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Reinventing the World

In 1968, Leone Hankey was too young to take part in the massive student protests that rocked Paris or the tumultuous anti-war protests at the Chicago Democratic convention. But the volunteer coordinator of the Southern California Fair Trade Network will definitely be in Seattle at the end of this month, when top government officials from 134 countries convene a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to try to start a new round of negotiations about trade and global economic rules. They will be greeted by what is likely to be the 1999 version of Paris or Chicago (if not quite so confrontational) -- the biggest, most diverse and most international protest about globalization in the nation‘s history.

As an array of citizen groups from around the world gather in Seattle for marches, rallies, teach-ins, debates, street theater, civil disobedience, banner hanging and even a shutdown of Seattle ports, they will be driven by an abundance of grievances about what the world economy -- and the WTO -- are delivering. Hankey will be joined by thousands of union members demanding WTO protection of worker rights, campaigners for human rights in China and Burma, critics of genetically modified food, mainstream environmentalists, family farmers, rainforest defenders, religious activists, third-world women’s groups, advocates for developing countries, radical democrats, anarchists, localists and a host of others.

“I see this as a watershed for a protest movement, with teeth in it for the first time since the ‘60s and with the power of labor behind it,” Hankey says enthusiastically. “The internationalism of it really appeals to me.”

Why are they all mad at the WTO -- a rather low-profile organization that makes its home in a small, classically elegant building on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland? Launched five years ago, the WTO is the successor to even more obscure boards and commissions that administered nearly five decades of international agreements that reduced tariffs and encouraged international trade. The new WTO has more institutional solidity and more power to enforce its rules than its predecessors, just as the treaty establishing it also went far beyond traditional tariff reductions to protect property rights and global investors. The WTO decisions, typically prompted by a complaint from one country that another’s policies are unfair trade barriers, so far have stirred up several hornet‘s nests of protests and forced the United States, the European Union and other countries to change their laws or face economic sanctions.

Indeed, Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader --founded research and advocacy group, concluded that in its first five years of operation, the WTO has overturned as an illegal trade barrier every single “democratically achieved environmental, health, food-safety or environmental law” that has been challenged. WTO dispute panels -- which typically are a group of trade lawyers meeting in closed session -- overruled a U.S. regulation promoting cleaner gasoline; a U.S. law requiring shrimp fishing boats, if they want to sell in the U.S. market, to use a device to protect endangered sea turtles; and a European Union ban on beef containing artificial hormone residues.

Just the possibility of a challenge at the WTO has discouraged governments from enacting consumer or worker protections. Simply on the basis of threats of action, Public Citizen reports, Guatemala weakened a regulation designed to protect women from misleading inducements to use baby formula, South Korea watered down food safety laws, Europe weakened bans on the sale of furs obtained from certain animal traps, and California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a law giving preference to certain local goods and services.

Beyond objecting to the WTO rulings and their ability to intimidate elected governments, some groups are protesting the WTO as the symbolic guardian of globalization. Some of them are hostile to foreign trade and investment and would like to dismantle the WTO. More simply want to slow down the free-trade stampede -- to stop the torrent of new rules that favor multinational corporations and reassess how globalization is proceeding. Many insist that the WTO must adopt and enforce tough protections of the environment, such basic labor protections as bans on child labor and forced labor, the right of workers to organize unions, and the democratic rights of citizens and consumers to regulate their economies.

Hostility toward the WTO and corporate globalization has been enough glue to hold the protesters together so far, but there are fault lines that will be apparent in Seattle. Consider one of the top issues before the WTO this year: whether to start a formal discussion of the relationship of workers’ rights and global trade and investment. The AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which encompasses national labor federations representing 135 million workers, are pushing hard for inserting a labor-rights clause into the WTO‘s fundamental rules of trade. European labor movements have long advocated “social clauses” in international economic arrangements, as in the governing document of the European Union, but until recently American unions were more likely to emphasize unilateral U.S. action to stop what they regard as unfair trade.

 

In recent months, the U.S. government has become a more vocal proponent of including labor rights, too -- partly because it is legally bound to do so, but the issue has never been at the top of any hard-bargaining agenda. With the shift in Europe to more center-left governments in recent years, the European Union has also endorsed the debate on worker rights. While unions in most developing countries also back WTO action on worker rights, however, their governments typically object strongly to any WTO consideration of such matters, arguing that rich countries will use complaints about worker rights violations to block their exports.

Then there’s a strain of WTO critics in both poor and rich countries, including parts of the U.S. labor movement, who want to weaken or even eliminate the WTO. They view it as an organization they can‘t trust to do anything right, most especially protect workers’ rights.

These tensions have crackled loudly in recent weeks. In October, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney signed a joint statement with leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsing the U.S. negotiating position at the WTO, that is, promoting an official WTO discussion of workers‘ rights. Sweeney argued that it was a breakthrough to get business backing for workers’ rights, but the joint statement backing the administration provoked harsh private and public criticism from some of the federation‘s most trade-impacted unions, including the Steelworkers, Autoworkers and Teamsters. Some of Sweeney’s critics were concerned that the federation wanted to downplay trade issues, where labor has been strongly at odds with Clinton and the presidential candidate they just endorsed: Al Gore.

