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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 those changes.

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 insignificant role.

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 demonstrations.

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 and practice.

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