DeFazio, U.S. elected officials respond to WTO

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Months before the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle, growing public concern about it was having an impact on U.S. elected officials from the local level to the highest office in the land.

In what portends to be a national movement to defend local autonomy in the United States, city councils passed resolutions critical of the WTO in Portland; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pa.; Davis, Calif.; and other municipalities.

In a letter to President Clinton Dec. 1, 19 Washington state representatives, and six other local officials declared that the operation and activities of the WTO are inconsistent with the fundamental values of a democratic republic.

The letter argued that membership in the WTO unconstitutionally intrudes on the authority of states and their subdivisions to adopt laws that regulate companies doing business within their borders.

In the U.S. Congress, some 50 representatives have signed a "friend of the court" brief supporting a Massachusetts law that bans government purchases from Burma, a notorious human rights violator. That law was challenged in the WTO by the European Union, but the challenge was withdrawn pending a challenge within the U.S. court system. On Nov. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it will hear the case.

Several U.S. congressmen have stood out as critics of the WTO, including House Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan and Representative Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

DeFazio, one of the leaders of the successful campaigns to defeat so-called "fast track" legislation that would have forced Congress to vote up or down any new trade agreements without amendment, is head of the House Progressive Caucus and a member of the congressional advisory committee charged with advising the president on the WTO. Though the effective agenda at the WTO had been set months before, the congressional advisory committee wasn't formed until November. Still, DeFazio said he used the appointment as an opportunity to "dog" the Clinton Administration - he spent Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 in Seattle going to all the official briefings and trying to make the Administration deliver on its promises.

For months, Clinton had been adopting the rhetoric of the critics of the WTO, calling for more transparency in the organization and reforms to make it more environmentally and worker friendly.

Of particular interest to labor was the Clinton Administration's proposal that the WTO form a working group on trade and labor standards. Such a group would study the relationships between trade and employment, trade and social safety nets, trade and the lack of enforcement of existing labor laws, trade and forced and exploitative child labor, and trade and core labor standards. It would also evaluate trade policy incentives that would encourage higher labor standards.

"The WTO does not recognize the link between trade and labor," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told world labor leaders Nov. 29. "That is intellectually indefensible, and over time, it will weaken public support for global trade."

Bill Jordan, head of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, said he couldn't agree more. "The defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment last year is a warning to that band of true believers often described as 'the trade community' that if there is to be another trade round, it will have to include negotiations on how to prevent companies from gaining advantage from world markets from the persistent and gross abuse of core labor standards."

But if Seattle is any indication, the idea of making violations of labor standards WTO-illegal on par with violations of intellectual property rights is not likely to get far in the WTO.

Thea Lee, AFL-CIO policy expert on the WTO, said it looked like in Seattle the Administration really did go to bat for its labor working group proposal, but could not overcome opposition from some developing countries.

The question organized labor must answer: "Is the push for a labor working group a real attempt, or is it purely for domestic consumption, a theatrics staged to mollify labor constituents?" The answer will continue to depend on how much influence Clinton is willing to use, and whether the Administration is prepared to sign new trade agreements without agreement on labor issues.

The real negotiations, as DeFazio pointed out, were taking place out of sight. "There's no member of the House or Senate allowed into the real negotiations."

With the Seattle meeting over, DeFazio told the Northwest Labor Press that the next WTO fight may take place in Congress early next year, when U.S. membership in the international body comes up for reauthorization.

When Congress approved membership in the WTO in 1995, it called for reauthorization every five years after a review and report that analyzes the costs and benefits of past participation and value of continued membership.

When that happens, DeFazio said he expects there will be critics of continuing in the WTO, but he isn't optimistic about the odds that Congress will vote to pull out.

"The real pitched battle is going to be over the China accession," he predicted.

Labor abuses weren't among the negotiating obstacles China had to overcome to get U.S. support for WTO membership, a fact that caused labor officials to doubt the depth and sincerity of the Clinton Administration's commitment to labor rights at the WTO.

"China is the capstone on his radical free trade agenda," DeFazio said. "And it's the final nail in the coffin of the potential for fair trade."

The resolve in Congress to oppose it may depend on the intensity of the public mood.

DeFazio, who said he's been called a protectionist, a reactionary, and a "flat-earther" by the corporate press for his opposition to free trade agreements, felt his positions were validated by the huge crowds that turned out. "The most powerful thing was the [Nov. 30] rally and huge march and the fact that labor activists were joined by human rights, consumer, and environmental activists. That's an incredibly strong alliance that's going to change the debate on free trade."

December 17, 1999 issue

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