What happens after Seattle?

by Jim Phillips

Dollars and Sense magazine, January / February 2000


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 the WTO.


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.


Opposition in the United States to the WTO comes from many quarters.

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 laws.

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.


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. presidential elections."

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 nationalistic course.

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 likelihood."

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 worldwide.

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 throats."

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 bigger.


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 hell."


Jim Phillips is o co-editor of Dollars & Sense, and was present in Seattle during the WTO ministerial meeting.

World Trade Organization