|A SHORT GUIDE TO THE WTO, THE MILLENNIUM ROUND AND THE RUMBLE IN SEATTLE
By Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Harvard Trade Union Program
The 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.
What is the WTO?
It's 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 trade.
So, Aren't we in favor of regulation?
Sure, 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 farmers.
Freedom for Capital, Market Discipline for Labor
Here's 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.
By 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
Ok, back to Seattle, what is the millennium round?
The 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.
What's 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 profit.
So, what do we want to do about the WTO?
Resistance 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.
Resisters want to abolish the WTO
Some 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 below.
Reformers believe they can transform the WTO
Others, 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 transformed.
Resisters, 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.