Eco-nomics

A SHORT GUIDE TO THE WTO

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 ñ 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 un elected 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 ñ 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 ñ 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 ñ 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 ñ in order to protect a corporations "intellectual property."

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 ñ 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 ñ 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.


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