World Trade Organization

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

With less than seven weeks to go before a momentous international trade summit in Seattle, the offices of the Washington State Labor Council and King County Labor Council have become headquarters for an enormous international union mobilization.

The national AFL-CIO now has at least seven staffpeople working full time in Seattle on the mobilization, which is intended to influence the long-term agenda of the World Trade Organization (WTO) when it meets there Nov. 30 to Dec. 3.

In trying to push an alternative model of globalization that strengthens protections for workers, consumers, and the environment, labor is part of an alliance of historic breadth that includes small farm, human rights, environmental, religious, women's, consumer, community and development groups.

Organizers are predicting 50,000 people will take part in four days of marches and demonstrations. Organized labor is focusing most of its energies on turning out people to a march and rally on Nov. 30, the opening day of the summit.

In Oregon, the state AFL-CIO announced that its goal is to send 1,600 union members, family, and staff to the Nov. 30 demonstration - a number equal to 1 percent of all AFL-CIO members in Oregon.

The labor federation is calling on supporters to make arrangements now to get the day off work. To help get them there, the Oregon AFL-CIO has committed $5,000 to $10,000 to charter an Amtrak train that will leave Portland at 6 a.m., fed by buses departing earlier from Eugene and Salem. The "Union Train" will pull out of Seattle for its return trip at 5:30 p.m. the same day. Tickets will cost $70 per person, which, while more expensive than bus transportation, will include food and entertainment.

For more information, call your local union or national AFL-CIO Oregon State Director Jean Eilers at 503-232-3934.

Much more than the WTO's previous summits in Uruguay and Geneva, the Seattle summit will be a showdown between opposing visions of globalization. With as many as 2,500 journalists from around the world coming to Seattle, tens of thousands of protesters will be trying to demonstrate that there's widespread public opposition to the WTO as it currently functions.

At the same time, proponents of unrestricted free trade are planning a public relations campaign to win support for expanding the WTO to agriculture, government procurement, investor rights, and trade in services.

Months before the summit, the threat of demonstrations was already producing a reaction. In his Sept. 2 inaugural speech, newly-installed WTO Secretary-General Mike Moore adopted a downright defensive tone: "The WTO has become a target for abuse. This will necessitate new skills at governmental and at the international level to communicate and engage those citizens, especially in the wealthy nations, who will protest and march...."

In a Sept. 21 speech he delivered in Berlin, Moore appealed to supporters of free trade to mobilize in its public defense at the summit. "For the first time since the [1948] inception of the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], the value of multilateral trade rules and of trade liberalization is being called into question. We are told to expect large demonstrations of skepticism and hostility at the Ministerial Conference in Seattle ... The WTO alone cannot make the case ... Governments and businesses which believe in the system must get out there and defend it."

Moore's appeal won't fall on deaf ears. The business community will be heavily invested in influencing the discussion.

Though the summit is taking place in Seattle at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, critics argue it has already been bought and paid for by corporate America. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is one of the leaders of the Seattle Host Organization, a largely business-based group designated as the official host by the U.S. Government and the WTO. The meeting is expected to cost $11 million, with host committee co-chairs Boeing and Microsoft raising some $9 million of that and the U.S. Government chipping in the remainder.

Microsoft has also put up $25,000 in seed money to help create a special trade curriculum for teachers, to be used in the month prior to the WTO meeting; other companies are expected to contribute an additional $100,000.

On the media stage, the chief spokesperson for the campaign to win the public over to the WTO agenda is likely to be President Clinton.

In his speech to the WTO at its last summit, May 1998 in Geneva, President Clinton claimed as his own many of the proposals citizen groups had been pushing. "We must do more to make sure ... that spirited economic competition among nations never becomes a race to the bottom in environmental protections, consumer protections and labor standards," Clinton declared. "I propose the WTO, for the first time, provide a forum where business, labor, environmental and consumer groups can speak out and help guide the further evolution of the WTO. When this body convenes again, I believe that the world's trade ministers should sit down with representatives of the broad public to begin this discussion."

Clinton has reiterated those points since then, most recently at a meeting last month of the United Nations.

But in the analysis of Lori Wallach of the Ralph Nader public interest group Public Citizen, Clinton's statements are little more than a "charm initiative" intended to quiet civic alarm. Wallach has come to distrust Clinton's every utterance when it comes to trade policy.

"The Administration typically portrays itself as fighting on the front lines to ensure that environmental and labor standards aren't neglected and undermined by the WTO, and then blames other WTO member-countries when meaningful policy changes in these areas fail to materialize, even as the Administration attains other goals," Wallach said.

Organized labor is wagering that if anything is likely to convince Clinton, a consistent advocate of free trade, to push harder to add enforceable labor rights and environmental standards to the WTO agreement, it's an unmistakable buzz from the streets.

October 15, 1999 issue

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