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Showdown in Seattle

The World Trade Organization is meeting in November, hoping to finalize more
by Published on

On a cool but soon to be warm, sunny, and perfectly serviceable midsummer Saturday morning, when you’d think otherwise rational people would have something midsummerlike to do, some 120 organizers filed into Seattle’s Labor Temple. They came to hear the true believers fire them up over global trade issues. They also came to prepare for a time, months from now, when it will be cold and dark and wet. And loud.

“It’s historic … the confrontations in Seattle will define how the bridge to the twenty-first century will be built and who will be crossing it – transnational corporations or civil society.” That’s Michael Dolan speaking, field organizer for the Washington, D.C.—based Naderite group Public Citizen. If Dolan has his way, the opening talks of the Seattle Round of World Trade Organization consultations, set for November 29 to December 3 this year, will be a benchmark: a huge protest of corporate dominance of the global economy that will give politicians pause and C.E.O.s cold sweats.

The W.T.O. represents over 100 countries in an unprecedented effort to globalize commerce. Advocates see it as a means of boosting the world’s economy by bringing down trade barriers. But opponents believe the W.T.O. is systematically gutting worker, consumer, and environmental protections, and deliberately usurping the rights of each country to make its own laws – especially when those laws might conflict with trade.

Dolan is working on behalf of the Citizens’ Trade Campaign – a broad-based national coalition including Public Citizen; labor groups like the United Auto Workers; consumer groups; environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Clean Water Action; farm groups like National Farmers Union and National Family and Farm Coalition; church organizations; and many more. Over 700 international groups have signed on to the C.T.C.’s opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (M.A.I.), a controversial free trade proposal that will probably be on the W.T.O.’s Seattle agenda. Instead of donating money to the cause of organizing against the trade meetings, the C.T.C. has donated Dolan, who spent much of the spring and summer meeting with community activists and lining up logistical support.

This month, the C.T.C. opened a storefront operation in downtown Seattle that will work until December to help coordinate protests. And that’s only one of the anti-W.T.O. organizing efforts under way. The A.F.L.—C.I.O. has dispatched two full-time field organizers to coordinate a massive march and rally set for November 30, days after labor union heads fromaround the world convene in Seattle for their own conference. The teamsters, longshoremen, and other industrial unions are each conducting their own mobilizations; the steelworkers’ union has reserved 1,000 hotel rooms in Tacoma and Bellevue. There will be teach-ins and alternative conferences and press conferences and rallies and marches and blockades galore. Farm groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Sustainable Agriculture, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, and the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America will be bringing outrage. There is talk of a tractor procession. Scores of nongovernmental organizations will come to try and make their voices heard. The Zapatista-originated Peoples’ Global Action is bringing caravans across North America to descend on Seattle. The Sierra Club is mobilizing its membership.

Even peace groups like the War Resisters League are involved – free trade, by specifically exempting military spending from its agreements, acts to encourage the arms trade and military buildups by Third World governments. Art and Revolution is bringing its giant puppets and public spectacle from the streets of San Francisco. And at Evergreen State College, well, they might as well close the campus – they’ll all be in Seattle, as will students from around the country, led by the Boston-based Center for Campus Organizing.

Steven Staples, British Columbia field organizer for the Council of Canadians, estimates that “hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands” will be coming down from Canada, where activists are concerned about the W.T.O.’s threat to their country’s education and health care systems. After Vancouver’s experience with heavy-handed riot police at the 1996 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings (pepper spray, preemptive arrests), Staples says, “people got a very clear idea of whose interests were being served.” All in all, Seattle will see traffic snarled and resources stretched to their limits in a week of international protests combined with visiting trade ministers, heads of state, and both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Republican King County Council member Brian Derdowski, who is working with the protestors, calls the scenario “a security nightmare,” and “the greatest security risk this region has ever known.”

Seattle organizers of the W.T.O. meetings – operating under the well-financed umbrella of the Seattle Host Organization – fondly describe the Seattle meetings as “the largest trade gathering ever held on U.S. soil.” Opposition to it will almost certainly be the largest anti-free trade protest ever held on U.S. soil. Dolan is one of the early speakers at the Saturday morning Labor Temple gathering, and he speaks with evangelical fervor. The crowd, with doughnuts, coffee, handouts, and reprints in hand, responds with enthusiasm. Dolan talks of a political opening, with last year’s defeat of Clinton’s desired fast-track authority for negotiating free trade agreements and the subsequent derailing of M.A.I. negotiations. He calls these “kicks in the groin of the ruling class.” Dolan gleefully recounts a recent front-page Wall Street Journal article on the protests – “The bosses are scared!” – and reminds the assembled that there’s only sixteen weeks to go, a short time for a logistical juggernaut that (unlike the trade meetings themselves) must be organized on a shoestring. Motel rooms and meeting spaces for the period are already gone; available flights into Seattle have all but disappeared. One of the greatest challenges facing groups that want to come to Seattle will simply be getting here and having a place to stay. It’s not a good time of year for camping.

