What happens after Seattle?
by Jim Phillips
Dollars and Sense magazine, January / February
The announcement by the World Trade Organization that it would
hold its latest "ministerial" meeting in Seattle, Washington,
affected many labor, human rights and environmental activists
the way a red cape works on a bull. As expected, the trade group's
highly publicized meeting November 30 to December 3 drew thousands
of protesters, out to show the world how much resistance Americans
could muster to the WTO's global "free trade" agenda.
By that criterion, the mass protest that took place in the
streets of Seattle November 30 was a thundering success. More
than 35,000 people besieged the city, delaying the start of the
WTO plenary session for around six hours. Police used pepper spray,
tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the streets and arrested
more than 600 people, but sporadic protesting continued even after
the National Guard was called in. In the wake of the turmoil,
the WTO's trade talks collapsed on December 3, when U.S. Trade
Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who was chairing the meeting,
announced she was suspending the negotiations.
Since then, the activists who organized the "Battle in
Seattle" have been trading high-fives, and calling the protest
the harbinger of an historic mass movement. The mainstream press
agrees with them on at least one point-Seattle was a major embarrassment
for backers of free trade, including U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The Wall Street Journal, writing the Monday after the talks collapsed,
labeled the event a "debacle."
The demonstrators played their part in short-circuiting the
trade talks, by creating delays and cranking up the pressure on
all concerned, and they can rightly be proud of that fact. Far
more was involved in the breakdown of the talks, however, than
just the people's protest. There were also splits among the member
nations' delegates, along lines of national interest that have
the potential to eventually cause divisions among anti-WTO forces
as well. Understanding the interplay of the various forces and
factions that swirled together in Seattle will be crucial for
anyone interested in continuing and broadening the fight against
WHAT THE WTO REPRESENTS
People in countries like Pakistan, Mexico and Thailand have
long been forced to watch as their governments did the bidding
of giant banks and corporations, cutting social programs and imposing
"austerity measures" at the behest of institutions like
the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. With the advent
of the WTO, U.S. citizens are now facing an international body
that can override government legislation meant to restrain corporate
power inside U.S. borders.
Formed in 1995, the WTO is a powerful international trade
agency with 135 member nations, whose job is enforcing an alphabet
soup of international commerce regulations such as the Trade Related
International Property Measures (TRIPs) and General Agreement
on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (The original GATT, dating from 1947,
was dissolved when the WTO was formed to take its place, though
the basics of the old agreement are still being enforced in an
up dated version. Creation of the WTO put in place a strictly
defined enforcement mechanism for trade rules, which had been
lacking under GATT). The WTO met in Seattle to kick off its latest
three-year round of trade negotiations, in which its representatives
were to update and revise the ground rules for world capitalism.
One purpose of the Seattle meeting was to assess the impact
of the WTO's regulations so far, and lay out an agenda for rewriting
them. The group had also been scheduled to open negotiations on
rules in areas including agriculture and services, and to decide
whether a number of new issues, including investment rules and
government procurement policies, should be brought under its jurisdiction.
If this is done, it will increase the WTO's already considerable
power to shape the world's economic landscape, and to veto attempts
by individual governments to protect their citizens' rights from
the fallout of corporate profit-seeking.
The WTO can already punish countries for having laws on their
books that interfere with free trade. Member nations can challenge
each other's domestic laws in areas such as environmental protection
or food safety, if they feel these laws violate WTO rules and
hurt the ability of "their" industries to turn a profit
in foreign markets. Once such a challenge is made, a WTO tribunal,
meeting in secret, with no accountability to outside authority,
rules on the question. If the tribunal rules against a country,
its government must either change its laws, pay compensation to
the complaining country or countries, or face trade sanctions
from other member countries.
In the five years of the WTO's existence, according to the
labor/environmental coalition Working Group on the WTO/MAI, the
trade group has ruled illegal every environmental or public health
law it has considered, including U.S. regulations requiring clean
gasoline, and a European Union ban on the import of beef treated
with artificial growth hormones. Its power to override national
sovereignty both generates opposition within individual countries,
and creates conflict among rival nations vying for trade advantage
on the global field.
SOURCES OF OPPOSITION
Opposition in the United States to the WTO comes from many
Environmentalists don't like it because of its track record
in ruling against environmental protection laws. Among the protesters
in Seattle were scores of people dressed as endangered sea turtles;
they were protesting a 1998 decision in which the WTO, acting
on a complaint lodged by four less developed countries, ruled
that a portion of the U.S. Endangered Species Act violates free
trade. The law in question had forbidden the sale in the U.S.
of shrimp caught in ways that kill sea turtles.
