Protest in Seattle,
It's Time to Go
on the Offensive.
by WILLIAM GREIDER
The promise of Seattle was captured in an antic moment observed by one young
environmental activist. Amid broad ranks of protesters, he saw that a squad
of activists dressed as sea turtles was marching alongside members of the
Teamsters union. "Turtles love Teamsters," the turtles began to chant. "Teamsters
love turtles," the truck drivers replied. Their call-and-response suggests
the flavor of this loose-jointed new movement--people of disparate purposes
setting aside old differences, united by the spirit of smart, playful optimism.
The corporate-political establishment doesn't get it yet, but sea turtles
and Teamsters (with their myriad friends) can change the world. This popular
mobilization, disparaged as "Luddite wackos" by the prestige press, is still
inventing itself, still vulnerable to the usual forces that can derail new
social movements. But its moment is here, a rare opportunity to educate
and agitate on behalf of common human values. Among its tasks, this new
movement can excavate the human spirit, buried by a generation of arrogant
power and a brittle-minded economic orthodoxy.
So what's next for turtles
and Teamsters? The World Trade Organization's failure at Seattle (gridlocked
on commercial disputes, oblivious to the reform agenda from the streets)
has inspired a new organizing slogan: "Fix it or nix it." The WTO is the
visible symbol of globalization, and the network of forty country-based
campaigns that produced Seattle is working now on when to stage another
international day of action.
The US coalition is, meanwhile, gearing up
for another crucial fight: blocking Congressional action that would give
China a permanent "good housekeeping seal"--instead of annual approval of
most-favored-nation status--as it joins the WTO. Any genuine reform of the
global system becomes far more difficult if China is to be treated as a
"normal" trading partner--one reason business is so anxious to win this
Beyond immediate battles, this new movement will sustain itself and
grow powerful only if it goes on the offensive--that is, if it can tell
a positive story about how the world will look if its values prevail. It
can do this with hard facts about the present realities, facts that blow
away the establishment's smug abstractions. It should propose concrete legislation--reform
laws to be endorsed at the community or state level and enacted by Congress.
Not after years of diplomacy, but right now.
What follows is a rough draft
of what this national legislation might look like (based on conversations
with some leading activists and my own reflections). The central principle
is that Americans have the sovereign power to impose rules on the behavior of
their own American-based multinational corporations (notwithstanding the
WTO's pretensions). Congress did so in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices
Act, which prohibits corporate bribery in overseas projects. That law was
passed in response to public outrage over repeated scandals revealing that
major US companies were buying foreign governments. Human abuses present
in the global system are far more grave than business bribes.
obvious that the WTO and other international forums have no intention of
acting, Americans really have no moral choice but to assert responsibility.
After all, random brutalities in the production system are done in our name
and to our benefit as consumers, shareholders, company managers. As the
United Students Against Sweatshops has demonstrated, when people learn the
facts, moral revulsion follows. Famous brand names find themselves confronted
by what they have long denied.
In addition to holding US companies accountable,
this first round of legislation should focus on empowering voiceless peoples
on the other end of the global system--workers, civic activists, communities--mainly
by providing them with the industrial information that will help them speak
and act in their own behalf. That means collecting hard data from American
companies on where and how they produce overseas. Why would the business
cheerleaders object, since they claim globalization itself fosters free-flowing
information and democratic values?
These initial proposals are deliberately
modest in scope because reformers from the wealthy nations, especially the
United States, must first establish their bona fide intentions. The objective
is not to stymie industrial development in low-wage economies or to rewrite
laws for other societies. Poorer countries are naturally skeptical of our
high-minded motives, since they've had long experience with the power of
American self-righteousness. If this movement is truly international, it
will begin by convincing distant others (the citizens, if not their governments)
that our commitment to common humanity is genuine.
If these modest measures
succeed, however, they will draw a new map of the world--delineating factory-by-factory
which multinational companies are actively subverting shared human values,
which nations are truly trying to improve conditions for their people and
which are merely participating in the exploitation. The map separates sheep
from goats, culprits from victims.
The information is essential because
it can set the stage for subsequent legislation that eventually establishes
minimum standards for corporate behavior on environmental protection, labor
issues and human rights. Then penalty tariffs or other measures could be
aimed at the firms or nations that systematically pursue the low road, profiteering
on human suffering and ecological despoliation. Trade reform can likewise
reward and nurture those nations struggling to break free of the "race to
Business will howl that these new measures would put it at
a competitive disadvantage, just as they opposed the antibribery law as
an intrusion on quaint customs in foreign lands. The impact will be quite
marginal if one believes the companies' own lofty claims about their offshore
production. In any case, as the world's main buyer of last resort, the United
States has the market power to lead on these reform issues. Our trade diplomats
should start lobbying Europe and Japan to join this effort because eventually
public opinion will turn on any multinational producer that attempts to
reap short-term profit by ignoring standards for humane conduct.
this is politics for the long haul and difficult at every stage. But none
of the barriers are insurmountable if we have our values straight. The action
can begin with simple, straightforward matters like fire prevention.
In 1993 the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism
occurred at a mammoth toy factory outside Bangkok--188 workers killed, 469
seriously injured. All but a handful were women, some as young as 13. They
were assembling toys for American children--Sesame Street dolls, Bart Simpson
and the Muppets, Playskool "Water Pets" and many other popular items.
most macabre fact about this historic tragedy was that hardly anyone in
America noticed, though the Kader Industrial Toy Company's production supplied
famous US brands like Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Tyco and Kenner, and retailers
like Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us. Indeed, the Thai death toll surpassed the
most scandalous calamity in America's own industrial history--the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911--and resembled it in haunting detail. Fire
exits were blocked or inadequate, doors were locked to prevent pilfering,
flammable materials were stacked randomly on the shop floors. Not even the
most rudimentary fire precautions were provided for this factory with 3,000
workers. Desperate women jumped from upper-story windows by the score, just
as young American women had done eighty-two years before in New York City.
