One No, Many Grassroots Yeses

— Mike Prokosch

THE MOVEMENT FOR global economic justice has shown that it’s here to stay. Establishing massive protest as a frame for media coverage of the global economy, with its sister movements around the world it has kept the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the run and helped block a new round of talks in the World Trade Organization.

Less visible, but equally vital, are the movement’s local gains. Across the country, activists are connecting global battles to local ones. The “globalization” movement is becoming a movement to take democracy back from giant corporations – not just in the streets of Philly and LA, but in fights for family farms and living wages.

Here are a few of the stories Laura Raymond and I have discovered while researching a book about the local face of the global movement (Turtles, Teamsters, and Tensions, forthcoming from United for a Fair Economy). They paint a picture of “one no and many yeses” – a plural movement which is rejecting corporate globalization and building links with the many majorities that make up our society.

Bangor, Maine. Bangor is a small city, but it has a large core of activists who are always looking for ways to mainstream progressive principles. In the mid-1990s they decided to make Bangor a sweat-free city.

A petition drive that collected signatures from one in every ten Bangor residents was the first step. Since then a city council resolution, annual “Clean Clothes Fairs,” and a consumer-retailer pledge have kept expanding the base and visibility of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Its message is: We don’t want exploitation marketed in our city. Our values should shape our economy. And they can.

The message is echoing across Maine. New Clean Clothes Campaigns in southern Maine, the state AFL-CIO, the Maine Catholic Diocese and state Council of Churches have joined forces to develop a new state purchasing and investment law. Clean Clothes activists sit on the state commission that is drafting it.

If the new law is challenged in the World Trade Organization as a “barrier to trade,” they are prepared to fight a battle that could echo around the world.

Atlantic, Iowa. Family farmers are front-line victims of corporate globalization. Transnational corporations are “consolidating the entire food chain,” to quote Monsanto spokesman Robert Farley. In the process, they’re turning family farmers into contingent contractors or forcing them off the land entirely.

But in the early 1980s, many Iowa farmers couldn’t see the process clearly through the fog of government propaganda which blamed foreign farmers. To cut through the fog, they went abroad. A series of cross-border exchanges took family farmers first to France, then Canada and Mexico.

“I couldn’t believe that I was hearing the same stories in France that I heard in rural Vermont,” said Lee Light, a dairy farmer who joined one National Family Farm Coalition trip. “Those French farmers that our government told us were highly subsidized were in fact losing their farms.”

The farmers also started crossing borders in the United States. “We began to cross sectors and started developing relationships with labor and environmental organizations,” said Denise O’Brian of the NFFC. “The progressive farm movement was too small ... it needs to ally with other movements to make its voice heard.”

Tennessee. “There I was, just raising hell about ‘them damn Mexicans,’” said JoAnn Greene, who worked for thirty years for Magnavox, then for its successor, Philips Electronics. “It was right after the contract my union negotiated with Philips, a contract that really shafted me royally. They had used the threat of taking out jobs to Mexico to get a rotten, two-tier contract, and I was mad.”

Then in August of 1994, Greene went on a worker exchange to Juarez, Mexico. “I guess the word would be devastated,” she said. “Me, growing up in the mountains of east Tennessee ... hell, we was dirt poor, let’s face it. We carried our drinking water for almost three miles. Then to go down there to see people that are poorer than I was! I really came away from Mexico with a respect for those people, a respect that I have tried to share with everybody I meet.”

Greene and dozens of other Tennessee workers are the backbone of the eleven-year old Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network. After seeing the reality on the other side of the border, they formed a Fair Trade Coalition to fight NAFTA and the string of trade bills which the Clinton Administration brought up year after year.

As NAFTA took effect and the Mexican population of Tennessee grew, TIRN members stood up to growing xenophobia in their workplaces, in their churches, and at their dinner tables.

When you cross borders – of race, class, or nationality – it changes you. The Tennessee workers and Iowa farmers who crossed the border gained an energy and a clarity that changed them and their communities. The new movement is creating its own kind of globalization, and it is a powerful force.

The Challenge of Race

Still, the new movement faces challenges. One familiar one is the predominantly white character of global peace and solidarity organizing.

Where Was the Color in Seattle? an article by Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, challenged the movement to break that tradition, to ally with organizations of color and support their work.

The movement responded quickly. Martinez’s challenge shaped the protests that followed Seattle, especially the Democratic Convention protest in Los Angeles. The New York Direct Action Network teamed up with SLAM to work against racist prison policy and police brutality.

In Boston, the Global Action Network and Jubilee 2000 went to immigrant organizations and proposed a “global community forum” where Haitians, Dominicans, West Africans, Indians and Brazilians described their own experience of debt, structural adjustment, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Rather than import speakers from abroad, global activists went to the experts in their own communities.

It worked. A standing-room audience heard very sophisticated analyses and crossed Boston’s rigid racial boundaries. Though the experience lasted only two hours, it was a first local step taken by North and South activists toward a people-centered global order.

ATC 93, July–August 2001