Labor doesn't like the WTO because global free trade tends
to drive down wages toward the levels in developing countries,
and to undermine union bargaining power in the U.S. by opening
cheaper and less legally protected labor markets elsewhere. (U.S.
unions are particularly concerned about the prospect of China
being granted WTO membership.) Human rights activists, likewise,
see the WTO's support of free trade as allowing the continuation
of abuses such as child labor in developing countries.
Some consumers don't like the WTO because of its power to
invalidate laws safeguarding food, and requiring the labeling
of genetically altered food. Many citizens, whether or not they're
particularly concerned about the WTO's global impact, simply don't
like the fact that it can overrule U.S. federal, state and local
The WTO is an institution primarily serving the corporate
elite, in its effort to create a world free of restraints on capital;
from this view, the fight against the WTO must be global, from
the bottom up. There's no use denying, however, that the stakes
are very different for WTO opponents in poor and rich countries.
And the unity of the coalition against the WTO is vulnerable to
divisions, to the extent that its constituent groups here settle
for benefits gained through U.S. dominance of the WTO, and at
the expense of the masses of people in developing countries.
Encouragingly, much of the public comment by WTO opponents
in Seattle was impeccably global and progressive in its outlook.
Speaking to a meeting of the United Steel Workers of America Victor
Thorpe, former general secretary of the progressive International
Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions,
called for strong international unity among organized labor in
an attempt to roll back the advance of free trade. "It makes
sense for us to organize together, and strike together,"
said Thorpe, in a plenary session that featured trade union members
from Ghana, Brazil, Chile and Canada. Other speakers made prominent
mention of human rights and environmental protection as crucial
issues in the union's struggle against the WTO.
THIRD WORLD WORRIES
The unity among WTO opponents in this country, however, takes
on a more ominous aspect in the eyes of some Third World observers.
WTO delegates from many developing nations reportedly believe
that the U.S. Iabor/environment/human rights coalition is motivated,
in the words of Wall Street Journal commentator and free trade
advocate Bernard Wysocki, Jr, by "fear of competition from
the developing world." And President Clinton's refusal to
back down on issues dear to his supporters in organized labor,
such as the creation of a "working group" on labor standards,
was a big factor in alienating many of the poorer countries in
the trade organization, who fear that enforcement of international
labor standards could discriminate against them and provide an
excuse for countries like the U.S. to close their markets. (It
should be borne in mind, of course, that the WTO delegates represent
elite interests in their own countries, not that of the people
as a whole.)
A December 4 report in India's Hindustan Times blamed the
breakdown of the talks on domination of the meeting by the richer
countries, as well as on Chair Barshefsky's "strong-arm tactics,"
closed-door negotiations with selected delegates, and close adherence
to the White House agenda in her direction of the meetings. The
story cited in particular the willingness of U.S. officials to
rewrite the WTO agenda on labor standards "to avoid a backlash
from the powerful AFL-CIO unions, ostensibly in view of the U.S.
Thea Lee, an international economist with the AFL-CIO, suggested
before the Seattle meeting that any practical strategy must include
both grassroots action against global capital, and an attempt
to influence and restructure the WTO. She stressed that the AFL-CIO
won't settle for labor standards that aren't enforceable, and
still harbors bitter resentment toward the impotent labor "side
agreements" tacked onto the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA). "They would have to be more enforceable," she
said. "We said from the beginning (the NAFTA labor side agreements)
didn't have any teeth." She also argued that U.S. organized
labor will lose the fight against the WTO if it pursues a narrowly
Labor journalist Tim Shorrock suggests, however, that the
AFL-CIO, to the extent that it has diverged from the Democratic
Party stance, "was forced to kind of take a stronger position"
by pressure from more progressive and global-thinking member unions
such as the Teamsters, Auto Workers and Steel Workers. Shorrock
said he believes progressive elements in American labor are well
aware of the possibility that labor loyalties could be swayed
toward agreements that favor American workers over those in developing
countries. Even the Steel Workers, for example, who have a strong
tradition of cross-border organizing, are also committed to U.S.
"anti-dumping" statutes that protect American markets
from low-priced imports, and which are deeply resented by industries
in many developing countries.
Economist Robin Hahnel is author of a new book on free trade
titled "Panic Rules!" and a staunch opponent of further
globalization of the economy. He agreed that co-optation along
nationalistic lines is a danger in both labor and environmental
circles, and suggested that developing countries may be right
in looking askance at attempts by First World activists to impose
labor and environmental standards on them.
