[New York] Times Unmasks Protesters
(in Quebec City)
by Roger Bybee
Z magazine, July/August 2001
The new global economy is a battleground between those who
idealistically seek higher living standards and more democracy,
and those fighting to keep Third World people confined to lives
of misery and submission to tyranny, we are informed by the New
York Times editorialists and columnists.
How do these forces of 21st century uplift and 19th century
darkness line up? In the wake of the Quebec City discussions on
the proposed 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas, Times
writers have provided a startling revelation about precisely who
these players really are.
Times columnist Thomas Friedman boldly unmasks the "The
Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor." They turn out to be
hypocritical unionists, environmentalists, and anti-sweatshop
activists who seek to impose global standards which would only
condemn the Third World poor to perpetual exclusion from the global
"By inhibiting global trade expansion they are choking
the only route out of poverty" (NYT 4/24/01). This new accusation
of callousness and hypocrisy represents an escalation of Friedman's
1999 attack on Seattle protesters against the World Trade Organization
as "a Noah's Ark of flat-earth advocates" (NYT, 12/1/99).
(However, for pure viciousness, it is hard to top Newsweek's linking
of non-violent social critic and Z contributor Noam Chomsky with
Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in a sidebar on "The New Anarchism"
Fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman is only slightly less
harsh about the anti-FTAA movement. He concedes that the "most
sophisticated" segment of the antiglobalization movement
" doesn't want to stop exports-it just wants better working
conditions and higher wages." However, sighs Krugman impatiently,
"It's not a serious position. Third-world countries desperately
need their export industries-they cannot retreat to a rural Arcadia.
They can't have those export industries unless they are allowed
to sell goods produced under conditions that Westerners find appalling,
by workers who receive very low wages" (NYT 4/22/01).
Meanwhile, government and corporate officials "are sincerely
trying to help the world's poor. And the people outside the fence,
whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor
What the world's poor need, according to a Times editorial
(4/20/01) is "the same direct access to capital that has
proven so beneficial to Mexico as a result of NAFTA." The
Times goes on to not only wholeheartedly endorse the FTAA, but
also to urge the rapid conclusion of a trade deal with Chile based
Similarly, other commercial publications enthusiastically
promote corporate-style globalization as "the inevitable
consequence of capitalism and democracy" (Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel editorial, 4/25/01), apparently unfazed by the widespread
repression of worker rights and the killings of dissident journalists
in Mexico and other free-trade bastions. The Journal Sentinel
cheerfully announces that free trade "opens the vast U. S.
market to developing countries that need access as a way to lift
their populations out of poverty. "
But this rosy scenario of lifting Third World peasants out
of misery via investment from transnational corporations has several
defects. First, it leaves out some vital elements, starting with
the motives and conduct of transnational corporations. Second,
the interests of these corporations and Third World nations are
conveniently intertwined so that to criticize the practices of
the corporations is to crush the aspirations of the Third World
poor. Third, the interests of repressive Third World governments
like those of Mexico, China, and the Philipines are merged with
those of the subject populations. Finally, the major commercial
media generally omit any serious analysis of the practical results
of NAFTA and other experiments in "neo-liberalism."
Let's examine each point in order.
A Question of Intent
The notion that transnational corporations are " sincerely
trying to help the world's poor" is taken as a matter of
faith in Times editorials and op-ed columns. In contrast, the
motives of those challenging corporate-driven globalization have
been constantly questioned. Promotion of global standards for
democracy, decent wages, and environmental safeguards reflects
at best a condescending form of interference in a Third World
country: "What residents of a rich country like the United
States see as exploitation can seem a rare opportunity to residents
of a poor country like Honduras," the Times' Larry Rohter
pronounced in an article defending the abysmal conditions found
in factories making goods for Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line
At worst, the struggle for global standards is portrayed as
a Trojan Horse for "protectionism." "...With the
exception of the environmentalists-this anti-globalization movement
is largely the well-intentioned but ill-informed being led around
by the ill-intentioned and well-informed (protectionist unions
and anarchists)," declares Thomas Friedman (NYT 41/24/01).
