Call it Lollapalooza done to an activist beat—a gathering of 50,000 or so protesters using rage and revelry to shut down a meeting of trade bureaucrats and corporate suits. On November 30, the cabal-like World Trade Organization begins a new round of trade talks in Seattle. Amid the flurry of press surrounding China’s pending entry into the WTO, activists are arriving in droves. Both their message and assault encompass multi-pronged approaches. Their objections: The WTO is unaccountable to citizens, a threat to hard-won environmental standards and health and safety regulations, and willfully neglectful of human and workers’ rights. If this sounds like a ’60s replay, there’s one striking difference: This is a multinational force of an e-connected opposition.
If you haven’t given much thought to the WTO, that’s just the way the members want it. The Geneva-based WTO was established in 1995, an offspring of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which had been the principal forum for trade negotiations since 1947. The WTO is made up of trade bureaucrats handpicked by the leaders of its 135 member nations. Their “job” is to mediate trade disputes among nations, and they do so shielded from public gaze or challenge, with no forum for introducing outside expertise. Beginning November 30, several thousand gold-card-carrying members of this free-trade elite will set the agenda for a new multiyear effort to expand global commerce in such areas as agriculture, financial services, and the Internet.
The WTO rulings on trade affect a broad range of issues from environmental standards to e-commerce; and the protesters are a diverse and unlikely coalition, from tree huggers to Buchananites. Everyone, it seems, has a stake in this battle. Reclaim the Streets’s ravers, Art and Revolution’s puppeteers, the Zapatista-inspired People’s Global Action, Students for a Free Tibet, radical Catholic nuns, Ralph Nader’s Global Trade Watch, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, and hundreds of other groups and individuals will occupy every crack and crevice of Seattle’s sidewalks. Rallies in solidarity with the one in Seattle will be held worldwide in hundreds of cities from New York to Cairo.
The WTO tries to set international standards, and the protesters argue that each nation’s citizens should vote for its own standards. “There is a place for global trade rules,” says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (www.tradewatch.org). “However, what is inappropriate is the WTO’s invasion regarding decisions that affect values, which can only be determined by the people who live with the results.”
One recent case involved a battle between the U.S. government—on behalf of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association; Monsanto, the multinational chemical company; and others— and the European Union, which had banned imports of artificial hormone-fed beef from the U.S. After deliberations behind closed doors, the WTO handed down its ruling: The EU countries must open their markets to this meat (despite consumers’ concerns over possible health side effects) or suffer sanctions from the U.S. (which would refuse to import EU products such as Roquefort cheese and mustard, accounting for over $116 million per year).
The WTO’s trade experts ruled that since no scientific evidence states the hormones are a health risk, the EU’s ban on the beef is an unfair barrier to trade. The markets must remain open, and European consumers can choose not to buy. Thus far, the EU has accepted sanctions rather than the beef. If it decides to open its countries’ markets, a battle will ensue over whether the beef will be labeled as hormone-treated so that consumers can choose rightly.
This controversy is one of many that Lori Wallach and her coauthor Michelle Sforza document in Whose Trade Organization: Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy , an accounting of the WTO’s five-year record. She lays out solid stats supporting her creeping sense that “the establishment of the WTO amounts to a slow-motion coup d’état of democratic governance worldwide.” In the U.S., for example, they find the WTO guilty of weakening the Clean Air Act, by allowing Venezuela to export to the U.S dirtier oil than U.S. companies are allowed to sell domestically; and the Endangered Species Act, by allowing the import of shrimp caught in nets that jeopardize endangered sea turtles. In its quest for global standards to regulate trade, those countries that set them high are often the losers. “The WTO wants the lowest common denominator, so inevitably there is conflict,” says Lance Taylor, professor of economics at the New School and coauthor of the forthcoming book, Global Finance at Risk . “Trade agreements are not magic bullets to cure the ills of society,” says Jeffrey Schott, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics and editor of The World Trading System: Challenges Ahead.
The WTO doesn’t see its efforts as contemptuous of national laws, of course, and on its Web site (www.wto.org) David Letterman?style top-10 lists of “benefits” and “misunderstandings” are laid out in simple terms, accompanied by childlike illustrations—white men in suits for “benefits”; women and farmers with pitchforks for “misunderstandings.” Gentle reminders that no system is perfect accompany the text. Topping the WTO’s benefits list are “The System Helps Promote Peace” and “Disputes Are Handled Constructively”; and among their misunderstandings are “The WTO dictates governments’ policies” and “The WTO is blindly for free trade at any cost.” About the latter “misunderstanding,” for instance, the WTO site says: “Just how low those [trade] barriers should go . . . depend[s] on how ready they [nations] feel they are to lower the barriers. . . . ” So if we or our governments can all just feel OK about lowering our standards, we could have a peaceful world order after all.