A flyer for the Saturday meeting calls the upcoming protests of the W.T.O. meetings the “Protest of the Century.” It may not equal, say, Seattle’s 1919 General Strike, but organizers are thinking of that scale; they talk of bringing 100,000 people into the streets. The stakes are extremely high; for any one of the contemplated eight or nine subagreements on the possible agenda of the trade ministers, a lasting regime of corporate dominance could ensure human misery, environmental catastrophe, and short-term profit affecting billions of people on a scale barely imaginable even a decade ago. The surprise is not that protestors by the thousands will be drawn from all over the world. The surprise is that more people aren’t up in arms.

A Giant Flushing Sound

The World Trade Organization was created in 1994, as the successor organization to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The idea is to execute a series of treaties among member nations that would reduce and eventually eliminate tariffs and other restrictions on trade (and capital investment) in various sectors of the world economy. The negotiations for those different sectors have been named after the locations where the first meetings of the particular “Round” take place. The next several years will be known as the “Seattle Round.”

One hundred and thirty-five countries – including all the major ones except China – are members; some thirty others have observer status. The United States dominates the proceedings, and the W.T.O.’s evolution is one major reason transnational corporations love Bill Clinton. The W.T.O. is exceptionally good news for transnationals. As with the North American Free Trade Agreement (on which it’s modeled), “removing barriers to free trade” generally means weakening, preventing, or striking down environmental, wage, worker safety, public health, and consumer laws. It’s a whirlpool effect (what Dolan calls a “downward harmonization”) or race to the bottom, as countries find all but the lowest standards eliminated as unfair trade competition. Or think of it as public interest laws simply being flushed down the toilet.

In Seattle, ministers will consider both new and old business. Left over from the previous Uruguay Round are agriculture, services, and government procurement; new to the Seattle Round will be many Northwest-appropriate topics, including the Forest Products Agreement, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (banking and finance), biotechnology, intellectual property rights, and electronic commerce. The “talks” will be largely for photo ops and political posturing; much of the real negotiating is taking place behind the scenes, in various meetings on different subagreements leading up to the event.

The global movement to challenge free trade is part of a larger movement challenging international “neoliberalism” – the usurpation of public policy by the marketplace and the needs of transnational corporations. Since the era of Reagan—Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall, these corporations have steadily increased their grip over the policies of nation-states. At stake is democracy itself, as corporations, through instruments like the M.A.I., gain the power to overrule the laws of elected officials at the national, state, or local level. Under current international law, governments – often at the behest of corporations – already can challenge the laws of other countries as “unfair” to trade, with the issue decided in secret by a Geneva-based tribunal of corporate lawyers.

The initial trickle of tribunal rulings is disturbing: the judgments have overturned a European ban on U.S. hormone-fed beef; ended a law designed to assist Caribbean banana exports to Europe; banned E.P.A.—mandated safety devices for shrimping nets, designed by the U.S. to protect endangered sea turtles; challenged U.S. environmental laws prohibiting a Canadian gasoline additive; and, most recently, overturned a state subsidy for Brazil’s fledgling aerospace industry. Ominously, on July 9, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, responding to a new European Union ban on genetically modified organisms, promised to go to the W.T.O. to prevent it. So far, the secret tribunals of the W.T.O. have not once ruled to preserve a challenged law.

It’s little wonder critics see the W.T.O., in one author’s words, as a “secret world government”; W.T.O director Renato Ruggiero infamously referred to the secret work on the proposed M.A.I. agreement in 1996 as “writing the constitution of a single global economy.” King County Council’s Derdowski sees concern with free trade and the W.T.O.’s course as transcending traditional conservative/liberal labels. “The issue for conservatives is the sovereignty of America, the Constitution. State and local authority is in danger of being eroded through international treaties, ceding authority to foreign regulatory bodies … those are issues that resonate very much with conservatives.”