But how "well-intended" are the corporate globalizers
when it comes to improving the lives of the poor in Mexico, Honduras,
or China? Here, it appears that Friedman, Krugman, and the Times
editorialists have neglected to read the front page of their own
A detailed series on conditions in maquiladora plants along
the U. S . border revealed shocking sanitation and pollution hazards,
especially in Juarez. As Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo plaintively
told the Times (2/11/01), "We have no way to provide water,
sewage, and sanitation workers. Every year, we get poorer and
poorer even though we create more and more wealth." Elizondo,
pointing to the annual contributions of $15 per worker made by
primarily U.S.-based corporations, says, "It's better than
nothing, but really what they give is a miniscule part of all
the money they are able to make by having their plants in Mexico."
Clearly, people like Mayor Elizondo do not sufficiently appreciate
the imperatives of globalization. General Electric CEO Jack Welch
starkly outlined the new philosophy of corporate globalism: "Ideally,
you'd have every plant you own on a barge." GE's Mexican
operations, which employ 30,000 people, have a payroll estimated
by some at about $90 million, which Times writers like Rohter
and Friedman would surely praise as evidence of the benefits of
However, GE's benificence to its workers in Mexico must be
measured against an uncomfortable fact: combined, the 30,000 Mexicans
employed by GE earn less than the $92.4 million hauled in by Welch
alone in 1999.
The same Times series recounted how Alcoa's Mexican operation
in Acuna once had a practice of providing its workers three squares
a day. Not three square meals-they were limited to three squares
of toilet tissue by a janitor posted by management at employee
Meanwhile, Alcoa's contribution to a cleaner water supply
or other basic community services was close to zero. Alcoa's tax
statements for 1999 examined by the Times "appeared to indicate
that Alcoa paid no income, property, asset, import, export, sales
or value-added taxes that year in Acuna." The Times added,
"Alcoa's annual reports add other company documents suggest
that Alcoa Fujikura's operations in Mexico are quite profitable."
These profits surely helped former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill-now
U.S. treasury secretary-to collect $36 million in salary and stock
options in 1999 (NYT 2/25/01). But somehow, Friedman and Krugman
have managed to contain their speculations about the " intent"
of either GE or Alcoa management from spilling over into their
columns. There is of course no suggestion that such corporations
are "choking the only route out of poverty."
The Times-style advocacy of corporate globalization continually
merges the interests of transnational companies and the impoverished,
job-seeking masses of the Third World. To insist that corporations
like GE or Alcoa provide better wages is portrayed as driving
away the investment needed to lift the poor out of their deplorable
conditions. Friedman, in effect, narrows the choices about globalization
to accepting corporate investment on all the terms imposed by
the corporations or rejecting entirely any outside engagement
with the outside world.
The notion that the corporations ought to be held accountable
to some standards-on respect for worker rights, the environment,
fair taxation, and democratic decisionmaking by the local government-is
dismissed out of hand as impractical. But unless some standards
are imposed, corporations will play global hopscotch" in
"search of low-cost labor," as US News and World Report
approvingly described Reebok's strategy (June 5, 1995).
Friedman, Krugman, and company have no credible explanation
how this ongoing race to the bottom can be reversed. In fact,
they deny it is taking place, simply asserting as a matter of
blind faith that corporate investment will inevitably and inexorably
improve the lives of the workers. But when workers even in low-wage
Mexico can be threatened with the loss of their jobs because their
elected mayor insists that corporations begin to pay some taxes,
how can conditions possibly improve for working people?
For the most part, free-trade advocates in the Times and elsewhere
conveniently omit discussion of the ferocious corporate opposition
to any but the most superficial global standards on worker rights
and the environment. (One exception: the 11/29/99 Time article
quoting Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
"Environment and labor standards won't be tied to trade even
if the U.S. stands on its head and spits wooden nickels.
