For months the movement against corporate globalization had been building for what looked like its biggest demonstration in the United States, planned to coincide in late September with the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington. But the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to cancellation of the official meetings and most of the protests, temporarily throwing the growing movement off-course and forcing its leaders to reconsider their near-term strategy. Calling off the demonstration by what was expected to be nearly 100,000 representatives of labor, environmental, anti-corporate and solidarity movements “represents an interruption and perhaps the end of the momentum that started in Seattle [at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests],” says Soren Ambrose, senior policy analyst of the Fifty Years Is Enough network. “But the movement will continue. I don’t think we’ll be thrown back to the pre-1999 situation where, aside from the anti-sweatshop movement, it was hard to get our message out.”
After September 11, the AFL-CIO — which had made a major commitment to the IMF protests — turned its energies to support for workers hurt or lost in the attacks and their families. Although the Mobilization for Global Justice, one of the principal coalitions building for the protest, decided to continue a teach-in, its leaders nearly unanimously agreed that “it was not the time” for street protests, especially since “the public isn’t in a mood to listen,” says Chuck Kaufman, national co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network. In the days after the attacks, some groups wanted to redirect their protest against war and racism, and two smaller organizations — the International Action Center and a network called the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, which emerged out of last spring’s demonstrations in Quebec — decided to pursue scaled-down actions for September 29 that were focused on the threat of war. But many of the groups involved in the original mobilization, which would have called for cancellation of poor countries’ debts, widespread distribution of AIDS medications and opposition to “fast track” trade promotion authority for Bush, said they did not have an organizational mandate to shift gears and focus on the prospect of war. Other strategists worried that the public might see a switch as simply opportunistic protest.
There was also no clear agreement across the global justice movement on how the United States should respond to the September 11 attacks. Even among labor unions, there were a range of reactions. While expressing support for the victims, which included many union members, most unions and the AFL-CIO issued statements that emphasized the need to avoid scapegoating Muslims and Arabs in the United States (or, in the case of the Service Employees, attacked Rev. Jerry Falwell’s crude effort to blame the attacks on gays, pro-choice advocates and others). Initially only the Machinists union struck a bellicose note, calling for “vengeance, pure and complete,” employing the fighter jets its members make. Most unions were more restrained. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney offered boilerplate support for the president and other leaders in a time of crisis. Steelworkers President Leo Gerard warned that in punishing those responsible for the attacks, “care must be taken not to repeat this most recent tragedy by harming innocent men, women and children,” and he argued that besides fighting terrorism, the country should “reassert our commitment to combat the poverty and injustice that all too often provide unwitting recruits for the armies of the intolerant.”
Although many in the global justice movement believe that corporate globalization, and U.S. policies in particular, contributed to conditions that have fostered terrorism in the Middle East, Robert Weissman, co-director of Essential Action, a Ralph Nader-founded corporate accountability group, argues that it is important to “make connections between corporate globalization and war in a sophisticated and nuanced way” and to “avoid conveying an opportunistic approach that anything can be converted into a corporate globalization story.”
Others caution there is a danger that the public, which has been broadly supportive of the movement’s goals but also overwhelmingly has backed a military response, could see the globalization movement as “anti-American,” as a few politicians and pundits have tried to argue. (In an op-ed piece in the New York Post, for example, Steven Schwarz outrageously claimed that “the distance between breaking the windows of McDonald’s to achieve that end [of protesting corporate globalization] and blowing up the World Trade Center is pretty damned narrow.”)
In any case, the movement and the public are likely to be less tolerant of the “Black Bloc’s” property destruction tactics. “There’s widespread recognition that the talk about ‘diversity of tactics’ and the actual employment of a diversity of tactics is going to have to be severely moderated in the future,” says Stephen Kretzmann, an organizer of the Mobilization for Global Justice. “We’re entering an area when all of our civil liberties are in greater danger. The patience of politicians, courts and the public will be much less than before.”
Even if the nation’s political attention will be focused on the response to terrorism, the movement against corporate globalization will not disappear. The AFL-CIO and other groups are still prepared to fight hard against granting trade promotion authority (formerly called “fast track”) to Bush, just as congressional Republicans are cynically trying to push the controversial measure as a response to the terrorist attacks. Also, the AFL-CIO will urge its affiliates to participate on November 9 in the international workplace protests organized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions against the WTO, which is still scheduled to meet in Qatar. Although the initiative may shift to Europe and developing countries, most leaders say the global justice movement will be able to preserve the breadth of its coalition and soon regain its strength, even if there are divisions over the response to terrorism. “All of the same issues that motivated the movement will come back center-stage sometime early next year and earlier in other countries,” says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. “The challenge for the movement is to think long term. It has been 20 years in the making and won’t go away.”
I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.
Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.