On 30 November 1999, over 50,000 activists took to the streets of Seattle to protest the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), in an event known as the ‘Battle in Seattle’. These activists saw the international trade negotiating body as a neoliberal entity promoting free trade policies, and favouring the expansion of corporate profits over the protection of people and the environment. While broadcasters focused on white male industrial unionists and white middle-class environmentalists, feminists worked behind the scenes to make this protest possible.
One Seattle feminist – Cindy Domingo – offers a window into the contributions that feminists made to the WTO protests and to the larger Global Justice Movement. The Global Justice Movement was an international social justice movement that emerged in response to neoliberal economic policies. Neoliberalism is an economic model that calls for the privatisation and elimination of social services and the deregulation of labour and environmental protections. These policies are not only harmful for people and the environment but have particular gendered impacts. For instance, when social services that provided food, water, or healthcare were cut, it was women who were primarily responsible for providing these services for their families.
Neoliberalism was first imposed upon countries in the Global South during the 1960s and 70s, when Export Processing Zones (EPZs), ‘free trade districts’, and labour and environmental protections were abolished. Since its inception, the United Nations has sought to foster “development” in poor countries, to promote peace and economic security. The elimination of tariffs forced many people living in the countryside to migrate to either cities, EPZs, or wealthy countries abroad in search of work, because they could not compete with the influx of cheap foreign goods. Women were particularly impacted by these policies as they were forced to work for low wages in unsafe conditions in EPZs or to go abroad as domestic workers where they were dubbed ‘illegal aliens’ and denied protections and rights.
At the same time, global capitalism also provided a new framework for resistance, and people in the Global South increasingly banded together across borders to protest global institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization, international bodies that enforced these neoliberal economic policies. Those in the Global South charged the development policies pursued by these institutions focused solely on economic growth and ignored human rights and environmental protections and charged these policies were a continued form of colonialism.
In the 1970s, US feminists gained significant exposure to feminist organising against development taking place in the Global South, the first to feel the effects of free trade and the first to develop strategies to resist. In a world of powerful multinational institutions and corporations, where economics, politics and culture were increasingly globalised, Global South feminists sought to shift the logic of their organising efforts in kind. They developed what they called ‘glocal’ analyses, revealing the global dimensions of local issues such as sexualised violence and the plight of domestic workers. ‘Acting locally, thinking globally’ became one of their mantras. By attending international conferences, Seattle feminists gained exposure to these Global South activists and formed global networks of communication. For many of these US feminists, it was the first time they learned about neoliberal policies like structural adjustment, which forced indebted nations to cut social services to pay back their debts, and the institutions that enforced them like the IMF and World Bank. They began to analyse the effects of forces such as globalisation and neoliberalism at home and to reckon with the role of the US government in enforcing these policies abroad.
By the early 1990s, Domingo, like many other US feminists, began engaging with the growing global feminist movement. In 1995, she participated in the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China as part of the EveryWoman’s Delegation. This conference was the largest international gathering of women in world history. Ahead of the conference, feminists like Domingo worked abroad and at home to draw more women together. Through preparatory events focused on dialoguing with activists overseas, Domingo and others learned a more global perspective, one that recognised their own position of global privilege. They learned to identify global frameworks for understanding key issues like immigration, domestic violence, and labour rights.
Significantly for the many US activists in attendance, most of the experts at the Conference in Beijing were Asian, African or Latin American. They offered critiques about the devastation of global capitalism and exposed US feminists to new analyses and ways of understanding their own struggles within a global framework. Cindy Domingo recalled how the speeches, workshops and events were ‘transformative’ for her personally and for the US women’s movement writ large. According to Domingo, these Global South activists ‘gave new meaning to the women’s movement’ and the US feminists left the conference dedicated ‘to building a women’s movement that understood that “women’s rights were human rights” and “human rights were women’s rights.’”
