cause others — most importantly organized labor — to permanently sever ties.
Lane Windham, spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, says it’s too early for such speculation.
“We really don’t know what our plans for the anti-globalization movement are right now,” Windham says.
Some activists suggest the movement’s apparent retreat from the streets may be only temporary, an acknowledgement that now is simply not the time to be agitating.
“I don’t think people will be as receptive to what we’re saying since the attacks,” says John Sellers, executive director of the Ruckus Society, which trains activists in nonviolent protest tactics. “People are raw right now. We’re going to have to realize that and change the way we operate as well.”
With polls showing upwards of 90 percent of the public supporting military action, the prospects for widespread opposition to the war certainly appear remote. The peace movement “does not seem to have the energy or the broad-based support that anti-globalization had,” says William Fisher, director of Clark University’s Program for International Development.
While there have been dozens of peace demonstrations across the country, participants are routinely assailed by counter-demonstrators. More ominously, the American Friends Service Committee reported receiving bomb threats after launching an anti-war campaign. Still, some activists say now is not the time to sit idle.
“Innocent people always die in war. Always. We can’t accept lost lives as collateral damage,” says Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange, a leading anti-globalization group that has organized several anti-war demonstrations.
Given the current national mood, there is clearly a possibility that any groups seen spearheading a push for peace could lose public support in general. Should that happen, some activists fear that the loss of goodwill may, in turn, encourage organized labor to distance itself further from those groups when the focus again turns to fighting globalization.
“Big labor would rather risk alienating activists than the rest of America,” says Carl Beers, of the Association for Union Democracy, a group that mediates between union members and leadership.
Still, labor leaders have said they remain committed to the agenda pursued by the anti-globalization coalition. Just days after the attacks, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney declared that his organization will “remain steadfast in our conviction that the policies of the World Bank and the IMF must change if they are to foster a fair and just global economy that works for working families everywhere.”
Indeed, activists and unions have proved willing to overlook their differences in the past. The AFL-CIO’s support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, infuriated environmentalists, but both contingents remained in the alliance protesting the IMF/World Bank meeting. Even with American bombs falling on Afghanistan, labor is working to drum up opposition to a bill that would give the president “fast-track” authority to approve trade bills — a bill most anti-globalization groups also oppose.
“We act in the interests of our members,” says Marco Trbovich, assistant to the international president of the United Steelworkers of America. “It’s in our interest to continue protesting free trade policies and globalization, and to cooperate with other groups doing the same.”