Tha Battle for Seattle

Elaine Bernard


Mass.-In spite of what you may have read or heard about the anti-WTO protests

last week, the people on the streets of Seattle weren’t opposed to

globalization. Their cause is an example of globalization, with protests in

solidarity with the Seattle actions taking place in many cities around the

world. Theirs is just not a version of globalization endorsed or even envisioned

by the WTO.


media, political elites and corporations seemed startled by the emergence of

this powerful worldwide movement of resistance to WTO policies. From my

perspective, it was a phenomenon beyond resistance–it was a first step toward

the development of an international civil society.


have long measured the development of a democracy by the vitality of its

autonomous civic life. That’s because democracy is more than formal rules and

the election of a government. Its lifeblood comes from the sphere of society

that organizes itself and is not under control of the state.


flowering of "civil society" provides space for debate for the

development of public values, and is the process by which a public self, or

citizenry, is created.


protesters in Seattle were creating that space. True global citizens in the

making, they demand accountability, democracy, and the right of individuals to

have a voice in setting the increasingly important rules of international trade

and commerce. 


WTO meeting was merely the place where these people burst onto the American

public’s radar. Social movements around the world had already linked into

grass-roots networks, made possible by the astonishing speed at which they can

communicate in the Internet era. Quick and relatively inexpensive international

travel enables direct contact between even very small and poor organizations.

Immigration brings workers from the poorest corners of the world to every major

U.S. city. So Americans whose chief contact with the problems of developing

countries might once have been writing a charitable check now have a more

personal basis for activism: It is no longer charity, but true solidarity.


WTO is a magnet for the concerns of these internationalists because, since its

creation in 1995, it has been the central agency for writing and enforcing new

global trading rules. These rules, based on the neo-liberal economic policies of

free trade, privatization and deregulation, are flawed: They value corporate

power and commercial interests over labor and human rights, environmental and

health concerns, and diversity. They increase inequality and stunt democracy.

The WTO version of globalization is not a rising tide lifting all boats, as free

traders insist, but a dangerous race to the bottom.


example, the WTO says its purview does not include social issues–only trade. So

it claims to be powerless to do anything about a repressive regime selling the

products of sweatshops that use child labor.


let this regime use the same children in sweatshops to produce

"pirated" CDs or fake designer T-shirts, and the WTO can spring into

action with a series of powerful levers to protect corporate "intellectual

property rights." So, it’s really not a question of free trade versus

protectionism, but of who and what is free, and who and what is protected.


WTO says that countries can regulate only "product," not



moving beyond the simple regulation of end product and toward regulating how

things are made has been an important achievement of the labor, consumer and

environmental movements. The difference between a shirt produced under

near-slave-like conditions and a shirt produced by union labor under decent

conditions isn’t readily obvious in the packaged product; we must monitor the

process by which that shirt is produced.


are the kinds of issues that inspired the Battle in Seattle. So what did the

protest accomplish? First, it has put the public back into this vital public

policy discussion, which for too long has been dominated by a powerful few in

secret meetings.


the protests have illuminated the fact that there is no such thing as pure and

simple trade, especially once we start to deal with social programs and

government actions deemed to be "non-tariff barriers to trade." As the

Europeans have long understood, a common market must have a social and political

dimension to it.


the protests have fostered some interesting new alliances: north and south,

labor and environmentalist, Generation X and old hands from the 1960s. There are

still significant differences among the wide array of protesters. Some believe

the WTO should be abolished; others simply want a seat at its table for labor

and environmental activists. Workers in industrialized countries worry about job

loss and runaway plants; workers in developing countries fear that labor

standards and environmental protection are simply ways to keep their products

from getting to wealthy markets.


that’s what makes the emergence of these international advocacy networks so

important. They are a forum for debating, negotiating and deliberating global

solidarity. They are the beginnings of an emerging international civil society.

And as demonstrated  in Seattle, they will be heard.


Bernard is executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program.


Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company



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