Recognising that attending an international conference like Beijing was not accessible to everyone, Domingo and others committed to holding ‘Beijing and Back’ activities to share what they had learned overseas. For instance, at a 1995 conference Domingo recounted her experiences hearing about the issue of ‘comfort women’, and the pain still felt in those communities over the World-War-Two-era Japanese military sexual enslavement of (mainly) Korean women. Domingo explained how this issue connected to the global market for Asian women as mail order brides, sex workers, and domestic workers. Placing these issues in the same framework highlighted the deeper global inequalities in power structures that underlaid them, as they all represented different ways of trafficking women from poor countries to wealthy ones.
Domingo also worked with the grassroots labour organisation The Northwest Labor and Employment Office (LELO) as part of the ‘International Worker to Worker Project’ to develop strategies to counteract neoliberalism across borders. In May 1997, Domingo helped to organise the ‘Speaking for Ourselves, to Each Other’ conference in Seabeck, Washington, which included forty-five ordinary workers and activists from eleven countries representing every continent. It combined personal testimonies with dialogue and debate over various topics, including the role of the US in the deterioration of working conditions globally.
At the event, workers from around the world learned that their problems were ‘similar and intertwined.’ Most significantly, they established a set of principles based on this understanding and published the ‘Seabeck Declaration’, which established three main ideas. Firstly, it stated that the environment was a worker issue, and that protecting the environment was not a threat to jobs. Building upon the arguments that women of colour in the environmental and labour movements had been making for decades, the declaration stipulated that ‘the environment’ included the home and workplace. As such, labour and environmental issues were inseparable. Secondly, the declaration called for the freedom of workers to move across borders without fear of discrimination or exploitation, effectively joining issues relating to immigration, workers, and the global economy. Thirdly, it declared that ‘the home is a workplace’ and domestic violence a worker issue. As such, it made plain that women’s issues were workers’ issues. WTO protest planners would later use the Seabeck Declaration as the starting point for developing their critiques of free trade.
Based on the networking and analysis developed at the 1997 Seabeck conference, Domingo helped launch the Workers’ Voices Coalition (WVC). This coalition reached out to communities of colour marginalised in the larger city-wide process and framed WTO issues in a way that resonated with women and people of colour. As Domingo explained, ‘In the months leading up to the WTO, many of us realized that the voices of women, immigrants, and people of color were missing from the larger coalition being built city-wide and regionally.’ The WVC focused on popular education and expanding community involvement, because the WTO meeting in Seattle presented a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to educate members of Seattle’s diverse communities about the links between globalisation and free trade in developing countries and its impacts in our own backyard.’ They held conferences and public education events and produced a weekly radio show highlighting the experiences of people of colour, women, and ordinary workers in the US and around the world.
To further underline the impact of free trade policies on women and people of colour, Domingo helped plan a conference on women and immigration the day after the week-long protests against the WTO concluded. On 4 December 1999, a conference on Women and Immigration was held at Seattle University; more than 200 attendees, over one third of whom were people of colour, heard from women workers and organisers from around the world. By describing how global capitalism took its toll on women and immigrants, they sought to establish a platform and network to continue activist work.
While largely ignored by the media, feminists like Cindy Domingo were vital conduits who helped to grow and expand the Global Justice Movement in the United States, particularly ahead of the 1999 WTO Seattle protests. Like so many other feminists, she first learned about the dangers of neoliberalism through direct contacts with people living in the Global South. She then brought these lessons back home to help draw more US activists into this movement. Domingo’s story reveals some of the ways in which feminists helped expand the Global Justice Movement to include a broader coalition of activists and issues. Today, as economic inequality and capitalist globalisation intensifies, it is even more vital to learn from these feminists’ endeavours to build broad coalitions which recognised the intersection of injustices relating to worker’s rights, the environment, public health, militarisation, and immigration both in the US and around the world. Domingo’s efforts represent just one of the many contributions of the ‘unsung feminist heroes’ of the Global Justice Movement.