A Short Guide to the WTO

Elaine Bernard


World Trade Organization (WTO) is coming to Seattle at the end of November and

tens of thousands of labor, environmental, and progressive activists are

organizing to give them a hot reception. There are thousands and thousands of

pages out there – on the net, in progressive journals, articles, even books,

on the WTO. But rather like trade agreements themselves, sometimes the very

volume of materials available on the topic overwhelms the uninitiated reader.

So, I thought I would put together a quick guide to the WTO, to the Seattle

meeting, and to the various debates within the progressive community on the WTO.


is the WTO?


an international organization of 134 member countries which is both a forum for

negotiating international trade agreements and the monitoring and regulating

body for enforcing the agreements. The WTO was created in 1995, by the passage

of the provisions of "Uruguay Round" of the General Agreement on

Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Prior to the Uruguay Round, GATT focused on promoting

world trade by pressuring countries to reduce tariffs. But with the creation of

the WTO, this corporate inspired agenda was significantly ratched up by

targeting so-called "non-tariff barriers to trade" – essentially any

national or local protective legislation which might be construed as impacting



Aren’t we in favor of regulation?


but not the type of regulation proposed by the WTO, a powerful body of unelected

bureaucrats, who deliberate in secret with an aim to turning the entire world

into one big market. Officially, the WTO has two main objectives: to promote and

extend trade liberalization (by breaking down national "barriers" to

trade), and to establish a mechanism for trade dispute settlement. In practice,

the WTO is seeking to deregulate international commerce and break open domestic

markets for foreign investors. Its rule making seeks to free corporations from

government regulation which would constitute a barrier to trade. It permits

relatively unrestricted movement of money, capital, goods and services, while at

the same time providing investors and corporations with extensive protection of

their property rights. It even extends corporate property rights through the so

called "intellectual properties" provisions. Intellectual property as

defined by trade agreements is not about the creative powers of intellectuals.

Rather, it is about protecting corporate ownership and monopoly over the

patenting of plants, processes, seed varieties, drugs, and software. The

intellectual property provisions are just one example of how there is extensive

protectionism in this so-called "free trade" regime – but protection

for corporations and punitive market discipline for workers, consumers and small



for Capital, Market Discipline for Labor


an example of WTO thinking. The WTO says that they can not deal with social

issues, only "trade" forgetting that once you start to deal with trade

in services, you are indeed dealing with many social issues. It says that it can

only regulate "product" not "process." With labor and

environmental standards, what we normally regulate is process. It’s been an

important acquisition of the labor, consumer, and environmental movements in

recent years to move beyond the simple regulation of end product and regulate

process – how things are made. It is in the very production methods that we

can improve safety, eliminate hazards and develop cleaner processes. The

difference between a shirt produced by sweated labor under near slave like

conditions and a shirt produced by union labor under decent conditions isn’t

readily obvious in the packaging (the end product) but rather its observed in

the monitoring of the "process" of how the shirt is produced.


contrast, when the WTO sees the interest of investors and capital threatened –

it can spring into action and be quite powerful in its enforcement. So, for

example, when workers are being forced to work with flagrant violation of labor

law and safety codes, the WTO says there is nothing it can do. But let these

same workers illegally produce "pirate" videos, or CDs (challenging a

corporations copyright) and the WTO can spring into action sanctioning all sorts

of actions against the offending country – in order to protect a corporations

"intellectual property."


back to Seattle, what is the millennium round?


WTO wants to continue its campaign of trade liberalization and in particular it

wants to increase the trade in services – including public services.

Unfortunately, this means further turning over services such as health care,

education, water and utilities to markets and international competition and

undermining and destroying local control and protection of communities.


the problem with markets? Markets are fine, in their place, but they must not be

permitted to replace social decision-making. Markets should not be confused with

democratic institutions. Markets, for example, might be useful in determining

price of goods, but they should not be mechanisms for determining our values as

a community. Markets are oblivious to morals and promote only the value of



what do we want to do about the WTO?


to the free trade agenda and the continual drive to undermine social

decision-making and democracy is the basis of unity for all the groups

protesting the WTO. Beyond that profound and important agreement, there are

wider differences about what to do about the WTO.


want to abolish the WTO


of the groups coming to Seattle are supporters of the resistance movement –

arguing that the trade liberalization program of the WTO is fundamentally flawed

and we would be better simply abolishing this dangerous organization. They argue

for building the global resistance and constructing global solidarity from



believe they can transform the WTO


in particular much of organized labor argue that while the WTO trade

liberalization program is deeply flawed, it’s now well established as a powerful

organization and that the concept of negotiated trade regulation is vital to the

health and welfare of the world community. They argue that if core labor rights,

environmental protections, and what the Europeans refer to as a "social

clause" was inserted into the WTO’s mandate and practice that it could be



reformers and rebels from around the globe will be gathering in Seattle later

this month in a remarkable international solidarity action challenging the WTO’s

corporate agenda. While there are important tactical differences in approaches

to the WTO, there is also a fair degree of unity in action and in identifying

the WTO as an important global institution promoting policies which are

contributing to the growth of inequality and the undermining of democracy. The

protest in Seattle maybe be both the last major, international demonstration of

the century and the beginning of a new powerful global solidarity movement.


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