The Riot Squads

During the W.T.O.’s last consultations, last summer in Geneva, Switzerland, there were riots in the streets. During June’s meeting of the G-7 nations in Cologne, Germany, there were street demonstrations there and in dozens of other cities around the world, with extensive property damage in London and New York and so-called “riots” in, of all places, Eugene, Oregon. (Eugene’s anarchist rioters say they’ll be in Seattle for the W.T.O.) Slowly but surely, opposition to unfettered trade is coming to America. Its first major stage will be the streets of Seattle. This certainly has not gone unnoticed by Seattle police. The Department is heading a multiagency planning commission to deal with the W.T.O.’s security headaches; the commission includes the King County Sheriff, the U.S. Secret Service, the F.B.I., the State Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and many others. In the Wall Street Journal, a spokeswoman for the S.P.D. noted pointedly that “we have access to pepper spray.” Many area activists also participated in protests at Vancouver’s Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, and remember the heavy-handed tactics of the Canadian Mounties. All are hoping for an orderly week, but with so many different groups and ideologies descending on the city, there almost certainly will be civil disobedience of some sort. A July 28 King County Council memo estimates the county’s share of security costs – including itemized expenditures for things like bomb suits, “NATO Ballistic Shields,” and riot boots and helmets, as well as the usual escort services for dignitaries, at well over $1.1 million. That will be picked up by the taxpayers, and Derdowski thinks it’s underestimated: “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure things happen peacefully and safely.”

Not all W.T.O. opponents will be in the streets. Some nongovernmental organizations are coming for teach-ins or conferences such as one being sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization. While some groups, such as the Third-World-based Peoples’ Global Action (a movement especially popular among peasant farmers in agricultural countries like India), wish flatly to destroy the W.T.O., others want simply to fix it. The Seattle Host Organization hopes to promote public dialogue with a series of “public sector programs” during the ministerials, including programs on labor issues, electronic commerce, agriculture and food products, environmental issues, and trade in services. These aren’t exactly all anti-free trade – the electronic commerce forum, for example, is being organized by Microsoft. But two are being organized by individuals who have publicly challenged the course of the W.T.O.: Patti Goldman of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund is coordinating the environmental program; the King County Labor Council’s Ron Judd is coordinating the labor program.

Tinkering With Trade

“We are not going to be denouncing the W.T.O., asking that it be killed orgo away,” says Judd, who will also help oversee the November 30 labor rally that will probably be the largest and most visible protest of the week. “We don’t believe the rules as presently written are working very well for workers … we want to make W.T.O. make, as part of their mandate, sanctions against [countries that violate] workers’ rights: child labor, slave labor, the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, ending discrimination in the workplace.” Goldman, in describing the usefulness of working with the Seattle Host Organization rather than outside the doors, says, “I think there is some advantage to having some powerful speakers who can describe [the W.T.O.’s] effects on the environment.”

The biggest challenges for W.T.O. opponents will be deciding what they want and speaking with a unified voice. Public Citizen’s Dolan and the Citizens’ Trade Campaign want the protest to focus on a demand that trade ministers use the Seattle Round to take stock and analyze the effects of the trade agreements already in place, rather than hammering out yet more agreements. They are convinced that any objective analysis of the last four years will find enormous harm to the economies and resources of the developing world, as well as democracy worldwide. Free trade proponents see no need for such introspection. In the state of Washington, it’s hard to find an elected official who doesn’t crow the praises of free trade: Patty Murray, Slade Gorton, Gary Locke, and Jim McDermott are all on board. They tout free trade as beneficial for the state’s Pacific Rim-based economy (and, of course, for Boeing). The Seattle Host Organization claims that, as
hosting group, it takes no position on the W.T.O.’s actions, but both privately and publicly a lot of time and money are being spent promoting the glories of free trade. The SHO has extensive public outreach planned the coming months, including town hall meetings, business outreach events, a school curriculum extolling the virtues of free trade, and regional events concerning trade on different continents. (The Africa forum will be convened by McDermott, busy promoting his Africa free trade bill in Congress.)

Seattle Watershed?

Can protests in the streets of Seattle challenge the dominance of free trade policies? In the short term, no. Free trade enjoys solid bipartisan support, led by the Clinton/Gore administration and the ever-accommodating Republican wing of America’s one-party state. Among both Democrats and Republicans, those who question the wisdom of unfettered trade are relegated to the fringes of the party. The coalition of labor, environmental, agricultural, consumer, human rights, and constitutionalist groups – hoping to slow, if not stop, the momentum of an ever-increasing number of free trade agreements – anticipates using Seattle as a springboard. By filling the streets for several days, snarling traffic, worrying the cops, and exhausting what few meeting places and motel rooms remain, these groups just possibly may galvanize a movement.

