A Defining Moment

Thousands head to Seattle to shut down World Trade Organization summit

\”We are no longer writing the rules of interaction among separate national economies. We are writing the constitution of a single, global economy.\” – Renato Ruggiero, former Director-General of the WTO

Thousands of activists from around the world will gather November 29-December 3 in Seattle to stage massive protests against the largest trade gathering ever held on US soil. The World Trade Organization, an international trading body with the authority to enforce legally binding agreements and mediate disputes over trade barriers, will be holding a ministerial summit to determine the WTO\’s agenda for the coming decade. Everyone from steelworkers and AIDS activists to Zapatistas and radical environmentalists are gearing up to march, protest, educate and organize to ensure the anti-democratic forces of globalization are thwarted. \”This is the time to really draw a line in the sand and say this the largest and most influential corporate gathering of the millennium, and it is not going to happen.\” Said John Sellers, director of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society.

Since its inception four years ago, the power of the World Trade Organization has grown rapidly, evolving into a bureaucracy of such size and power that it now determines whether national laws on such matters as environmental protection and food safety violate international rules. The WTO is a powerful global commerce agency, one of the main mechanisms of corporate globalization. While its supporters say it\’s based on \”free\” trade and contend it promises economic gains for member countries, in fact, the WTO is designed to create a system of managed trade that leaves no room for human concerns. The WTO is systematically gutting worker, consumer, and environmental protections, and trying to deprive individual countries of the right to make their own laws – especially when those laws might conflict with trade. Under this system, economic decisions are made with the private sector in mind rather than the social and environmental costs.

Often referred to as \”neoliberalization,\” this system undermines environmental rules, health safety and labor laws to provide transnational corporations with an increasingly cheap supply of wage laborers and natural resources. As trade has expanded over the last 25 years, the median wage in the U.S. has actually fallen. There is no doubt that increasing trade and falling wages are related. As American workers compete with workers around the globe in countries without any standards for labor or human rights, trade creates a \”race to the bottom\” for wages and working conditions.

For example, if the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) wants to regulate gas content in order to reduce air pollutants, it must be careful that these decisions don\’t impinge on the plans of foreign producers. This became a reality when the government of Venezuela, on behalf of its gas producers, challenged EPA regulations on gasoline quality at the WTO. In 1997, the WTO ruled in their favor. The EPA subsequently changed its regulations, weakening its ability to enforce federal air quality standards.

The WTO and other international trade agreements such as NAFTA override national, state and local laws, particularly on environmental and labor issues. Rulings by trade tribunals have weakened efforts to use the Marine Mammals Protection Act to save dolphins from tuna nets and the Endangered Species Act to keep giant turtles from shrimp nets. What\’s to stop a DDT producing nation from challenging EPA regulations regarding pesticide usage. Where does it end? It doesn\’t.

The good news is that by all accounts so far, demonstrators will outnumber the 5,000 delegates and trade envoys from the 150 countries planning on attending the Seattle Round. The number of people becoming aware of this event and its ramifications continues to grow. According to Michael Dolan, working on behalf of the Citizens\’ Trade Campaign that represents over 700 international groups, the events will be \”…historic…the confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the 21st century will be built and who will be crossing it-transnational corporations or civil society.\”

Organizers are predicting that the protests will bring 100,000 people into the streets. Motel rooms and meeting spaces are already booked as well as most flights to Seattle. Steelworkers have already reserved 1,000 hotel rooms in Tacoma and Bellevue and Longshoremen say they are bringing 3,000-5,000. The AFL-CIO has dispatched two full-time field organizers to coordinate a massive march and rally set for November 30. There is rumor of a procession of tractors from farm groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth are mobilizing their memberships. Labor representatives from India, militant anti-capitalists from Germany and AIDS activists are all making plans including forming a human chain around the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in downtown Seattle where the WTO will be held.

The Agenda

Several interests and agendas are being brought to the table at the Seattle meeting; however, there are three main sets of issues to be discussed by the trade ministers. The first one includes reviews for past agreements such as agriculture and intellectual property, the second will discuss whether there should be future negotiations concerning agriculture and services. Lastly and most importantly is the question of whether a new set of issues will be moved under the control of the WTO, namely investment and regulation of competition policy which would expand the power of the WTO even further.

Steelworkers Butt Heads with the WTO

More than 10,000 workers in the US steel industry lost their jobs this year when U.S. factories started laying off workers in response to an increase of imports from Japan, Russia, and Brazil. This import increase was partly caused by the WTO\’s \”sister\” organization, the infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF urged countries to increase their exports to the U.S. as a way to get out of the financial straits they were in as a result of past IMF policies. The United State Steel Workers of America joined with steel industry leaders to ask the President for emergency relief. However, Clinton said he would not offer any help because WTO rules don\’t allow such an action.

WTO and the environment

The Clinton administration\’s biggest concern at the meeting is making sure they get the \”global free logging agreement\” signed. This agreement would expand world consumption of paper, pulp, and other wood products by almost 4%. By getting rid of tariffs on forest products it could also pose a threat to endangered forests and biodiversity. The passage of this agreement could also threaten important environmental legislation that the WTO considers \”barriers to trade\” such as a ban on the export of raw logs from most public lands which was created to protect endangered forests.

The worldwide challenge to the WTO and its policies reflects a growing recognition from civil society that the decisions of this powerful institution have a huge impact on our lives and livelihoods. The Seattle Round of the WTO offers a unique opportunity to organize in our own communities, build alliances with other groups affected by corporate globalization and help to create a sustainable anti-trade movement in the United States. Remember, the trade ministers and corporate heads won\’t consider how people will be affected by their actions. They don\’t have to – they are generally accountable to no one.

The time is now. Take action! Join the thousands of activists taking to the streets of Seattle for direct action and demonstrations. Only a massive worldwide outcry against the agenda of the WTO can stop the effects that the liberalization of trade will have on world populations. Stop the WTO and its regime intent on setting the rules of exploitation and the spread of global capitalism. Spread the word about the WTO. Some members of the labor community are urging that people pressure local officials and congress members to oppose the launch of a new round of WTO talks in Seattle and to propose an assessment of its affects to date before they commit further atrocities.