Film highlights union struggle

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When Tom Conway went with 1,400 members of the United Steelworkers union to Seattle in 1999, he knew they were going to try to shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization.

What he didn't realize was that they were going to succeed.

It came back to him this week when he saw the new movie "The Battle in Seattle," directed by Stuart Townsend.

Back in 1999 Mr. Conway, now a vice president of the Steelworkers union, was with International President Leo Gerard as the two dragged planters into the intersections around the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle to help protesters block access to the meetings.

It was a pivotal moment for the confluence of the labor and green movements, and what ultimately came of it was greater than anyone could have imagined.

The groups that protested in Seattle came together to protest the WTO, which they saw as making rules that affected the environment and trade relations without government oversight. The protesters, using nonviolent civil disobedience to keep trade delegations away from the WTO meetings, were beaten, sprayed with tear gas and jailed as the city and state governments changed the rules regarding protests without notification.

Mr. Gerard and Mr. Conway talked yesterday about how being under fire by the police forged alliances between the disparate groups. The students who fought sweatshops came out of the protests, as did the blue-green alliance of blue-collar workers seeking jobs making green products.

"We thought it was important to educate the public about the WTO snake under the rock," Mr. Gerard said.

And, while the protests reached their goals, governments also learned some lessons, so that when protesters came out against the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and the meetings to set up a Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami in 2003, huge areas around the meetings were cordoned off by police to keep the protesters at bay.

But the protesters, ultimately, prevailed.

"The FTAA's dead," Mr. Gerard said. "It isn't going to happen. CAFTA [the Colombia Free Trade Agreement] is dead. It isn't going to happen."

That doesn't mean the battle is over.

Mr. Gerard said the current financial collapse is the result of 30 years of regulating the markets to favor the wealthy over the middle class.

Ike Gittlen, of Mt. Lebanon, a technician for the United Steelworkers, also was in Seattle for the protests, where he was gassed twice.

He came away with a feeling of solidarity for all of the groups involved and a story that he has repeated many times about something said by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who also was there.

Sen. Wellstone, in speaking to the protesters, said it took 50 years to humanize the Industrial Revolution and bring to light the effects of industrialization on the workers; now it is time to humanize globalization, which will be a much bigger task.

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


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