While some critics are demanding reform of the WTO, others are calling for it to be dismantled, dropped in the dustbin of bad ideas in favor of a more populist process for trade rule-making. The flow of international trade must be met by the flow of international resistance, many activists argue. Whether or not activists succeed in influencing the talks immediately, they aim to come away from Seattle with a massive international coalition of resistance to a system that hangs dollar signs as blinders to the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and the rich and poor within nations.
A decade ago, after being invited to the Mexican jungle to meet with Subcommandant Marcos of the Zapatistas, activists formed a network, the People’s Global Action (www.agp.org). PGA sees the WTO as beyond reform. In its manifesto the group vows to “reject institutions that multinationals have built to take power away from the people; [to adopt] a confrontational attitude, since we do not think lobbying can have a major impact . . . [when] transnational capital is the only real policy maker; and call upon non-violent civil disobedience.”
For the past few weeks an “international caravan,” made up of environmentalists from Bolivia and Israel, human-rights workers from Panama and Tibet, and women’s rights activists from Nigeria, among many others, has been making a cross-country road trip to Seattle. Along the way, it has stopped in 18 cities and towns to host anti-WTO teach-ins and to support local grassroots groups in actions of civil disobedience. “The purpose of the caravan is to show the links between the United States economy and the economy in other countries,” says Michael Morrill, executive director of Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network, the caravan’s sponsor.
On October 28 in an NYU classroom, PGA presented the first of its American anti-WTO teach-ins. Playing to a packed smells-like-college-spirit room, Stephen Smith strummed a folksy, meant-to-be-inspirational song, “Now Is the Time,” the most inspiring aspect of which was his striking red-orange acoustic guitar, rubbed smooth around the sound hole from years of earnest picking. Seven speakers followed, and in impressively organized eight-minute clips they laid out the history of the WTO, how individual groups’ causes are affected, and what concerned folk should do about it all.
One controversy discussed centered on the WTO’s TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, which has allowed multinationals and industrial countries to usurp agricultural and medicinal knowledge of indigenous peoples. Companies who commit “biopiracy”—securing patents for traditional medicines, human DNA, or indigenous methods of growing food—are rounding up knowledge at the pace that Web squatters once gobbled up celebrity names on the Internet as investments, but with far graver implications. Taira Stanley, a member of the Youth Movement of Kuna in Panama, wearing canvas sneakers and a traditional Indian shirt, spoke through a translator, explaining the consequences of intellectual property rights and the WTO. “Everyone wants the knowledge about medicine and the earth that indigenous peoples have. Scientists from the Human Genome Project have even come and taken the blood of indigenous peoples and patented it, because we have immunities that you don’t. The indigenous people have received no compensation for any of this.”
While corporations seek the takeover of knowledge for profit, the Chinese government has become notorious for, among many egregious acts, taking over Tibet, an issue that was on the minds of many at the teach-in. Lhadon Tethong of Students for a Free Tibet spoke of the urgency Tibetans feel as their population dwindles and their culture is chipped away and the U.S. government goes along with it, claiming that China will change once in the WTO and subject to the pressures of globalization. ” ‘Constructive engagement with China’ is Clinton’s buzzword,” said Tethong, “but China has a strike-hard campaign in which people are arrested for any infraction—having a photo of the Dalai Lama, or participating in silent prayer.”
The Clinton administration’s gleeful, backslapping celebration to announce that it had secured a deal with China that would enable the U.S. hopes will slip China into WTO membership before 2000 has only upped the ante of dissent. The possibility that China might grant development rights in Tibet to trading partners makes the prospect of returning the country to Tibetan self-rule that much more unlikely. (See Nat Hentoff’s column for more on the issue of China and the WTO.)
The day after the teach-in, PGA joined the New York?based Reclaim the Streets to protest PR giant Burson-Marsteller for “whitewashing corporate crimes” such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. On the road to Seattle they joined grassroots groups in Columbus, Ohio, to protest Kaiser Aluminum for locking out steelworkers, in L.A., against the Gap for using sweatshop labor in Saipan, and in a dozen other cities. “In India and Europe this year tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the WTO,” says Morrill. “Seattle is where America will catch up.”
