Trading on the Human Condition

The battle lines have been drawn. Workers and environmental groups are not going to stand idly by as their needs are sacrificed to the demands of capital and the corporate order.

Thousands of people representing a varied assortment of geographical regions and political interests turned out in Seattle in December to protest the World Trade Organization, voicing their anger about the organization and a treaty process that place the needs of money above those of people.

More than a week's worth of demonstrations -- some of which were marred by violence and vandalism -- effectively shut downtown Seattle. The weeklong protest is being billed as the largest demonstration since the anti-war protests of the 1960s and seems to have caught free-traders and their supporters completely off-guard.

Representatives from 135 nations met in Seattle to debate the issues to be negotiated in the next round of trade talks -- slated to be held next year. The talks ultimately will determine the rules global trade will follow -- and what limitations will be placed on national, state and local governments.

Seattle was chosen because it is a city whose prosperity depends on international trade. But Seattle workers walked off their jobs to join in the protests and police lost control of events, with some protesters smashing store windows and looting. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned in the aftermath of the events and the talks between the trade representatives broke down.

Seattle could go down as the first victory in a movement that alters the way the think about international trade. Polls already show that a majority of the American public backs the concerns of the protesters. And the more press that people like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and consumer advocate Ralph Nader get, the more people will see the current free-trade regime as inimical to the interests of average working people.

It is important to point out that Seattle was not about protectionism. It was not about setting back the clock or closing borders. It was about changing priorities. The issue is not whether world trade and a global economy are good or bad. It is about the kinds of rules we plan to put in place to protect average working people from the insecurities imposed on them by the marketplace.

As we enter the next millennium, it will be more and more difficult to resist the globalization trend. According to economist Doug Henwood in The Nation, international trade has grown from about 4 percent of the world economy in the 1950s to about 13 percent today. And that figure is likely to continue growing as businesses look more and more beyond their national borders, both for new markets and cheaper or more efficient means of production.

But that does not mean that a global economy has to place the needs of capital above those of workers and average citizens. An alternative can exist that would respect the rights of workers and communities to protect what they believe is important. That is what the protests in Seattle were about.

"We all support trade and we all recognize globalization. But it's about time that the WTO took into consideration worker rights," Mr. Sweeney said on CBS' Face the Nation.

The discussions surrounding the World Trade Organization -- and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- have focused on the need to remove trade barriers, defining those barriers as anything that impedes the flow of goods or money.

Historically, that has meant that free-traders have targeted tariffs and quotas on imports. But the current approach to free trade assumes that all rules are bad rules that impede the creation of a single, global market. In recent years, the emphasis has broadened to include attacks on labor and environmental rules.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (which creates a North American free-trade zone), numerous state- and local-level laws in the United States -- including those regulating toxic chemicals -- are being challenged or could be challenged by Canada or Mexico. And NAFTA is small potatoes compared to the WTO.

As with NAFTA, WTO members and corporations doing business in member countries have authority to challenge any rule they believe impedes trade. Challenges are decided by a panel of three trade experts who meet behind closed doors at undisclosed times and locations. Participation is limited to national governments, even if it is a state or local law being challenged, and there are no appeals. Losing countries face three options: amend their laws to comply with WTO rules, pay annual compensation to the winning country or face trade sanctions.

In 1997, the WTO forced Congress to allow foreign gas refiners to export their product to this country without meeting U.S. clean-air standards following a Venezuelan challenge. And U.S. regulations protecting the endangered sea turtle from the shrimp industry have been overturned by the WTO in 1998 because the organization considered restrictions based on the methods by which goods are produced to be a restraint of trade. That means laws governing slave and prison labor could be deemed restraints, as well.

This erasure of local control and national sovereignty, and bureaucratic blindness to human rights issues, has helped turn the WTO -- which Mr. Henwood calls "a form of world government with almost no popular accountability" -- into the poster child for all that is wrong with the current approach to free-trade.

What happened in Seattle -- and what happened during protests in San Francisco and other cities -- shows that average citizens are willing to stand up and demand that the WTO be changed, that it reflect our priorities and not just those of the multinationals.

And those protests are likely to continue.

"I look for more demonstrations in Washington to bring out people and say, 'Hey, this is a serious problem, we're not buying it,'" Teamsters President James Hoffa told CNN.

The WTO needs to be made more democratic and accountable and it needs to include basic protections for workers, such as the right to organize and prohibitions against sweatshop and child labor, and limitations on the ability of the WTO to weaken local environmental laws.

Otherwise, the future of globalization will be a dim one for the vast majority without easy access to capital.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor from South Brunswick, N.J.

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