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Issue 44, September 1999

top     WTO under siege

TENS OF thousands of protesters blockaded the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, successfully closing down its opening session. On the streets, riot police attacked non-violent demonstrators and imposed a no-protest zone, turning downtown Seattle into a police state. Inside the convention centre, the chaotic talks ended in failure, with no agreed agenda for a new round of trade negotiations and bitter recriminations between national leaders.

This was the biggest mass protest and police crack-down since the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and civil rights marches of the 1960s and '70s. A wide variety of forces were involved. Students were to the forefront, angered by an unelected, secretive corporate-dominated WTO that puts profits and property rights before people and human rights. There were environmental campaigners, human rights activists, church groups, and consumer organisations.

The AFL-CIO organised a labor rally of over 20,000, though this was at the Space Needle, some way from the convention centre. A big contingent of steelworkers and other union activists, however, joined the downtown battle with the cops. This inspired one placard with the caption: 'Teamsters and Turtles - Together at Last'.

The real target, of course, was not the WTO itself, which is just a symbol, a bureaucratic metaphor for the dictatorial power of the world market, benefitting the big corporation and the super-rich at the expense of workers, poor farmers, unemployed, and the dispossessed. It was a protest, too, against the active promotion by the US government, not just of free trade, but the accelerated world-wide deregulation of finance and corporate operations.

 

On Tuesday 30 November, the demonstrators successfully blockaded the convention centre, forcing the suspension of the opening session. This peaceful action was met by a ferocious attack from the Seattle police, later reinforced by units of the National Guard and State Police. City leaders, the media, and Clinton himself tried to blame the violent clashes on a handful of 'violent anarchists'. But why did the police arrive armed and equipped for world war three?

Arrayed in hi-tech riot gear, the police attacked demonstrators with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Pursuing fleeing demonstrators, the police also attacked bystanders and local residents. On Tuesday afternoon a state of emergency was declared, with a no-protest zone and curfew imposed in the downtown area.

Businesses were closed, shop-fronts smashed, and business leaders complained about an estimated $9 million clean-up bill. 'They are worried about a few windows being smashed', said one Philippino leader. 'They should come and see the violence being done to our communities in the name of liberalisation of trade'.

Most people in Seattle sympathised with the protesters, including one shopkeeper who had to board up his store: "If they are fighting for justice, that's fine by me. Of course, trade should be fair. We never told the government that it could bully the poorest people in the world". (Observer, 5 December)

On Wednesday, the police changed their tactics, spraying less tear gas but making over four hundred arrests, most of them indiscriminate. Later, a massive crowd encircled the city's jail demanding the release of 'political prisoners'. 'This is what democracy looks like', they chanted.

 

THE TALKS themselves, the third WTO ministers' meeting, ended in failure, with bitter recrimination between various blocs of delegates. There was no agreement on an agenda for a new 'millennial round' of trade negotiations to extend the Uruguay Round of GATT talks, completed in 1994. The US clashed with the EU, with mutual allegations of inflexibility. Above all, for the first time representatives of the semi-developed and poor countries coalesced to derail deals cobbled together between the big powers in secret enclaves dominated by the US.

This time, the usual united front between the US and the EU versus the rest of the world broke down. The EU, supported by Japan and South Korea, strongly opposed demands from the US and the Cairns Group of countries led by Australia for the rapid phasing out of agricultural subsidies. The EU also backed away from concessions to the US in the form of a working group on food safety, seen by the US as a weapon for breaking down the EU's precautionary restrictions on genetically modified foods and hormone-fed cattle products. "Agriculture aside", commented Earnest Preeg, a senior analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute, "this is the first time in nine trade rounds that you have not had the US and Europe working together". (International Herald Tribune, 4 December)

Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, complained that 'the American political cycle weighs on these negotiations'. For the Clinton administration, he said, the coming presidential election meant 'the fewer subjects we take the better, because in that way (Clinton and Gore) will have as few problems as possible in the short term'.

