World Trade Organization’s agenda endangers workers and environment

The world took notice when between 35,000 and 50,000 protesters shut down the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organizations conference in Seattle on Nov. 30. It was a day full of lessons. The protesters who were tear gassed, beaten, shot with rubber bullets and carried into jail-bound buses were taught at first hand the practical limits of first-amendment rights. (As Monty Python put it, “now we see the violence inherent in the system!”) The foreign delegates to the conference were surprised to see that the WTO’s agenda of trade liberalization had, to put it mildly, shaky support within its most powerful nation. Many Americans learned for the first time what “WTO” stood for.

Education couldn’t have come at a better time. Few topics are as complex and frustrating as global capital flow, now hotter and faster and bigger than ever with the help of computer-run trades and increasing freedom to trade across national boundaries. But few topics are as vital: in a time when political decision making is increasingly constrained by economic forces, understanding the local implications of international trade is everyone’s job. Nobody teaches it to us in high school, and only a few of us study it in college. For the most part, we are left to educate ourselves about the globalization of capital, fortunately from a growing body of literature and public debate with which to educate ourselves.

I had known for weeks that those who felt strongly about the WTO were going to demonstrate in Seattle; friends of mine flew there from Colorado, Ohio, and New Jersey. Their experiences were similar to accounts now circulating on the Internet. In the days leading up to the meeting in Seattle, they attended teach-ins that highlighted the WTO’s negative record. Workshops taught how to hang banners, how to protect oneself from tear gas, what rights U.S. citizens could claim once arrested and what rights non-citizens could claim. The Direct Action Network, formed specifically for the “Battle in Seattle,” and Art and Revolution, a street-theater organization, coordinated the protest effort. As a result, many protestors were well prepared and disciplined. The blocks around the convention center were divided into 13 sections, each to be blockaded by a different “affinity group,” or loose association of environmental, social justice and labor organizations. We now know the result: WTO delegates could not reach the convention center, and the opening ceremonies were called off.

Then there were the anarchists. As many as one hundred smashed windows and looted the downtown franchises of international chains like Nike and McDonalds. Often they were opposed, and sometimes chased away, by nonviolent demonstrators. But television networks broadcast the images widely, and for many the Seattle protests evoke a picture of masked, black-clad men breaking windows.

They also call to mind the image of police in riot gear. The city had not paid attention to FBI advice, and direct communication from protest organizers, warning them of the imminent demonstrations. As a result many officers had to stand on police lines for as long as 12 hours without food and water. In most cases they were restrained; sometimes they were out of control. Police forced demonstrators into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where residents on their lawns were gassed and shot with rubber bullets along with protesters. Police arrested several members of the press attempting to photograph them. Two women in a car videotaping what they saw were asked to roll their windows down and sprayed with pepper when they complied. A doctor claims he treated demonstrators for trauma from tear gas, rubber bullets and some kind of nerve gas (a charge Amnesty International echoed).

Both, Amnesty International and the ACLU have called for an investigation of charges that when protestors asked to speak to their lawyers, jail guards put them into four-point restraint chairs, and in two cases stripped them naked, when they asked to speak to their lawyers. Also, there are claims that police beat a man who was lying on the floor and forced his fingers back with a pencil; that a guard held a mans nose and nearly suffocated him.

These activists were protesting the World Trade Organization’s negative effects on workers and the environment. The WTO’s agenda is to eliminate tariffs on all imports, in all countries, so that companies will be able to buy and sell without the inefficiency of dealing with governments each time they cross a national boundary. It is moving successfully towards this goal, (in the first four years of its existence, it heard 148 requests for consultations towards the resolution of trade disputes) but the goal itself is deeply flawed.

As the WTO eliminates barriers to the freedom of corporations, workers in every country find themselves in a very hard position. Companies have not resisted the temptation to save tremendous amounts of money by relocating to countries with abundant human labor at rock-bottom wages. Often they operate in many nations at once, shifting production to where labor is cheapest. A labor union bargaining with this kind of company has the economic pistol to its head: either it must comply with the company’s demands, or the company will find other workers who are willing to.

National governments have little power to help. They too have been forced to make some predictable concessions: keeping wages down, keeping regulatory hands off factories, and restricting workers rights to unionize. For example, Malaysia enticed and kept Motorola factories by denying workers the right to organize for the past 25 years. Closer to home, Alabama, comparatively much more anti-union and with average wages about half that of Germany, won a small Daimler-Benz Mercedes factory after offering the company more than $300 million in tax breaks. (William Greider, One World, Ready or Not). Currently, nations as well as unions are on the short end of the stick, competing against each other to win manufacturing locations, and consistently upping their bids, driving wages and working conditions towards the lowest common denominator a process economists call “harmonization.”

Environmental standards have degenerated at the same time. A country which acts unilaterally to protect its environment will face dwindling investment from companies free to invest anywhere; in economic terms they suffer a death sentence. International environmental protections are the answer, but the WTO has consistently ruled against them. It has forced the U.S. to accept the import of shrimp caught in ways which kill endangered sea turtles, struck down a European Union ban on beef containing hormones which cause cancer in lab animals, and also limited America’s cleanliness standards for imported gasoline under the Clean Air Act.

Article XX of the WTO agreement claims that nations have the right “to protect human, animal, or plant life or health,” but the WTO panel which judged part of Americas Endangered Species Act to be illegal stated that the situations in which Article XX applies are “limited and conditional.” The consequences of non-compliance with a WTO ruling are trade sanctions, which the most powerful nations incur at their peril, and the weakest cannot afford at all.

Ironically, the only way out of this dilemma is an international accord between nations, which sounds a lot like what the WTO is supposed to do. To stop the consistent weakening of workers’ rights and environmental standards, however, the WTO needs to all but reverse its current agenda. This isn’t as far off as it may sound; the voices of people marginalized by globalized markets are starting to be heard, even in mainstream news. The statement demonstrators made in Seattle was a part of it, and as education grows about the effect of corporate-dominated trade policies, more people in every nation are willing to join the chorus. Education, then, is our most pressing need the courage to teach ourselves about the novel international situation we are facing. Established sources can offer us little more than old doctrines, whether simplistic denunciations of capitalism from the left, or blind faith in the miracle of markets from the right.

But if we really want to retain some measure of control over our lives, we need to work towards a new understanding of the global marketplace and our role within it. As Bruno Petera, a union organizer fired in Malaysia, said, “Nothing is given free without a struggle.”