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Open World Conference Takes On Free Trade

By Mya Shone and Ed Rosario, Labor Party Press, January 2000

Trade union leaders and activists from around the world will gather in San Francisco February 11-14, 2000, for the Open World Conference of Workers in Defense of Trade Union Independence and Democratic Rights (OWC). The conference, which has been endorsed by the Labor Party, along with trade union federations, leaders, and activists in 74 countries, aims to develop strategies to combat corporate-sponsored "free trade" and to preserve workers' hard-won gains.

'Death Struggle'

"We are in a death struggle against NAFTA and its deprivations and against the corporate 'free trade' agenda," says Jack Henning, Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and one of the conference's convenors. "These issues strike at the heart of the labor movement." The OWC is an effort by workers and their organizations to "think globally" about how to confront corporations that are pitting workers in one part of the world against workers in another in an effort to drive down wages.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Brian McWilliams, a Labor Party founding member, supplies an example of how this divide-and-conquer strategy works. Sugar and pineapple workers in Hawaii - members of ILWU - were once "the best-paid agricultural workers in the world," he says, producing the best product with the highest yield per acre. "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. Workers on both sides lost."

Globalization with a Human Face?

President Clinton and other heads of state are pushing for what they call "globalization with a human face." They are trying to get unions to endorse their global trade schemes by promising "social pacts" or "roundtable agreements" that at least nominally address worker rights issues. These efforts are a "ploy to try to make trade unions responsible for carrying out layoffs, downsizing, and the elimination of benefits," charges Labor Party Co-Chair Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

The "social pacts" will be a key issue discussed at the Open World Conference. The gathering will also discuss sweatshops, child labor, the need to uphold the International Labor Organization's standards, and the effect of IMF and World Bank policies on Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The conference is open to all. Those who can't attend are encouraged to send a donation to help sponsor trade unionists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

For more information, contact OWC co-coordinators Ed Rosario and Mya Shone at 415-641-8616 or e-mail them at owc@igc.org. Send contributions to OWC, c/o San Francisco Labor Council, 1188 Franklin St., Suite 203, San Francisco, CA 94109.