On July 29 and 30, around 500 people gathered in Seattle to protest a series of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings of senior government officials held in Seattle this August.
APEC is an annual economic forum for diplomats and government leaders from 21 countries around the Pacific Ocean, including the United States, China, Russia and Japan. With such disparate parties, APEC summits rarely produce binding agreements. However, the forum has proved to be a valuable space for officials to negotiate more limited trade deals among member states. This year, the host country is the U.S.
These negotiations around potential new trade pacts are what worry activists. Historically, free trade agreements have led to significant disruptions for workers and the environment. They argue that a new deal could lead to further outsourcing and decreased prices, leading many small producers to go out of business.
For Eni Lestari, the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), the impact of trade deals is not abstract. Lestari said that her parents in East Java, Indonesia, were pushed into debt after cheap foreign rice and corn flooded the market and undercut their crops. Unable to afford the expense of higher education, Lestari decided to become a migrant worker in Hong Kong.
Fighting on behalf of more than 270 million global migrants and refugees, Lestari flew to Seattle from Indonesia to protest the APEC meetings.
“We cannot be unionized because of that kind of immigration conditions, plus it is not possible for you to participate because of your immigration status,” she said. “You can’t vote; you can’t even travel. Many of them also don’t have a visa … [APEC] is hiding where their superprofits [are] coming from, which is from this cheap, poor, undocumented migrants and refugee labor.”
The first day of the counter-summit, organized by the Northwest People Over Profit coalition, featured multiple speeches, panels and workshops explaining how APEC relates to a variety of issues such as climate change, data privacy, war, labor and women’s rights. On the second day, activists gathered at Cal Anderson Park in Capitol Hill before marching down to the new Seattle Convention Center building on Ninth Avenue and Pine Street.
A variety of groups endorsed the protest, including IMA, International Women’s Alliance, Washington Fair Trade Coalition and Bayan Seattle. While far smaller, the demonstration evoked parallels with the 1999 Battle of Seattle, in which protestors shut down a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting. Going on 24 years later, many of the same issues related to neoliberalism and globalization that people protested against remain.
The rally’s major focus was the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), an initiative launched by the U.S. in May 2022 establishing an Asia-Pacific economic bloc to curtail China’s economic power in the region. IPEF is intended to succeed the Trans Pacific Partnership, the ill-fated trade deal that former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2017.
Jackie Boschok, a board member of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, said at the rally that these negotiations were being held behind closed doors, avoiding scrutiny from the public but allowing corporate advisors to participate.
“Hundreds of corporate lobbyists representing big tech and other private interests have special ‘cleared status advisor’ that give them access to the IPEF negotiations, while the public is shut out entirely,” Boschok said. “We’re barred from seeing any of the language until the negotiations are over and then it’s going to be next to impossible to make any changes.”
Boschok said that APEC had refused to accept a petition signed by 10,000 people calling on negotiators to stop the opaque dealmaking.
Some of the corporate lobbyists present at the APEC talks are from big Seattle and Silicon Valley-based tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Meta. Hillary Haden, the organizing director of the Trade Justice Education Fund, said at one of the counter-summit workshops that these companies want to bypass government regulations by tilting trade deals like IPEF in their favor.
“Folks really seem to understand the extractive nature of the oil industry and how it works in international trade, right? This is very similar to what the tech companies are trying to do with data. They want to be able to extract it from us; they want to be able to ship it and store it and sell it however they want,” Haden said.
“They want that data so that they can feed it to algorithms. They want to subject folks across the world to surveillance, to AI-based discrimination. They want to offshore service sector jobs to countries where employees are already in precarious situations.”
Another big focus of the counter-summit was on how trade affects workers and labor rights. Billy Yates, the U.S. director for the Pay Your Workers Campaign, said that free trade agreements are instrumental to enabling multinational corporations like Adidas.
“The conditions that we see for garment workers is a direct result of a lot of previous free trade agreements and bilateral agreements, where workers are not part of the discussion,” Yates said.
“That’s why it’s important to be here and to confront APEC. Because we know that this is a pattern that continues to keep happening, where ministers for different countries — who are a lot of times backed by corporations — continue to make decisions that will have an impact on the lives of millions of workers and billions of people.”
Organizers of the counter-summit said that they will plan more protests against APEC in the coming weeks to continue to highlight issues with neoliberal trade deals. They also planned to join protests against the APEC heads of state meeting in San Francisco in November.
For many summit participants, the movement for trade and labor justice must grow globally and connect with workers around the world.
“We have to support workers in these other countries, we have to support their organizing drives,” said Brian Skiffington, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, at a workshop. “If that means that we have to strike in solidarity with them, that means we have to strike over things that aren’t immediately affecting us, but are affecting somebody else on the other end of that supply chain. We have to reorient our unions and our workers movements to class struggle, and it has to be international.”
Read more of the Aug. 2-8, 2023 issue.