How trade came to be more important than anything else


Staff Reporter

As awareness spreads about the World Trade Organization's (WTO) impacts, the world public is increasingly critical of the way in which this unelected and unaccountable body is asserting its jurisdiction over questions formerly reserved to democratic governments to decide.

Therefore, when trade ministers and heads of state from more than 130 countries gather in Seattle Nov. 30-Dec. 3 for the WTO's first-ever meeting in the United States, union and human rights activists will be there marching, rallying and holding high-profile events to make sure workers aren't left behind by this global economy.

"We don't need a trading system telling us whether we have the right to ban asbestos," declared Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO's top expert on public policy. "The rules are being drawn in the wrong place." When the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was established in 1947, it was just a forum for industrialized countries to negotiate reciprocal tariff reductions. But with the creation of the WTO in a 1994 revision of the GATT treaty, world trade rules began to override other concerns. Domestic laws designed to protect the environment or public health began to be challenged as "barriers to trade" by foreign governments and corporations.

In the United States, laws protecting endangered sea turtles, dolphins, and clean air have been weakened by such challenges.

And the United States has challenged the European Union for its consumer protections against hormone-laced beef, a proposed law on recycled content requirements in high-tech products, and a preferential trade treaty that sustains thousands of small-scale banana farmers in former colonial nations.

Because workers' rights (other than prison labor) are not included in WTO rules, countries may not withdraw trade preferences from WTO members even for serious violations of workers' rights.

If the United States were to ban the import of goods made with child labor, for example, as Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed, other countries could challenge this ban under WTO rules. AFL-CIO policy experts argue that the most effective way to protect workers' rights would be through a worldwide trading system that rewards or penalizes products depending upon how they are produced.

For example, when companies use child labor or governments repress independent unions, their goods would be subject to tariffs or import bans. Such a multilateral trading system, enforced by the WTO, would remove the financial incentive for companies or governments to violate workers' rights. Nothing of that kind will be proposed in Seattle.

Instead, a U.S. proposal to form a "working group" on trade and labor standards will be discussed. If the proposal wins support from other WTO-member nations, the working group would study the relationship between trade and employment, social policy, and core labor standards, look at incentives to encourage adoption and enforcement of labor standards, and study what happens when countries lower labor standards to attract trade. It would issue a report in two years.

"It falls far short of establishing workers' rights in the WTO," says Barbara Shailor, director of foreign affairs for the national AFL-CIO. "It is a modest step forward in what we consider a long campaign." The working group idea also has the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.

On Oct. 29, USA Today and other newspapers reported that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in supporting the Clinton Administration's entire WTO agenda. This prompted United Auto Workers President Stephen Yokich to resign as chair of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest.

In fact, say AFL-CIO officials, Sweeney endorsed only the labor working group, not Clinton's whole agenda, which would expand the WTO's free trade influence to other sectors.

The labor working group proposal has the support of the European Union and South Africa, but Shailor said there is significant opposition from the governments of Pakistan, India, Mexico, Egypt, and many Asian countries (though the workers' movements in those countries support it.)

One day before this issue went to press, the U.S. announced that it had resolved all remaining disagreements with China, clearing the way to membership in the WTO for a country which persecutes union organizers and uses child and forced labor. If China makes it into the WTO, labor policy experts fear its enormous economic clout will make it impossible to get workers' rights reforms in the organization.

Shailor said to keep the pressure for workers' rights protections, the world's labor movement will have to mobilize heavily in Seattle and continue to be active afterward as well. In Seattle, Ron Judd, head of the King County Labor Council, compared trying to influence the global trading system to trying to turn around a supertanker - it's slow and it's a lot of work, but it CAN be done.

As of mid-November, the details of mobilizing an army of demonstrators were falling into place. "The logistics are being planned down to the nth detail," said AFL-CIO Oregon representative Jean Eilers.

In Portland, a "Union Train" will leave Portland's Union Station at 5:45 a.m. Feeder buses will leave from Eugene at 3:15 a.m. and from the Amtrak station in Albany and Salem at 4:15 a.m. It's expected to arrive in Seattle at 10 a.m. Buses will be waiting at the Seattle train station to take passengers to Memorial Stadium.

Charter buses will leave at different locations and times from Portland, Eugene, Salem and Woodburn. Once in Seattle, buses will remain parked where passengers are let out to make it easier to find upon return from the march.