Seattle’s protests aren’t likely to change the outcome of the momentous trade talks that will be held here. But the first step in changing a policy is letting the public know that the political terrain is even contested. The hope of the tens of thousands of protestors descending on Seattle this fall is that this will be the start of something big. The goal, according to Dolan, is “to create something that later will cause politicians to say, ‘Remember Seattle?’ – and it gives them pause before they advance the corporate agenda.” As Derdowski drily notes: “To give away your fundamental liberties for the sake of trade dollars is a very poor choice.”

For a schedule of planned anti-W.T.O. events in Seattle or to help with preparations, contact People for Fair Trade at 1-877-STOP-WTO. For information on the November 30 march/ rally, contact the King County Labor Council at (206) 441-8510. More information on the W.T.O. is available through the following web sites: www.tradewatch.org; www.peopleforfairtrade.org; www.seattlewto.org.

Geov Parrish writes for the Seattle Weekly.

From Texas to Seattle

Grassroots opposition to globalization and “free trade” has sprouted slowly but steadily in Texas. Texans uncertain about the true consequences of free trade need only look to the Border, where low wages, desperate living conditions, and environmental devastation are common and interrelated. El Paso has been ground zero for NAFTA in action, as thousands of good jobs have been lost to Mexico, with the feeble promise of “retraining.” In response, groups like the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and El Paso’s Mujeres Obreras have been traveling the state spreading information and building connections.

The Alliance for Democracy, working with Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, organized a January 1997 Dallas forum against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and has since worked to build opposition to GATT and NAFTA, and to educate about free trade issues. The M.A.I. has been delayed by international opposition, but it is expected to be on the W.T.O. agenda in Seattle. The Seattle planning has re-energized Texas groups working to educate citizens about the real costs of globalization: loss of local democratic autonomy, weakening of human rights and workers’ rights, and environmental degradation.

A new group calling itself the Texas Network for Economic Democracy held an organizing meeting in San Antonio in mid-September. Representatives of various statewide groups took part: the Green Party, the Alliance for Democracy, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Public Citizen, and others. According to James Scott of Public Citizen, the Network’s primary short term organizing strategy is to “amplify the noise coming out of Seattle.” Although several people said they hope to organize at least a small contingent of Texans to travel to Seattle in November, Scott said the early emphasis is on education and organizing within Texas. “This will be a long march,” he added. “We’re starting out again at the bottom, hoping to build awareness among citizens – and in the Texas media – about these international economic agreements that lock out the democratic process and yet assault local economies.”

Jere Locke, one of the organizers of the Network, said that Texans need to understand that the international agreements already in place (e.g., NAFTA and GATT) threaten Texas workers and the environment – yet the W.T.O. wants to expand them. “Under NAFTA,” Locke said, “local or state environmental laws have been overturned or challenged in the courts. Under the M.A.I., as currently drafted, a Japanese corporation owning land in Austin over the Edwards Aquifer could sue to prevent the city regulating the development of the land, arguing restraint of free trade.” The Network is proposing a city council resolution opposing the M.A.I. and similar agreements; such resolutions have been adopted in San Francisco, Berkeley, and other cities.

Tom Kemper of Dallas says that early organizing in North Texas is focused upon getting the word out, “coattailing on the Seattle action and spinning it out so people know what’s going on.” “We’re trying to decide,” he said, “how to attack this monster [of globalization],” and are emphasizing education. In addition to working on Seattle-related demonstrations, early plans include organizing a speakers’ forum to travel the state, educating on globalization issues.

The Texas Green Party is also taking part in the Network, said party secretary David Cobb. “We want to emphasize that corporations were originally created to serve the public interest,” said Cobb, who lives in Houston. “We need to challenge the illegitimate role corporations now play in our democracy.” Cobb is organizing a group to travel to Seattle to set up educational workshops with a national network of environmental, labor, and human rights activists.

Public Citizen in Austin is acting as the Texas organizing clearinghouse for the work on the Network for Economic Democracy and the W.T.O. protest. A public forum on Globalization and Democracy is scheduled for October 18 at the Austin A.F.L.-C.I.O. Hall. For more information, readers should contact James Scott at Public Citizen: (512) 477-1155.

Michael King