"Suppose we did impose labor standards," Hahnel
said. "Is that, very possibly, four or five years down the
road, going to become the new excuse for Europe and the United
States to have a new kind of protectionism against the Third World
countries?" U.S. opponents of the WTO, he warned, "should
take that possibility seriously, and realize that it is a strong
Hahnel proposes that rather than working for international
standards that many countries will have a hard time meeting, U.S.
activists should be returning to the largely forgotten idea of
land reform, and trying to find ways to raise living standards
in the developing world-which he said would do more than labor
standards to stop the "race to the bottom" for labor
The risk of nationalism splitting or co-opting the anti-WTO
movement is partly embodied in the figure of Pat Buchanan, who
opposes the trade group on protectionist, "America First"
grounds. "Organized labor has to worry about that within
their own ranks," Hahnel said, noting that Buchanan campaigns
heavily among union members.
The issue of environmental protection offers the same kind
of potential for splits, both within the U.S. and abroad, as does
labor rights. Some green activists from industrialized countries,
for example, would like to get the WTO to enforce environmental
agreements such as those protecting endangered species, while
developing nations fear such enforcement could hurt their chances
for economic growth (hence the challenge to the sea turtle law).
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said after
Seattle that he can understand if some developing nations balk
at the prospect of having an American notion of environmental
standards imposed on them, because "a huge set of First World,
predominantly American ideals, has already been shoved down their
This perception on the part of many in developing countries-that
free trade agreements thus far have failed to deliver on their
promise to help Third World economies, and have mainly been aimed
at opening Third World markets to the richer countries-was a big
factor in the collapse of the trade talks in Seattle. A report
issued in August 1999 by the United Nations Council on Trade and
Development (UNCTAD) gives substance to this complaint, concluding
that predicted gains to developing countries from the previous
"Uruguay Round" of GATT negotiations "have proved
to be exaggerated," and that income gaps, both within developing
countries, and between First and Third World nations, are getting
KEEP IT GLOBAL
Fortunately, elements in the anti-WTO camp who are aware how
important it is to organize resistance on a global basis were
in evidence during the Seattle event. The worldwide network People's
Global Action, for example, put together a caravan that took activists
from around the world on a coast-to-coast trip to Seattle to publicize
globalization issues. Some of the participants indicated that
even if their WTO delegates mistrust U.S. activists, there are
movements in their home countries that look to establish solidarity
with their American counterparts, and believe displaying that
solidarity in venues like Seattle can have a positive effect.
Rony Armon, for example, an Israeli member of the group Green
Action, said before the trade talks that "first we have to
hit their face with action in Seattle," then use the public
attention garnered by that action to further publicize the threat
of the WTO. Armon, who believes government officials in various
countries can be swung to some degree of opposition to the stateless
WTO, added that seeing Americans in the streets during the WTO
meeting will lend credibility among the Israeli public to his
group's efforts against global free trade.
"Knowing that people in America are fighting the WTO
is knowing that someone is (fighting) in the middle of the greatest
corporate center in the world," Armon noted. "It will
surely help us in Israel."
Sanjay Mangala Gopal, of the National Alliance of People's
Movements in India, observed that citizens in his country have
been battling the WTO "right from the beginning," long
before Seattle sparked reaction in the U.S. "When we used
to talk about the WTO and globalization, we used to say, 'America
is the enemy,"' he recalled. Seattle may help change that
attitude as far as individual Americans are concerned, he suggested.
There are some things that Seattle didn't change; there are
still ongoing campaigns to educate the public about free trade,
legislate debt relief for Third World countries, and publicize
the worst corporate offenders against the environment and human
rights. But clearly, the possibilities have opened outward, bringing
with them great potential and great risk. As for a grand strategy,
no one's mentioned one yet.
Pope of the Sierra Club mused: "What happened in Seattle
was that the secretive, closed-door, corporate-dominated process
broke down, and I don't think they can put it together again."
As for how to take advantage of this, Pope suggested, that will
become clear only over the next few months, as groups meet, compare
notes and strategize.
"I don't think anyone has a genuine plan for what happens
next," he said.
Canadian activist Maude Barlow did offer a couple of useful
suggestions prior to Seattle, however. As head of the Council
of Canadians, a large NGO, Barlow's been at the forefront of fighting
the WTO in her country. Noting the level of excitement that had
sprung up around the Seattle meeting, she warned that no matter
how inspiring the action in the streets, the battle ahead will
still be a long one.
"Everybody is getting all excited over Seattle,"
she noted about a month before the event. "But that's just
a meeting, you know?" And whatever the WTO's actions while
under the media spotlight, Barlow added, "the big thing is
to keep our eye on what they're doing-because they're sneaky as
Jim Phillips is o co-editor of Dollars & Sense, and was
present in Seattle during the WTO ministerial meeting.