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Workers of the world, transcend the wedge!


Patrick BondDivide-and-conquer

is an all too familiar gambit of a ruling elite under stress. Thus Seattle

demonstrators, together with a growing international movement struggling in the

same spirit in many other sites, have found themselves subject to both real and

invented splits since stepping up to the world stage last November 30.

Every

frightened establishment commentator now harps on about the partially-material,

partially-mythical breach between allegedly protectionist French farmers or

molly-coddled US trade unionists, on the one hand, and on the other, dirt-poor

peasants blocked from export crop production or low-paid Third World workers

suffering prohibitions on unionizing, a paucity of safety and health laws,

competition from child laborers, toxic environmental conditions.

With

pernicious intent, this caricatured division has been sewn and woven into public

debates about post-Seattle world order reconstruction, in a terribly confusing

way. The most disturbing manifestation may be the manner in which China-bashing

has distracted some of the Washington, DC consumer, environment and labor

leaders who otherwise last November began making important steps towards

internationalism. If we take as a first principle that internationalist

solidarity is violated by promoting the power of an oppressor nation against an

oppressed nation, especially without the consent and indeed request of the

people most affected, then it is easy to support boycotts against apartheid-era

South Africa and Burma–for whom sanctions called for by popular, democratic

movements translate into a strategic attack on local oppressors–but impossible

to stomach a moralizing Bill Clinton and those allied labor aristocrats whose

trade interests are imperialist or at best narrowly protectionist. But to

notice, to grapple with, and to transcend the establishment’s "wedge

issue" strategy, is also to recognize and squarely confront the grain of

truth here.

For

radicals will have to adopt an equally potent strategy to contend with the many

free-trade ideologues and bureaucrats from multinational corporations, media,

academia, the WTO and like-minded states and agencies who seek to seduce pliable

movement bureaucrats from NGOs, unions, and environmental groups with the offer

of "a seat at the table." Precisely this conflict of interests emerged

in Southern Africa late last year. In an eerie parallel to the Sweeney-Hoffa

rerouting of the Seattle labor march away from the Convention Center and their

repeated denials of intent to "shut down" the WTO, some leaders of the

Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) are also going

"corporatist," espousing utopian notions of social contracts between

big global government, transnational corporations and the leading fractions of

unions. This is surprising, not only because of SA’s recent history of vibrant

shopfloor protest, but also because, at first glance, it would appear that the

interests of the world’s workers lie in a concerted programme to raise the

standard of living (including gender equity and environmental protections) of

those at the bottom.

SA

is somewhere in the middle, and Cosatu regularly expresses concern about the

flight of jobs to Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, and other sites of ultra-cheap

labor. The goal for Cosatu, just as much for the AFL-CIO, is to slow relocation

and outsourcing by supporting struggles to raise wages and working conditions in

maquiladores, export-processing zones, and similar settings. But to this end,

the campaign to include social, labor, governance and environmental clauses

(known simply as the "Social Clause") in trade agreements became

extremely thorny during the 1990s. For after a second glance, many progressive

African social movements, NGOs, churches and women’s groups, development

agencies, technical think-tanks and intellectuals–some of them gathered in the

Ghana-based Africa Trade Network–began condemning the way in which

international institutions like the WTO, World Bank, and International Monetary

Fund, as well as powerful Northern governments, impose conditions on what they

argue is already a terribly unequal trade, investment, and financing

relationship with the South.

These

differences emerged more clearly following a November 1999 Johannesburg

workshop–hosted by progressive staff of Oxfam/Britain–attended by key

officials of the Southern African Trade Union Coordinating Council (especially

from Zimbabwe and Zambia) and regional social movement activists. That

workshop’s "Statement on the Seattle Ministerial" rejected "the

widening of the ambit of issues under the WTO through the inclusion of the

Social Clause" because the potential value of clauses was outweighed, in

the activists’ view, by the damage done to power relations through amplifying

the legitimacy and power of the WTO.

But

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi–who did not attend–immediately

disassociated the broader regional Council (which he presides over) from the

workshop statement. Instead, in Seattle a few days later, Vavi joined forces

with the South African government and local big business, in demanding from the

North a less-protectionist set of international trade rules, but nevertheless

including the Social Clause. The joint delegation gained prized access to Green

Room deliberations, though came back to Johannesburg as emptyhanded as Charlene

Barshefsky. The Social Clause strategy thus appears discredited, both because of

its wedge issue character, and its practical failure as the central trade

strategy of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, led by the

AFL-CIO. (Emblematic was the oft-violated textile sector pact between trade

unionists and executives, mediated by Clinton–indeed the only way that the

Nikes and Kathy Lee Giffords adapted their production practices even slightly,

was through international solidarity, militant direct action and other forms of

public consciousness-raising.)

Is

there a way around and above the Social Clause dilemma? To advance more

universal, unifying campaigning strategies requires an analysis based not on

worker- versus-worker sentiments, but on the broader corporate power relations

underlying international trade liberalization. Here it may well be that only

particular corporate and global-state targets–including South African-based

transnational corporations–work as unifying symbols of the system. Indeed, the

only logical way forward, if this strategy holds, is a united workers’ front

against any new WTO round, and indeed against the existence of a WTO that serves

primarily corporate interests. (Many of the more advanced Southern African

social/citizen movements have taken this "abolitionist" position.) My

point here is that in the run-up to the April 16 protests in Washington, the

last two decades’ worth of arcane attempts at reforming the IMF and World Bank

(through varied kinds of Social Clauses) can be dispensed with–as I’ll argue

more specifically in my next commentary–not only because they haven’t worked,

but because the interests of workers and eco-social movements across the world

are now, unequivocally, to stop and reverse the process of the construction of a

global state that serves only capital’s interests.

Patrick

Bond teaches at Wits University, Johannesburg, and is active in many local and

global social, labor, and environmental movements. He is affiliated to the

Alternative Information and Development Centre (http://aidc.org.za).