The Chamber won't let it happen, and the rest of the world
won't let it happen.") Instead, most accounts instead ascribe
the most significant opposition to Third World nations. These
nations are portrayed as fiercely rejecting such standards both
on the principle of sovereignty exercised against Western-imposed
rules and the practical need for development-generating investment.
But these portrayals typically neglect the poor bargaining
position and fundamentally elitist orientation of Third World
governments such as those in Mexico, South Korea, and the Philippines.
With commodity prices generally low and subject to fluctuation,
and buried under a mountain of debt to institutions like the International
Monetary Fund and World Bank, Third World nations tend to be desperate
for any source of investment and foreign exchange. If that means
acting as the pimp selling the low-wage labor of one's nation-and
repressing union activity to hold down wages-so be it.
Second, non-governmental organizations across the Third World
have been emphatically proclaiming the need for universal standards
to raise conditions for working people and peasants. Forces as
diverse as the COSATU labor federation in South Africa and the
Zapatistas in Mexico-along with scores of other genuinely mass-constituency
organizations in the Third World-have all unambiguously stressed
the need for global protections for worker rights, environmental
conditions, and respect for democratic rights and institutions.
Still, the coverage in the major commercial media tends to
ignore both the intransigent opposition to enforceable global
standards by major corporations and the fervent advocacy of such
standards by non-governmental organizations. The question of global
standards can then be comfortably framed as a battle between self-interested
and condescending Western activists and Third World governments
proudly resisting such interference in order to assure investment
and jobs for their citizens. Essentially, Third World governments
are inserted as stand-ins in for the corporate opponents of a
worker-oriented and environmentally friendly form of globalization.
Despite seven years of observing NAFTA's impacts, the level
of enthusiasm for "free trade" remains undiminished
among the editorialists at the Times and other dominant media.
Thus, the Times prescribes more of "the same direct access
to capital that has proven so beneficial to Mexico as a result
of NAFTA" without any correspondence to reality. To cite
just a few indicators of NAFTA's less-than-beneficial effects:
* Manufacturing wages have fallen 21 percent in Mexico, according
to a study by Carlos Salas cited by the Economic Policy Institute
* Approximately 28,000 businesses have collapsed in Mexico.
The displacement of Mexican farmers by U.S. imports has sharply
increased immiseration in the countryside, with the Zapatistas
declaring "NAFTA is our death warrant"
* The manufacturing job loss in the U.S. due to NAFTA has
been estimated at a half million, according to the Economic Policy
* While NAFTA proponents point to increased U.S. exports to
Mexico, they fail to note that much of this is simply "industrial
tourism"-unfinished parts shipped from the U.S. to Mexico
for completion and then exported back into the U.S. market
* The percentage of U.S. exports devoted to such intrafirm
transfers soared from an already-high 40 percent in 1993 to 62
percent in 1996, according to John MacArthur's The Selling of
The Times has been equally enthusiastic-and similarly off
base-about the results of elite-oriented economic policies in
Chile, imposed under the brutal regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet
with the assistance of economist Milton Friedman and other "Chicago
Boys." "Chile is a heartening example of how a policy
of economic liberalization can lift a people's standard of living,"
the Times gushed (editorial 4/20/01). The economic reality has
been less "heartening" outside the small circle of billionaires
produced by these favored policies.
According to Marc Cooper, author of Pinochet and Me, wages
remain 18 percent below the level when Pinochet overthrew democratically-elected
Salvador Allende with extensive U. S. assistance. But the Times'
recommended "policy of economic liberalization can lift"
at least some people's standard of living: "The richest 100
people in Chile earn more than the state spends on all social
services," as one opposition senator points out. Further,
of 65 nations studies by the World Bank, Chile ranks seventh worst
in unequal income distribution.
However, given the zeal of the free-trade proponents, such
realities are unlikely to intrude into the editorial and opinion
pages of the nation's leading publications. What Jorge Castaneda
called the "thought paralysis" caused by the "free-trade"
mantra has, if anything, intensified into a cult-like worship
of corporate-style globalization at the Times and elsewhere.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist.
and Media Control