 

When they pushed for the setting up of the WTO as part of the Uruguay Round deal, the US was confident they could dominate the 134-member forum. This has proved to be a serious miscalculation. Reflecting the deep economic and social crisis which has spread round half the world since the onset of the South-East Asian currency crisis in 1997, the leaders of semi-developed and poor countries are now beginning to rebel against US domination.

The capitalists and ruling politicians of many Third World countries have grown fat through their relationship with Western capital, and have welcomed US political and military backing. But the corrosive, destabilising effects of globalisation are now threatening to undermine their power. 'There was no consensus about the need for further liberalisation', said Ira Shapiro, a former adviser to the US trade representative. 'The only thing that unified most of the people here was a sense of grievance that they were being treated unfairly by the global trading system'.

Another commentator, Clyde Prestowitz, head of Washington's Economic Strategy Institute, said: 'There is a widespread view abroad that globalisation is being forced on the world by American corporations, that globalisation is Americanisation. So there is a banding together to protect the national essence'. For poor-country capitalists, of course, the 'national essence' includes the right to ruthlessly exploit labour, including child and slave labour, free from Western-imposed minimum labour conditions.

Ministers from semi-developed and poor countries, supposedly equal members of WTO, attacked the many secret meetings of the big powers from which they were excluded. US trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, seen as arrogant and insulting, was even booed at one of the plenary sessions.

 

SEATTLE WAS a disaster for Clinton. He imagined the WTO would provide the occasion for a celebrity appearance, allowing him to fix a few favourable deals and launch a new 'millennium round' of trade talks. He was looking forward to some kudos at the end of his presidency, and a boost for Al Gore's presidential campaign. Instead, the deadlock within the WTO and the mass protests outside forced him to cut and run. Effectively, the US pulled the plug on an extended round of talks based on the broad agenda for which the EU had been pushing. "Clinton's miscalculation in trying to use the talks... as a grandstand for scoring domestic political points infuriated many delegations from the EU and developing countries", commented the London Daily Telegraph (6 December).

Clinton (like other capitalist leaders) was clearly staggered by the strength of the anti-WTO demonstration, and especially by the fact that the protests were unmistakably directed against corporate capitalism. Desperately trying to salvage the WTO's reputation, Clinton expressed bogus sympathy for the protesters, demagogically trying to echo their concerns about workers' rights and the environment. The WTO had to be more 'open and accessible', proclaimed Clinton, disregarding the secretive machinations of the US trade delegation. The aides of Al Gore, phoney friend of the environment, began to brief the media on Al's support for 'clean, green, fair' trade. Who can forget that, only five years ago Clinton-Gore, using the fast-track procedure, pushed NAFTA through Congress, allowing US corporations to make even bigger profits from lower wage levels in Mexico and at home?

 

To the fury of representatives of capitalist exploiters in the underdeveloped world, Clinton called for a code of minimum labour standards to be placed on the WTO agenda. This phraseology was undoubtedly part of his political ploy to cement labor union support for Al Gore's presidential candidacy.

Given Clinton's atrocious record on workers' rights, his rhetoric on working conditions, child labour, and union rights rings completely hollow. Anti-union measures launched under Reagan have not been reversed, while casual, low-paid employment and the use of Workfare and prison labour has spread enormously under his administration.

There is little prospect, in reality, of the US really pushing the labour standards issue within WTO. Clinton's language was extremely vague, and all that Barshefsky proposed in practice was a working group to study the issue and report at some later date.

The working group on labour standards was the AFL-CIO's pay-off for loyal support for Clinton-Gore (the AFL-CIO Executive recently endorsed Gore's candidacy). The Sweeney leadership organised a labor rally in Seattle, not to oppose the WTO, whose neo-liberal, free-trade philosophy they fully endorse, but to be given a place at the table. Even the AFL-CIO leaders, however, were swayed by the powerful mood on the streets. AFSCME's leader, Gerald McEntee, a fervent Clinton-Gore supporter, declared to the cheering rally: 'We have to name the system' that tolerates sweatshops and child labour, 'and that system is corporate capitalism'.

