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
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.