In order to make logistics easier, individuals planning to drive to Seattle in carpools, vans, and individual cars should contact the AFL-CIO at (503)-232-3934. To get to Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium, northbound drivers should take Seattle's Mercer Street Exit (Exit 167), from the left lane of Interstate 5. At the bottom of the exit, turn right onto Fairview Ave. N. Turn left at the next signal onto Valley Street and continue through the next signal onto Broad Street. Take the first right after the underpass, onto Harrison Street. Turn right onto Fifth Ave. N. Turn right onto Mercer Street. There should be event marshals by this point, who will direct you to the nearest parking structure.

Breakfast and dinner will be provided on union buses and the union train. As for lunch, there will be vendors at Memorial Stadium.

Gates open at 8 a.m. at the rally site, Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium - an open air high school football stadium with covered bleachers. The rally will start at 10 a.m.

Final details of the program are still being worked out, but speakers are expected to include Bill Jordan, head of the global trade union federation ICFTU, and John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO. The musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform.

The podium may also be shared by a number of international union presidents who will be in Seattle for the protest. The march will begin at 12:30.

The coalition partners

In its last great mobilization of the millennium, organized labor is reaching out, not only to unions in other countries, but to environmentalists, religious people, and citizen activists - allies against the WTO's "business-first" model of globalization.

Examples abound of these partners working together.

On Nov. 29, hundreds of union Steelworkers will join the Washington Council of Churches to shine a light on a pre-summit gala reception in which corporate donors get privileged access to the trade ministers.

On Dec. 1, Steelworkers will take part in a 5 p.m. teach-in at the United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle. District 11 head David Foster will share the podium with David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club.

Congress gets involved

In October, the scent of all this ferment reached noses in the U.S. Congress.

A Congressional Advisory Group was formed for members of Congress to give input to the Clinton Administration on the WTO Ministerial. Though it was formed after the president had already prepared his agenda for the WTO, the group may have some influence in that any new agreements will have to be approved by Congress.

A number of Northwest representatives are among the appointees to the group, including Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, and David Wu, and Washington Democrats Brian Baird, Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith.

DeFazio, a leading critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, said he plans to be a vocal advocate for fair trade on the committee. Wu, on the other hand, held separate meetings Nov. 6 to hear from business advocates and activist critics of the WTO. Though pressed by Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, Wu was non-committal on the subject of labor rights at the WTO.

As of press time, the Multnomah County Commission was expected to approve a resolution opposing any intrusion by the WTO into local government authority to pass laws on fair labor practices, living wages, environmental protection and local incentives to support minority and small business development. A similar resolution is expected to be passed by the Portland City Council.

Nesbitt will speak at a teach-in Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 6 p.m. at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Ballroom, along with Kevin Danaher of the sweatshop-busting organization Global Exchange.

Labor perspectives on the WTO will also be aired on KBOO radio, 90.7 FM from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22, and from 6:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 24.

To get to the Nov. 30 demonstration, space on union buses is still available - call 232-3934 to make a reservation.

The buying(and selling) of access

The World Trade Organization (WTO) summit is a meeting between government officials to discuss a trade treaty between governments.

But the meeting is being paid for, for the most part, by corporate contributions. Since February, the Seattle Host Organization, led by Boeing President Phil Condit and Microsoft President Bill Gates, has been working to raise $9.2 million to pay for the conference. As of Nov. 1, 65 companies had pledged $5,000 to $250,000, with most donors giving at least $25,000. Top contributors include Allied Signal/Honeywell, Deloitte & Touche, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Microsoft, Boeing, US West and Nextel Communications - all with substantial financial interests at stake in the summit.

In exchange for financing the meeting, the WTO's corporate sponsors get publicity and privileged access to the assembled government officials. The minimum contribution, a $5,000 "Bronze Level" gift, buys a link to the Seattle Host Organization Web site and the right to display corporate materials at the meeting site. The highest tier, the $250,000 "Emerald Level" donation, buys five tickets each to the gala opening and closing night receptions and to an exclusive Nov. 30 dinner with trade ministers and heads of states.

Under the Clinton Administration, it's become standard practice for government-sponsored international gatherings held in the United States to be financed with private dollars - past examples include the meeting of the G-7 nations, NATO's 50th Anniversary Gala, and the Summit of the Americas.

This time, however, the practice is attracting negative publicity, which, combined with the bad press on the WTO itself, is scaring off potential donors. As of Nov. 5, the committee was still $2.5 million to $4 million short of its goal. As Boeing executive and Seattle Host Organization member Ray Waldman put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Why would a CEO from a corporation want to subject him- or herself to the kind of protests that are being talked about?"

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