Sweeney quickly tried to reassure his colleagues, especially industrial union leaders who had long worried about how committed Sweeney and his top advisers were to fighting on global economic issues, that the AFL-CIO wanted more than just discussion of workers‘ rights. On Friday, November 19, Sweeney took a far harder line in a speech before the National Press Club. Moving beyond a simple commendation of the administration for pushing to raise the topic, Sweeney announced, the AFL-CIO would oppose any WTO initiation of a new round of trade talks unless it formally adopted a binding commitment to workers’ rights, environmental protection, a citizen voice in proceedings, protection of public health and environmental laws, and a clause permitting nations to prohibit the dumping of low-cost imports. “The real debate is not over whether to be part of the global economy,” Sweeney said, “but over what are the rules for that economy and who makes them.”

The recent trade and investment agreement between the United States and China has only intensified conflict on this issue. While Clinton will now be pushing hard for China‘s quick entry into the WTO, labor has vowed a fight that could be “bigger than NAFTA,” according to Mark Levinson, chief economist for UNITE, the garment and textile workers union. The problem is not simply that China jails workers for even talking about independent unions. Other countries already in the WTO have some rotten records. But if China enters the WTO without any conditions, opposition to labor rights will be greatly strengthened within the WTO -- coming not only from China and allies such as Mexico, Egypt and India, but also from multinational companies anxious to curry favor to gain access to Chinese markets and investment opportunities. The new openness of some governments, or even the Chamber of Commerce, to labor-rights protections will be trumped in practice by their support for unconditional Chinese membership.

Despite the virtually unanimous endorsement of the WTO and deregulated trade in elite opinion circles -- which include most politicians, editorialists, academic economists and business executives -- the international labor movement and other protesters who want to write worker and environmental protections into the WTO have remarkably solid public support. A survey released last week by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes concluded that while Americans are open to a more global economy, they strongly believe that so far, it has worked well for American business but not so well for American workers or themselves. By an overwhelming margin (78 percent in favor and 18 percent opposed), people surveyed wanted the WTO to consider the effects of trade on labor and the environment. There was near unanimity -- 88 percent support -- for the idea that protecting worker rights, the environment and human rights was even worth slowing the growth of trade and the economy. They put higher priority on protecting jobs for Americans than on lower prices from more imports by a wide margin, and 93 percent said that “countries that are part of international trade agreements should be required to maintain minimum standards for working conditions.” About three-fourths felt they had a moral obligation to support workers overseas and were willing to spent $5 more on a $20 garment if that‘s what it took to be sure it wasn’t made in a sweatshop.

 

For decades, though, trade negotiators and finance ministers have largely been able to ignore public opinion. Most people hadn‘t the slightest idea what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade had to do with their lives.

Negotiations of trade deals were secretive and the terminology hideously arcane and obscure. In this country, the North American Free Trade Agreement changed that, bringing the public into the debate. Now government leaders in many countries and WTO bureaucrats are worried that their version of free trade is losing popular legitimacy, as global inequality worsens, instability and economic panic wipe out hard-won gains overnight, and the greatest beneficiaries of the current regime seem to be multinational corporations obsessed with growing even bigger as they gobble each other up.

The threats to a new round of negotiations and business-as-usual will not come just from the streets of Seattle, however. There are profound disagreements about how to go forward among the government leaders at the WTO ministerial meeting. The United States wants to focus on a few key interests -- ending agricultural subsidies, reducing industrial tariffs, protecting Internet business from tariffs and regulations, and reducing restrictions on trade in services, including opening up public health care and education services to competition from for-profit corporations. Europe and Japan want a broader round of talks, possibly including new protections on multinational investment that the rich countries had tried and failed to negotiate among themselves over the past several years. But Europe and Japan will also be fighting to have the WTO recognize that agriculture is “multifunctional” -- not just about producing food and fiber but also about preserving rural social life, protecting the environment and guaranteeing food security. While environmentalists and family farmers in the United States are critical of European farm subsidies, they too see farming as multifunctional and think that unregulated commercial agricultural trade will just benefit corporate food processors and trading companies.

For their part, most of the developing countries don’t want the WTO to take up any new trade topics. They want greater access to rich country markets to sell garments and their agricultural products, but many also want to end what they see as corporate abuses of intellectual property rights -- from “designer” seeds that can‘t be saved and replanted, to restrictions on making drugs (especially those used to fight AIDS) more affordable in poor countries. Even many rich nations, like Canada and France, want protection of “cultural diversity” against the onslaught of American mass media, films, TV and commercialism. Even though movie and entertainment-industry workers are increasingly complaining they are victimized by globalized production, the U.S. government is willing to accept the job losses because it wants to promote entertainment exports.

Conflicting national and industrial interests are staples of trade talks, but in Seattle, the current differences among governments could by themselves undercut any ambitious new round of negotiations.

The protests in Seattle, however big they are, clearly reflect a much broader popular uneasiness with the way the global economy has been developing. Just as citizens discovered nation by nation over the past century that government regulations were needed to protect consumers, workers, the environment and other public interests, and to make economic markets a bit more fair and stable, now they seem to be recognizing that the global marketplace needs the same sort of controls. In the long run, the WTO as it currently exists can’t do that job adequately. But it could take some first steps in Seattle.

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