As Seattle swells with people, reclaim the Streets (reclaimthestreetsnyc.tao.ca/), a network of activists dedicated to “reclaiming” the right to assemble publicly and en masse, will be one of the forces uniting a festive street party with nonviolent civil disobedience. RTS sprang from Britain’s rave culture in the early ’90s, and in the U.S. has also been inspired by the activism of foresters, squatters, and Earth Firsters. Under the aegis of the Direct Action Network (www.agitprop.org), a coalition of the more radical grassroots groups heading to Seattle, they promise a “carnival of resistance,” and a rally surreal in spirit with 12-foot puppets, among them, grim reapers to represent particular corporations, and hundreds of sea turtles—just the sort of high-impact visuals they hope ABC won’t be able to resist showing on World News Tonight . David Solnit, a puppeteer with Art and Revolution, explains, “We use culture and artmaking as an organizing tool, and as a weapon to infiltrate the mass media with messages.”
“The WTO represents to us the ultimate insult in a long history of capital-dictated government,” says Brooke Lehman, an RTS participant. “We’ll surround the Paramount Theater, where Clinton will be speaking, but the power in what we’re doing is more than physically shutting down the meeting. It’s sending a message to third world countries that there is massive opposition in the U.S. We’re bringing people together in a way that hasn’t happened since maybe the 1968 Democratic Convention.” Throughout the festivities, DAN’s alternative media center will be feeding live coverage onto the Web and into the airwaves (www.indymedia.org).
While on their own, each of the radical groups is relatively small (with participants perhaps in the hundreds or less), the presence of the granddaddy of rally-rousing, the AFL-CIO, likely will bring the largest contingency (estimates range from 25,000 to 35,000 workers and their families, with other actions and solidarity rallies taking place across the country) and lend the protest the stamp of institutional cred. “We look around and we see we’ve been engaged in this process of enhancing capital mobility and what we have to show for it is financial crises around the world, the development process failing, and job insecurity in the U.S.,” says Thea Lee, assistant director of public policy for the AFL-CIO. “We’re demanding enforceable workers’ rights be included in WTO trade agreements—rules against child labor, forced labor, and discrimination.”
To emphasize just how some of these issues of forced labor and environmental disasters play out in the world, the Global People’s Tribunal will “try” corporations for crimes against humanity. Witnesses will present written, oral, and videotaped evidence of negligence, indifference to human life, and unfettered greed on the part of such corporations as UNOCAL, a California-based oil company (which activists see as supporting the military junta in Burma by investing in a gas pipeline constructed with forced labor) and Union Carbide (for the Bhopal chemical leak disaster in India that killed thousands). “Our goal is to focus some of the attention beyond the WTO and at the structures of power that raise the foundation on which the WTO was built,” says Ward Morehouse, president of the Council of International and Public Affairs, and tribunal coordinator. Although they are using international law as their guide for assessing crimes against humanity, “this is not a court of law, but a forum of public opinion. It is a further step in evolving a people’s jurisprudence on corporations.”
Beyond the clamor of “No to WTO” chants, the street spectacles, the dance and ruckus, is a growing exasperation with unfettered corporate power and a sense that the media’s current orgy over the “robust” U.S. economy distorts the reality of financial crises for peoples elsewhere, far off the average American’s radar.
The meeting and the protests promise to raise important questions as to what is expendable in the quest for higher profits and power. If you’re a corporate executive, do you turn a blind eye to forced labor because it cuts costs on sneakers? View an oil spill as an occupational hazard of the industry that sells cheap gas? Patent a farming method that others have cultivated for generations because it creates a new source of revenue? As a consumer, do you buy those Nikes made in sweatshops in Indonesia or that hip Pakistani rug made with child labor?
Activists believe there’s no better time to grapple with these issues than now. It may be a trade bureaucrat’s headache and a Seattle street cleaner’s nightmare, but the protests in Seattle signal the stirring of a global movement not just against a particular government or organization but against the very idea of corporate domination.
Independent Media Center -up to the minute information from Seattle.
Anti-WTO rallies in New York:
Friday, November 26, 2p.m., Union Square: Reclaim the Streets will take over a major metropolitan street and create a carnival-like forum for civil disobedience.
Saturday, November 27, 2 to 4 p.m., the Gap, Broadway and 42nd Street: The Global Sweatshop Coalition protests Disney, the Gap, and the WTO.
Tuesday, November 30, noon, World Trade Center: Students for a Free Tibet will stage a massive die-in.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 23, 1999