Nor was this event unique in industrializing Asia. In 1994 ninety-three
were killed and 160 injured in a Zhuhai textile factory when a fire led
to the collapse of the building. In 1993 eighty-seven women died in the
Zhili toy factory fire in Shenzhen, China. At Dongguan, a raincoat factory
burned in 1991 and killed seventy-two people. Also in 1993, a textile plant
fire killed sixty-one women in Fuzhou province. "Why must these tragedies
repeat themselves again and again?" the People's Daily in Beijing asked.
China's Economic Daily blamed "the way some of these foreign investors ignore
international practice, ignore our own national rules, act completely lawlessly
and immorally and lust after wealth."
The factory fires continue to this
day in Asia, though they haven't been quite as horrendous. These routine
human tragedies provoke local protests and official investigations but somehow
escape the attention of the US media. One obvious cause of the fires is
the so-called three-in-one factory design--peasant workers sleep in a dormitory
on the top floor, with the factory and warehouse beneath them. When a fire
starts, the women are trapped, often suffocated by noxious fumes. This arrangement
is officially illegal in China but still widely used.
Last June the Zhimao
Electronics plant fire at Shenzhen left twenty-four dead and forty injured;
the China Labor Bulletin described it as "a copycat of at least six similar
fires in south China." Nineteen people, including five children, died in
a furniture factory fire last spring at Nanyang. In August the largest apparel
factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh's industrial zone burned to the ground on a
Sunday night in August (evidently without casualties). Firefighters reported
the absence of any fire-safety system. In October factory fires in Guangzhou's
Baiyun district and Zengcheng's Shitan county killed thirty-one women, according
to the South China Morning Post. A year ago, five workers were killed and
twenty-three injured at a toy factory in Shenzhen when two of the dorm's
We begin with this mundane subject because there is
absolutely no mystery about how to build and operate a safe industrial factory
protected against this ancient hazard. It costs a bit more, that's all.
What's missing in the global system is the political will to punish those
who are scoring easy profits by ignoring such long-established industrial
Congress can start here. It should enact a law that prohibits
entry for any goods made in a factory that is not independently certified
as employing standard fire-prevention design and equipment. The target is
not mom-and-pop sweatshops operating in back alleys but the vast industrial
plants producing for major global companies. They can afford to do this.
Because the safety issue is so clear-cut and the human losses so dramatic,
the law should permit zero tolerance for firms that ignore prudent precautions.
Does that sound too burdensome for business or too intrusive on foreign
sovereignty? Consider this: The Federal Aviation Administration routinely
performs similar safety tasks for aircraft, both at home and abroad. The
FAA inspects production of foreign-made components that go into Boeing airplanes,
certifies the airworthiness of foreign-made airliners and examines the work
done offshore at overseas repair centers. Would you fly on a jetliner that
was not certified by the FAA?
In fact, there are numerous other matters
in which the US and other governments demand the right to inspect foreign
production or the content and origins of imported goods before trade is
permitted. If America has the power to protect US patents and copyrights
by investigating knockoff CD factories in Southeast Asia, it is surely capable
of protecting the lives of low-wage workers who make the toys, shirts, shoes
and electronics we buy. If other nations don't wish to accept those terms,
we can buy shirts and shoes somewhere else.
This issue, simple as it sounds,
goes right to the heart of how globalization is organized because it challenges
the irresponsibility of the "virtual corporation," that model of efficiency
widely praised by management experts. "Virtual" firms operate like the central
brain of a nervous system, connected to far-flung networks of suppliers
and capable of shifting contracts regularly from one subcontractor to another,
with no fixed accountability. One can blame the foreign-owned suppliers
who scrimp on fire safety or blame local governments that do not enforce
their own laws. But the moral culpability ultimately resides with the multinationals
that run this arrangement (and, by extension, with the people who buy their
Subcontractors cut corners recklessly because they are compelled
to compete on price for the next contract--a continuing cost-cutting contest
that drives standards downward and ensnares poor nations as a whole. If
Thailand enforces its laws too vigorously, the factories pick up and move
somewhere else--Vietnam or China or Bangladesh--where workers are even cheaper
and officials more compliant. This flexible system describes the treadmill
that frustrates progress in poorer economies. Pioneered in low-end sectors
(apparel, toys), it is increasingly evident in high-end production (autos,
aircraft, advanced electronics).
Simple morality requires that we throw
a little sand in the treadmill. Elementary rules, set in law, would reverse
the incentives for corporate managers. Otherwise, as price-conscious consumers,
we are all responsible for what happens to those young people.
In federal district court in New York City, 30,000 residents
of Ecuador are suing Texaco for class-action damages to their health and
local environment. The oil company's executives are accused of making a
conscious decision to dump more than 16 million gallons of oil and toxic
wastewater into the Amazon River over two decades--three times the size
of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The plaintiffs include three indigenous
tribes and are represented by a Philadelphia law firm [see Eyal Press, "Texaco
on Trial," May 31, 1999].
Stay tuned--this is a fast-developing new front
in the globalization of law enforcement. In recent years, inventive lawyers
have revived a 200-year-old federal law (the postrevolutionary Alien Tort
Claims Act) as the legal basis for foreign citizens to sue US multinationals
in US courts for their environmental or human rights abuses overseas. Unocal
is being sued by Burmese workers for alleged collaboration with forced labor
and torture by SLORC, the hideously repressive government of Burma. Royal
Dutch/Shell announced a new code of conduct on human rights hours before
the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa filed a lawsuit alleging Shell's role in the
Nigerian military's execution of Saro-Wiwa.