Is the Boston Tea Party Over? | The Nation


Is the Boston Tea Party Over?

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The dynamic of the trade debate changed dramatically toward the end of the nineties in two respects. First, while Frank has rightly pointed out that corporate interests were the main force behind both the free trade and Buy American movements of the nation's first two centuries, the "fair trade" movement of the nineties was decidedly different. Yes, firms oriented toward the domestic market, backed by politicians like Pat Buchanan, did play an important role in opposing free trade. Far more important, however, was the emergence of a popular movement that was cross-sectoral and cross-border in its effort to block new free-trade agreements for North America (NAFTA) and the world (GATT). In addition to the well-known figures of Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson, the leaders were from trade unions, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, as well as farm groups and others.

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John Cavanagh
John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies and author, most recently, of Development Redefined:...

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While NAFTA and GATT did pass Congress in 1993 and 1994, the AFL-CIO and its allies were central to Congress's rejection of new presidential trade negotiation authority in 1997 and 1998. Equally significant is the network of citizen groups in the United States, Canada, France and elsewhere that came together in 1997 and 1998 to defeat a proposal to extend corporate rights called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. These same organizations, plus dozens of new ones, are planning the free-trade protest of the decade in late November in Seattle when world leaders gather at a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Second, the movements of the nineties were able to break the trade debate out of its narrow historical dichotomy of protectionism (Buy American) versus free trade. Indeed, new alternatives are being carved out in the space between free trade and protectionism in the wake of the NAFTA and GATT/WTO battles, and if Frank is to be chided, it is for skimping on space devoted to these. In a too-brief final chapter, Frank points to trips by hundreds of US workers to the Mexican side of the border during the NAFTA fight that radically changed perceptions. Mexican workers became "real." The enemy became Ford, General Motors and the other firms that were playing workers off against one another. The United Electrical workers and Teamsters started cross-border projects. Groups like the International Labor Rights Fund and the National Labor Committee in Support of Worker Human Rights in Central America helped pull nonunion groups into the struggle for workers' rights.

These groups are building a new approach to trade and to the world. Hundreds of unions and other organizations in the United States and across the Western Hemisphere, for example, joined together to elaborate Alternatives for the Americas, which spells out rules for integration that put workers, the environment and basic human rights at the core of the development process. Instead of opposing trade and investment, these alternatives focus on insuring that the benefits are spread more equitably. They call for new economic agreements that provide for stricter enforcement of labor and environmental protections, incentives to shift finance from speculation to long-term investment and debt reduction for poorer nations.

Frank makes the case that the 1760s American sailors and dockworkers, who were the largest working sector in colonial ports and who opposed the nonimportation movement, were the precursors of the internationalists of today. The AFL-CIO and its member unions contain some of the contradictions of labor organizations of decades past, but they have taken several important steps toward a coherent internationalist position. SEIU, UNITE and other unions have reached out to new immigrants through organizing drives of Latino and Asian workers. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's standard speech now hails the "new internationalism," in which efforts to uplift workers everywhere become central to US labor's agenda. From an institution that collaborated with the CIA during the cold war to undermine democratic trade unions in other countries, the AFL-CIO has, since the mid-nineties, brought in a dynamic new leadership that is actively rebuilding international ties. UNITE, the main textile/apparel union, has shifted from the protectionist campaigns of the past to a major effort to end sweatshops at home and abroad at the end of the nineties.

Frank characterizes the nineteenth century in this country as the century of protectionism and the twentieth century as the century of free trade. The transition reflected in large part US companies' shift from domestic to overseas markets. The emergence of popular movements into the center of the debates on trade and globalization opens up the possibility of a twenty-first century in which trade and investment can serve the needs of dignified work, healthy communities and a clean environment.

In this new century, millions of Americans striving to support community and to express solidarity with US workers will Buy American. These are noble and positive sentiments. Yet, as Frank reminds us, they are most likely to promote dignified work if they are connected to the expanding efforts to rein in global corporations and promote workers' and other human rights in all corners of the earth.

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