The World Trade Organization is plotting how to expand free trade for the 21st century and make the world safe for multinational corporations. What are you going to do about it?
That was the implicit challenge when President Bill Clinton arranged for the world trade ministers to meet in Seattle.
Trade policy is notoriously difficult to get ordinary people worked up about, particularly when corporate newspapers, magazines, radio and TV programs, if they discuss trade at all, are shilling for "free trade" while they scorn "protectionists."
But workers are increasingly coming to realize that they need to be concerned about free trade policy that encourages corporations to move manufacturing jobs to countries where a day's pay is a few dollars and union organizers are "disappeared." Students need to wonder about free trade policy that sanctifies the idea that corporations owe their employees and their communities nothing more than last week's paycheck. Farmers need to worry about free trade policy that puts them in competition with crops and livestock produced under the "relaxed" health and labor standards of the Third World. Food consumers need to check out the free trade rules that allow no more than a cursory inspection of those imports, and don't let you know whether the food has been genetically modified. Small business operators who are trying to keep going in the face of predatory multinational corporations need to be wary of an international organization that can invalidate government regulations if it finds they hamper free trade. (Many small business owners might welcome such a wholesale dismissal of government regulations -- until a Megalo-Mart muscles in on the outskirts of town or multinational corporations sue to dismantle rules that might give small, local shops an edge.) Which brings us back to the worker who enjoys the lower prices at the Megalo-Mart until he loses his job because the product he used to make is now made in China.
If you fit one of these categories, or if you just think that your local, state and national governments should have some control over environmental, health and labor regulations, then you should take a good, hard look at the World Trade Organization when the trade ministers of the 134 member countries meet in Seattle from November 30 to December 3.
President Clinton has come in for his share of criticism in these pages, particularly for his aggressive support of free trade on behalf of multinational corporations, but he did progressive populists a favor when he arranged for the meeting to take place in Seattle. After all, this is one of the most heavily unionized cities in the United States, with 120,000 union members in the city and 400,000 in the state of Washington and a tradition of progressive activism. Populists should be able to mount a first-class protest there.
After six years watching the North American Free Trade Agreement and nearly five years with the World Trade Organization, we have seen the direction free trade is heading -- and it is not helping workers or consumers -- only corporations. The WTO already has the power to form secret tribunals to judge trade disputes. It can invalidate laws that it deems to interfere with free trade. The WTO has never met an environmental or health regulation it liked. It already has overturned part of the U.S. Clean Air Act and it has outlawed other environmental regulations of the U.S. and other countries. Some countries have rescinded environmental regulations rather than contest them in a WTO hearing that is stacked against the public interest. When the WTO rules, there is neither appeal nor public accountability.
But the corporate executives who call the shots on trade policy are not satisfied. They are pushing to expand the WTO's authority into new areas, such as protecting investments from government regulation. On the other side, more than 1,100 organizations worldwide have called for a "Review and Repair" that provides for labor rights and environmental protections built into any future fair trade accords.
Unfortunately, not enough people read The Progressive Populist or other progressive publications that have paid attention to the excesses of free trade. You wouldn't get any idea of the threat the WTO represents to local state and federal sovereignty if you depended on corporate newspapers or, God forbid, the TV networks for your information. But the word is getting out nonetheless. Grassroots protests pushed Congress in 1997 to sidetrack President Clinton's request for fast track authority to negotiate more trade deals. Last year, fair trade activists organized largely through the Internet and managed to expose the secret drafting of a Multilateral Agreement on Investments, which would have set up a bill of rights for multinational investors and speculators. That measure got sidelined but trade lobbyists are trying to revive it under the WTO.
As this was written, activists were preparing to converge in Seattle. The AFL-CIO expects 50,000 to march in downtown Seattle November 30 for a rally at Memorial Stadium. State labor federations, unions, environmental groups, sustainable agricultural groups, democracy activists and others are sending delegations from around the country and around the world. Forums will focus on the environment and health on November 29, labor and human rights on November 30, women, democracy and development on December 1, and food and agriculture policy on December 2.
Those who can't make it to Seattle can join concerned citizens and organizations from across the country and abroad in a Day of Action against the WTO on November 30. In communities around the U.S. events are being organized to coincide with the massive "March on the WTO."
Margrete Strand Rangnes of Public Citizen Global Trade Watch suggests the following ways you can participate in the WTO protest:
1) Organize an event -- a march, a press conference, a teach-in in your community on or around November 30. Phone 202-454-5106 or email email@example.com to find out about events planned in your community. [For additional resources, including radio and TV broadcasts from Seattle, see The Progressive Populist WTO web page at (www.populist.com/wto.html).]
2) Participate in a National Call-In to express opposition to expanding the WTO into areas such as investment; support for assessing the WTO's impacts to date on our health, environment and democracy; and opposition to secretive, unaccountable institutions -- like the WTO -- ruling over us.
Call the following numbers to send a message to the Administration: "Your NAFTA-WTO trade program has failed terribly. We will never allow it to be expanded. You need a new plan to protect the public and our planet, not more of the same failed trade policy."
Call John Podesta, Chief of Staff at the White House: 202-456-1414; Vice-President Gore (who is staying away from Seattle): 202-456-1111; Tony Coehlo, Gore's campaign manager: 615-340-2000.
Also, for good measure, call your member of Congress and your senators, who should be home for the holidays by now. Tell them that you will not accept any further transfer of power from Congress to the World Trade Organization.
Free traders are alarmed at the possibility that the people might find out what the corporate elites are up to. They will pounce on anything that will discredit fair trade advocates. The corporate media, following the cue, will focus on any violence that occurs as they try to discredit the protests. We can't win a shooting war, folks, nor would we want to, but we can win a voting war. All we need to do is to get the word out and convince the American people that we still have the power to decide our own destiny. That work only begins in Seattle. -- JMC