After a week of protests and controversy, World Trade Organization talks in Seattle fail on December 3, 1999.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 11/04/2009
  • Essay 2139

On Friday, December 3, 1999, trade negotiations fail and the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ends without achieving its goal of reaching agreement on an agenda for the next round of international trade negotiations. Although massive protests against the WTO and the forceful police response have overshadowed negotiations inside the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, it turns out that the deep divisions reflected in the streets are also present among trade officials. Delegates from poorer, less developed countries are angered at being excluded from key discussions, but in the end it is disagreements between the richest countries, specifically the United States and the European Union, over the issue of agicultural subsidies that bring the talks down. As delegates debate, several thousand demonstrators march in a final anti-WTO protest organized by the Teamsters union. Hundreds gather outside the Westin Hotel and the King County Jail to demand the release of protestors arrested earlier, where they cheer and dance upon hearing that the WTO talks have collapsed.

Trade ministers and other officials from the WTO's 135 member countries came to Seattle to agree on the issues to be decided in the new round of trade negotiations that was supposed to be launched at the Seattle meeting. From the time that the WTO's predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was created in the aftermath of World War II, negotiations on reducing barriers to international trade were conducted in rounds lasting several years each, where an agenda was decided and then agreement reached on the agenda issues. Rounds were often named for the location of the meeting where the agenda was adopted -- for instance, the WTO was created following the Uruguay Round, which began in Montevideo in 1986 and lasted until 1993.

No Seattle Round

The Seattle Host Organization, which sponsored the WTO's Seattle conference, and other civic boosters hoped that Seattle would benefit from having the newest installment of trade negotiations dubbed the Seattle Round. However, in a tiny foreshadowing of the collapse to come, representatives from some other countries, perhaps expressing resistance to perceived U.S. domination, preferred the name Millennium Round. As it turned out, events during the conference made the name "Seattle" synonymous not with new trade negotiations but with streets filled first with protestors and then with clouds of tear gas. No new round was launched.

By Friday, December 2, the "Battle in Seattle" that overshadowed the first two days of WTO meetings had subsided. As they had on Thursday, police avoided the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and riot armor that had been prevalent on Tuesday and Wednesday, refraining from use of force even when demonstrators nonviolently blocked the entrance to the Westin Hotel. At the last large anti-WTO rally, organized by the Teamsters Union, speakers combined criticisms of the WTO for promoting free trade at the expense of workers' rights and other social goods with calls for healing after the heated confrontations and property destruction of previous days.

After the rally at the King County Labor Temple in Belltown, the crowd of several thousand marched peacefully through downtown. Many of the marchers returned to the Labor Temple, but two large groups broke off to stage two demonstrations protesting what they said was mistreatment of protestors jailed earlier in the week and demanding that all arrestees be released without charge. Several hundred rallied outside the Westin Hotel, where about eight people chained themselves to the front entrance. Police officers inside the lobby kept watch, and occasionally waved to children in the crowd of protestors, but did not interfere. Another group of several hundred joined the ongoing vigil outside the King County Jail.

Conference Collapses

Meanwhile, WTO delegates who had worked through much of Thursday night kept on trying to bridge the deep divides that threatened to derail the talks. By Friday, it was clear that the WTO would rebuff demands to include enforceable labor standards in trade agreements. Moreover, those demands, made by U.S. labor unions and reiterated by President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) during his two-day visit to Seattle, antagonized ministers from poorer, developing countries who saw labor standards as another form of protectionism favoring developed economies. Delegates from the developing countries of Africa and Asia were also angered at being excluded from key discussions and then pressured to agree to positions worked out by the richer nations.

The alienation of third-world delegations and the massive protests in the streets played a role in the Seattle conference's failure, but the final collapse on Friday came when the most powerful countries could not reach agreement on the contentious issue of trade in agriculture. The U.S. and other agricultural-exporting countries wanted the agenda for the next round of talks to include a commitment to reducing and eventually eliminating the subsidies that many countries pay to farmers. But the European Union, along with Japan, Korea, and other countries that heavily subsidized their farmers refused to agree.

Negotiations continued as the time for the closing ceremony on Friday afternoon came and went, and went on hours past the scheduled 6:00 p.m. end of the conference. However, by 10:00 that evening it was clear that no agreement would be reached. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, the conference chair, and WTO Director-General Mike Moore announced that the WTO would leave Seattle without an agenda or timetable for further negotiations.

