Date: Sat, 19 Jun 1999 23:26:38 -0500 (CDT)
/* Written 5:12 AM Jun 18, 1999 by Richard@ilwu.com in igc:labr.maritime */
President's Report: Just say ‘No’ to the WTO
By Brian McWilliams, ILWU International President, 18 June 1999
When finance and trade ministers from governments around the world gather at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle later this year, working people have to worry about what they're up to. These representatives of globalization are out to create a world where the "free trade" and "free markets" transnational corporations dominate will override human rights, worker rights, environmental regulation and all local control and national sovereignty.
At first glance these high-level international trade organizations and agreements with their alphabet soup acronyms seem to be of little concern to the regular working stiff who has worries about making a weekly paycheck stretch to keep a family housed, fed and healthy. How could the economic treaties these glorified bureaucrats write affect your shop floors and grocery stores?
The WTO is an international organization created in 1995 to devise and enforce "free trade" rules. These include not just overriding tariffs and quota regulations, but also other so-called barriers to trade like food safety and environmental laws, product standards, copyright and patent laws, investment policy and government use of tax dollars.
If one member nation believes another country has a law--like an environmental regulation--that restricts its ability to compete, it can bring a complaint to the WTO for review. A WTO tribunal hears the matter and if it decides the challenged law violates its free trade rules, the losing country has three choices. It can change the law to conform to WTO requirements, pay permanent compensation to the winning country or face non-negotiated trade sanctions. The official U.S. position is that its laws must be changed to be consistent with WTO policy.
The process is completely non-democratic and the panel of trade bureaucrats who make these decisions are accountable to no one. The tribunals are held in secret and all documents, hearings and briefs are confidential. You can't know about it and you have no say. National and local laws passed by voters or elected officials can be voided without recourse.
As the brief history of the WTO shows, these free trade rules do one thing: make the world safe for a corporate-managed global economy. Every single environmental or public health law subjected to a WTO challenge has been ruled illegal.
For example, Venezuela challenged a 1990 amendment to the U.S. Clean Air Act requiring gasoline refiners to produce cleaner gas. The WTO ruled against the law, forcing the EPA to use a lower standard for imported gas, resulting in dirtier air for Americans.
In another case the U.S. challenged a European Union ban on beef from cattle raised with artificial growth hormones out of concern for the hormones' effects on human health. A WTO panel ruled against the ban and set a deadline for the EU to change its policies or face sanctions.
The U.S. also challenged a European trade preference for bananas from the Caribbean and other former European colonies, claiming it discriminated against bananas grown by U.S. companies in Central America. The preference allows Caribbean banana workers to make a decent living, much better than the workers toiling under the repressive, anti-union conditions imposed by Chiquita in Central America.
In Seattle the WTO will be considering a new "intellectual property" agreement pushed by pharmaceutical companies that would restrict the development of generic, affordable drugs those companies have patents on.
The WTO is enforcing a global race to the bottom--in health, in the environment and in workers' rights. It comes down to the air you breathe, the food you eat, the healthcare you do or do not get and, ultimately, whether you have a job and at what pay and conditions.
All these plans are promoted as deregulation, free trade and letting the invisible hand of market forces run the economy. Yet they require numerous complicated agreements, regulations and enforcement mechanisms to work. That's because what's really happening is that transnational corporations are changing the rules. It all amounts to an attempt at a massive transfer of wealth from the world's working people to a very few corporate elite.
What we have seen in five years of NAFTA--the huge loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and Canada and the explosion of sweatshop factories in U.S. right-to-work states and in Mexico's maquiladoras--should tell us all we need to know about these free trade agreements. The WTO wants to enforce a global super NAFTA.
What happened to Hawaii ILWU members in the sugar and pineapple industries is a blue print for WTO policies. They were the best paid agricultural workers in the world producing the highest yield per acre and the best quality product. But the competition from cheap foreign sugar produced for subsistence wages with no environmental or labor standards and dumped on the world market drove most of the Hawaii producers out of business. And, of course, it sent thousands of workers into unemployment with no means of finding new jobs in those rural communities.
At the same time those workers producing sugar overseas do not have the opportunity to share in the wealth of their labor. Workers on both sides lost. Consumer prices didn't go down, but corporate profits skyrocketed. It worked so well the transnational corporations decided to make it law.
This is not a conspiracy fantasy. This is the explicit plan of the world's most powerful governments and corporations. The Clinton administration and both parties in Congress support it.
The bosses never know when enough is enough. They only learn through loss of money and power and are so arrogant they think they can summon almost any government to their aid. They will have their way with us if we don't speak out.
The American and Canadian labor movement, along with fair trade advocates and others, are planning to mobilize 100,000 people to march on the WTO meeting in Seattle Nov. 30. We will be demanding that any trade agreements include enforceable labor rights and environmental protections as well as measures to ensure that governments can regulate corporate behavior to protect the economic interests and public health of their citizens.
Seattle will be a lost opportunity if we don't turn out large numbers to demonstrate against WTO policies. In conjunction with the AFL-CIO and the state federations of labor I will ask our members to take appropriate action during the conference. All of us will not be able to travel to Seattle, but we will be able to speak out against a system of organized oppression and exploitation that, left unchecked, can consume us.
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