John Buell

Democratizing World Trade

The recent demonstrations in Seattle have already had at least one positive effect. They have forced mainstream media to acknowledge that opposition to corporate trade agendas is broadly based. Nonetheless, more than a month after the event, media that were so conspicuously surprised by the ongoing protests continue to engage in simplistic and one dimensional reporting on the story.

One refrain coming out of Seattle and repeatedly endorsed since is that the Clinton Administration would like to get the WTO to embrace broad labor and environmental standards as part of its trade agreements. Unfortunately, so-called Third World nations would object. Yet foreign labor leaders are virtually invisible in the U.S. media. In many cases, the governments now claiming to speak for them have a history of repressing labor dissent. China virtually militarizes its work force, and Mexico undermines independent unions.

Kim Moody, director of the Detroit-based labor education and research publication Labor Notes, is frequently in touch with grass roots labor movements in the United States and abroad. Moody reports: "Representatives of the developing nations at the WTO ... represent the elite -- an elite burdened with debt that can only be paid by cheaply produced exports, which explains their view. The international labor groups ... all support labor standards and they include developing nation labor unions." (Personal correspondence.)

Just as significantly, many less industrialized nations have strenuously objected to the copyright and patent provisions in the new trade laws. They have grudgingly accepted the package only because the United States has insisted on their doing so as a condition for access to its enormous markets and for loans from international lending agencies. It seems that the leaders of developing nations deserve a hearing when their concerns match those of multinational corporations but not when they question the corporate agenda.

The Clinton Administration has at every stage refused to give the same priority to labor that it gives to the corporate owners of "intellectual property." An adequate world trade deal would start with debt relief for poorer nations and guarantee those societies more equitable access to intellectual property. On this foundation, it could fairly insist on more stringent labor and environmental standards.

Of course, labor standards could be imposed in ways that would amount to protectionism. Forcing technologically undeveloped societies to pay U.S. minimum wage standards would in effect exclude all products from these nations. But labor standards, properly defined and applied, would not be a one way street. The United States is no model of advanced labor practices, and adequate standards would force dramatic improvements in our practices.

Some trade activists both here and abroad have advocated that future trade treaties include minimum wage standards pegged to each nation's general level of productivity and development. Such standards would force higher wages in Mexico, but they would also mandate much higher minimum wages and fairer conditions for labor organizing in the United States With a floor pegged to each nation's level of productivity, wages standards would not precipitate job flight by corporations in search of low wage havens. Economic development would then be driven not by high profit margins and the luxury consumption of the wealthy but by higher worker wages and greater consumer demand worldwide.

Building alliances around labor standards that promote the interests of labor everywhere is not simply good economics. It is politically vital as well. To the extent that labor voices here in the United States can gain the support of labor leaders abroad, they can more easily counter the all-too-easy media assertion that U.S. labor is inherently protectionist.

Building effective national and international alliances to counter current corporate trade agendas is one of the most urgent tasks of this decade. Trade in goods and services could benefit everyone, but corporate globalization has fostered growing economic inequality both within and among nations. There is no evidence that world economic growth is best served by giving corporations the freedom to move at will while denying labor minimum rights to organize workplaces and maintain a fair share of workplace productivity.

Much of the most dramatic post-World War II growth, such as in the European Union and in Southeast Asia, has been based on trade but hardly followed the WTO model. In Europe, wage and labor standards were maintained, and Southeast Asian nations protected key industries for long periods of time. Whether most working class citizens here in the United States and throughout the world can benefit from growing global trade may well depend in part on building worker alliances as strong as the ties that bind multinational corporate enterprises.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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