Protestors Celebrate

When the collapse of the WTO talks was announced, the protestors outside the Westin Hotel and the jail, and even those still in custody, cheered in celebration while organizers of the week's huge anti-WTO protests claimed victory. Lori Wallach of the Ralph Nader group Public Citizen, a leading figure in the coalition of consumer activists, labor leaders, and environmentalists that organized the largest demonstrations and marches, said:

"The allegedly unstoppable force of globalization just hit the immovable object called grass-roots democracy" (Paulson and McClure).

The failure to reach agreement in Seattle was a setback for Barshefsky and her boss, President Clinton, an ardent supporter of free trade. Although Barshefsky and Moore optimistically suggested that negotiations might resume within weeks, it was two more years before the WTO, meeting in Doha, Qatar, finally agreed on an agenda for a new round of talks -- the "Doha Development Round." And as the WTO prepared for its Seventh Ministerial Conference, scheduled to begin in Geneva on November 30, 2009, 10 years to the day after the start of the ill-fated Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle, it still had not reached substantive agreement on the issues that divided delegates and drew tens of thousands of protestors to the streets of Seattle.

Friday Timeline

On December 3, 1999, events in Seattle unfolded as follows:

  • 9:00 a.m.: Downtown stores remove plywood from windows and open on schedule. Business owners criticize Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014), complaining the city was unprepared for the WTO conference and protests. To encourage shoppers to return to downtown Seattle, retailers and city officials announce that downtown parking meters and many garages will be free over the weekend.
  • 9:00 a.m.: WTO Plenary Session continues at the Convention Center.
  • 12:00 p.m.: A crowd of around 2,000 union leaders and members, elected officials, religious leaders, students, and others assembles at the King County Labor Temple in Belltown for a rally and march organized by the Teamsters Union.
  • 1:00 p.m.: The labor march winds through downtown Seattle as police stand by at a distance.
  • 2:00 p.m.: Adoption of Ministerial Declaration and WTO closing ceremony is scheduled at the Convention Center, but there is no declaration to adopt.
  • 3:00 p.m.: Hundreds of demonstrators leave the labor march to gather at the King County Jail and at the Westin Hotel to protest the treatment of jailed protesters and call for their release. About eight people chain themselves to the Westin's entrance doors but police do not react and there is no vandalism or violence.
  • 6:00 p.m.: WTO conference is scheduled to end but negotiations continue.
  • 10:00 p.m.: Hours after the WTO conference was scheduled to conclude with the issuance of a declaration of issues agreed on, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and WTO Director-General Mike Moore announce that the assembled trade ministers have been unable to agree. The WTO leaves Seattle without achieving its goal of agreement on an agenda for a new round of trade negotiations.
  • 10:30 p.m.: Demonstrators at the Westin Hotel and the jail cheer and dance when news that the WTO talks have failed reaches them.
  • 11:00 p.m. By the time the conference ends, police have made a total of 601 WTO-related arrests, the vast majority on Wednesday, December 1.
  • 12:00 a.m.: Protesters remain outside the jail through the night as negotiations continue for the release of all arrested demonstrators.
  • 12:00 a.m.: Group of squatters and activists for the homeless stays a final night in the abandoned building at 9th Avenue and Virginia Street that they occupied on Sunday evening, before vacating it on Saturday morning.


Helen Jung, "Seattle Boosters Go Round and Round," The Seattle Times, November 28, 1999, p. E-2; "The History of the World Trade Organization," Ibid., November 28, 1999, p. E-8-9; Stephen H. Dunphy, "Negotiators Struggle to End on Time," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-23; Lisa Pemberton-Butler and Robert T. Nelson, "Retailers Struggle to Restore Normalcy," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-26; Dunphy, "Talks Collapse; Meeting Ends," Ibid., December 4, 1999, p. A-1; "Conference Ends, Protests Don't," Ibid., December 4, 1999, p. A-7; Dunphy, "Agricultural Issues Toppled WTO Talks," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-19; Alex Tizon, "Friday, Dec. 3," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-19; Chris Solomon, "Squatters Vacate Downtown Building After 'Deal,'" Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-17; Michael Paulson and Robert McClure, "WTO Summit Ends in Failure," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 1999, p. A-1; Judd Slivka and Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "Party Time for the Protesters," Ibid., December 4, 1999, p. A-6; World Trade Organization website accessed November 1, 2009 (; "Report of the WTO Accountability Review Committee of the Seattle City Council," WTO Accountability Review Committee website accessed October 20, 2009 (; "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," Seattle Police Department website accessed October 14, 2009 (;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed October 14, 2009).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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