 

McEntee and other leaders were clearly trying to match the militant mood of the rank and file. Protesting workers were not concerned merely with protecting their own jobs, but angry that global neo-liberal policies are destroying jobs around the world. "I never got on with environmentalists until I realised we were all fighting for the same thing", said a Michigan steelworker, recently made redundant. (Observer, 5 December) Workers enthusiastically cheered speeches by union leaders from Malaysia, Barbados, Argentina and South Africa.

"Through the wisps of tear gas and among the forest of picket signs and banners held aloft", comments the US left weekly, The Nation (20 December 1999), "one could at last glimpse the rough outlines of the much-sought-after progressive coalition - an American version of the 'Red-Green' alliance". A combative alliance of workers, students, environmental campaigners and other forces in the US would be a great step forward. If it is going to be successful, however, a struggle against corporate capitalism or capitalist globalisation has to be based on more than progressive Red-Green ideas. It will need a thorough-going anti-capitalist programme.

The destructive effects of corporate exploitation which go under the name of globalisation are not merely excesses of capitalism, or just a peculiar, accidental mutation of capitalism, which can be cured by a return to the New Deal or social-democratic policies of the 1950-73 upswing period. Intensified world-wide exploitation, accompanied by frenzied speculative activity, is an essential feature of world capitalism at this stage of its development. The WTO is not the expression of mistaken economic and social policies capable of being reversed through political debate and pressure. The WTO reflects the present world balance of economic and political power; it reflects the drive by the major capitalist powers and the big corporations to exploit ever cheaper labour and materials and to penetrate ever wider markets. The fight is not against the symptoms of globalisation but against the system itself.

 

SEATTLE SIGNIFIES a turning point for both the WTO and US society. Previously a very obscure organisation, the WTO has been illuminated internationally as a dark instrument of social and environmental degradation, of the exploitation of workers and poor people. A world-wide protest campaign has discredited the WTO as a tool of the Western powers and the big corporations, and especially as a tool of US imperialism. At the same time, Seattle has for the first time exposed the US's inability to set the international trade agenda, exposing the great superpower to world-wide ridicule and contempt.

The shambles in Seattle inevitably casts doubt on the very future of WTO, at least in its present form. Barshefsky, the US representative, blamed the national delegates: 'The complexity and novelty of the issues strain the collective capacity of delegations to make decisions, governments were just not willing to take the leap'. Lamy, the EU representative bluntly questioned whether a new trade round could now go ahead. Casting doubt on the viability of such a broad forum, he said the WTO would have to be 'reassessed and maybe rebuilt'.

Paralysis at the WTO may result in the US resorting more openly to a unilateral drive to impose trade and business rules on the rest of the world. That would undoubtedly aggravate trade tensions, speeding the advent of trade wars (with a return to selective protectionism by the main trading blocs), especially when the world economy as a whole moves into a new downswing.

 

Seattle also signals important changes within the US. Street protests of this kind foreshadow wider changes of mood of workers and the middle strata. Capitalist leaders in the US are alarmed at the events in Seattle, not because of a few broken windows, but because they privately recognise that it reflects, beneath the surface prosperity, deep streams of disquiet, discontent and anger.

Globalisation has overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy minority in US society, not the majority. Interestingly, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center (International Herald Tribune, 4 December) shows that support for globalisation is closely correlated with income level. Among people in families earning $75,000 or more, 63% see globalisation as positive. Among the half of adults in families earning less than $50,000, the positive view of globalisation is held by only 37%. Amongst this 'bottom half' of wage earners, moreover, only 27% say they earn enough.

The Seattle events are a sign of things to come, a fitting prelude to the opening of a new century.

Lynn Walsh


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