Where Is Labor's Strength?
A statement on the ILO and the WTO
by Trim Bissell, national coordinator, Campaign for Labor Rights,
Labor Alerts, 23 November 1999
The current Campaign for Labor Rights newsletter is a special
double issue, with half devoted to a forum on the International Labor
Organization (ILO). The complete forum also is available on our web
site at www.summersault.com/~agj/clr. Following a statement by CLR's
national coordinator are pieces by representatives of the Open World
Conference, the International Labor Rights Fund and the Washington
office of the ILO. Also included is a sign-on letter to the heads of
state who will be attending the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting
in Seattle. In this alert, we are posting the Campaign for Labor
Rights coordinator's statement on the ILO and the WTO. [ The pieces
cited in brackets below are the other documents in the forum. ] One
source of information on plans for activities in Seattle is the web
site at www.seattle99.org.
There is something to be said for taking the position: Anything the
WTO is for, I am against; anything the WTO is against, I am
for. Knowing that the World Trade Organization has promoted changes in
the International Labor Organization [see the analysis by Ed Rosario
and Mya Shone in this forum] is for me a sufficient reason to resist
We ought to resist any attempt to water down the ILO Conventions, the
set of global standards establishing the rights of working
people. Rosario and Shone make a credible case that dilution is
exactly the result we should expect from the document changes now
being promoted. Although some organizations backing the changes
certainly are doing so with the best of intentions, good intentions
are not something I would attribute to the WTO.
It is another step altogether - one I am unwilling to take - to say
that labor should put its trust in the ILO Conventions. Bama Athreya
[see her analysis, also in this forum] argues that, even where
countries have ratified ILO Conventions, implementation has generally
been less than spectacular. In the face of the global sweatshop
economy, it is fair to say that the ILO has been relegated to an
If we can't look to the ILO, which is supposed to be an ally, then
Athreya argues that we should alter the charter of the WTO, which
clearly is an adversary of labor. The charter changes she suggests
would go a long way toward undoing the WTO's mission to destroy labor
standards wherever they exist - which is why there is no chance of
getting such changes written into the WTO charter.
Any attempt to enact meaningful changes in the WTO charter stands the
danger of ending up with phony side agreements which would only lend
legitimacy to bad institutions and bad trade agreements. North
American labor's bitter experience with the toothless labor side
accord in NAFTA should make us wary of heading down such a road again.
Tens of thousands of unionists, labor rights activists,
environmentalists and democracy advocates are expected to gather in
Seattle in late November when the WTO is scheduled to hold its meeting
there. For most of them, their message is "Shut down the WTO!"
It is better to oppose corrupt institutions than to accept a powerless
seat at their table.
In another good example of refusing a meaningless seat at the table,
students in the U.S. anti-sweatshop movement have wisely rejected
participation in the Fair Labor Association (FLA - previously known as
the White House task force and then as the Apparel Industry
Partnership), understanding it to have been created solely for the
purpose of providing cover for sweatshop business as usual in the shoe
and garment industry.
Instead of looking to the corrupt FLA for real change, students have
successfully pressed their administrations to promise the adoption of
standards such as freedom of association, a living wage and disclosure
in their licensing agreements with companies making logo apparel for
their schools. The students wrested these promises from their
administrations only after they walked out of the bargaining rooms,
where they had spent many months arguing over minutiae of language,
and mobilized their base in a series of sit-in's and other
Whether corporate-friendly administrators intend to implement all
these promises is another question. Just as the students had to show
their strength of numbers to get agreements onto paper, they are now
having to show their strength to transform words on paper into real
changes in the labor practices of the apparel companies with which
their schools do business.
What is proving true for the student no-sweat movement has long been
true for labor: The wealthy and powerful are not moved by our finely
honed logic or by our moral appeals, but by seeing that we have
mobilized our base. Labor can look nowhere but to itself and its
allies to reverse the global decline in labor standards.
National governments will not rescue labor - whether they are
democracies thoroughly corrupted by the influence of money or
authoritarian governments propped up by guns (often supplied by their
friends in the money democracies). And, as long as international
institutions are answerable to national governments based on money or
guns, labor cannot expect rescue from international standards such as
the ILO Conventions. President Clinton's high-sounding words [ quoted
in Mary Covington's analysis in this forum ] ring hollow when we
remember his promotion of the trade agreements which have done so much
to destroy the standards he professes to support.
But knowing that we cannot put all our hopes in ILO Conventions or
national labor codes or other written standards does not mean that we
should ignore them or stand idly by while corporate institutions such
as the WTO attempt to dismantle them. If the WTO did not believe the
ILO Conventions to be an obstacle to anti-labor practices, it would
not be trying to change them. If the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund did not see national labor codes as an obstacle to the
proliferation of sweatshops, they would not bother to attack them
through structural adjustment programs.
A challenge is to know which institutions and codes have sufficient
legitimacy that we should defend them and which, such as the WTO and
the FLA, are so corrupted that we should oppose them
outright. However, even when denouncing codes produced in total
cynicism (as with the FLA code or companies' own codes of conduct), we
can make use of them by pointing out discrepancies between promises
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