Trade Wars, Trade Truths

Trade Wars, Trade Truths

Here’s a might-have-been for you.


Here’s a might-have-been for you. All day long, Tuesday, November 30, the street warriors in downtown Seattle vindicated their pledge to shut down the first day of the WTO talks, in itself a rousing victory. Earth-First!ers chained together, Ruckus Society agitators, anarchists and other courageous troublemakers sustained baton charges, tear gas and rubber bullets, hopefully awaiting reinforcement from the big labor rally taking place around the Space Needle, some fifteen blocks from downtown. As the morning ticked away and the cops got rougher, the street warriors kept asking, “Where are the labor marchers?” expecting that at any moment thousands of machinists and Teamsters would reinforce them in the desperate fray.

But the legions of labor never showed. Suppose they had. Suppose there had been 30,000 to 40,000 protesters around the Convention Center, vowing to keep it shut all week. Would the cops have charged such a force? Downtown might have been held all night, and perhaps President Bill would have been forced to make his welcoming address from SeaTac airport or from the sanctuary of his ardent funder, Boeing. That would have been a humiliation for imperial power of historic proportions, like the famous scene the Wobblies organized to greet Woodrow Wilson after the Seattle general strike had been broken in 1919–workers and their families lining the streets block after block, standing in furious silence as his motorcade passed by. Wilson had his stroke not long after.

This might-have-been is not posed out of churlishness but to encourage a sense of realism about the struggle against the trading arrangements now operative in the WTO. Take organized labor, as embodied in the high command of the AFL-CIO. Back in February of this year the message came down from AFL HQ that rallying in Seattle was fine, but the plan wasn’t to shut down the works; it was to maneuver from inside. No surprise. Institutional labor is not structured to be the advance guard of a social movement. At the end of the day it wants what it has always wanted: in James Hoffa’s phrase, a place at the table.

And what does this particular seat at the table turn out to be? In Seattle the labor chieftains were willing to settle for a token footstool, in the shape of a working group that will, in the next round of WTO talks, be sensitive to labor and environmental concerns. On the current schedule, the present trade round will ponder the working group’s role and make recommendations for the next round…suddenly it’s 20l5 before the group is up and running.

Gerry Shea, John Sweeney’s assistant in charge of government affairs and the man running the show on this from 16th Street in Washington, is dedicated to staying tight with Clinton, Gore et al., and listens closely to his friend David Smith, head of the AFL’s public policy department and a zealous neoliberal free-trader.

There are unions–the autoworkers, steelworkers, Teamsters, machinists, UNITE–that have rank-and-file members passionately concerned about “free trade” when, as in the case of the Teamsters, it means Mexican truck drivers coming over the border at $2 an hour. But how many of these unions are truly ready to act in world terms, just as capitalists do? The steel workers were the only labor group that, as part of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, stood with the street warriors in downtown that Tuesday morning (and later fought with the cops and endured tear gas themselves). On that same day, November 30, the Moscow Tribune ran a story reporting that the Clinton Administration has effectively stopped all cold-rolled steel imports from Russia by imposing penalty duties of l78 percent. Going into winter those Russian working families at Severstal, Novolipetsk and Magnitogorsk are facing tougher times than ever. The Moscow Tribune‘s reporter, John Helmer, wasn’t in doubt why: “Gore must try to preserve steel company and steelworker support.”

As the preceding item suggests, there’s no such thing as “free trade.” The present argument is not about trade, which (except for maybe a few bioregionalists in my own dear home of Ecotopia) all favor in some measure. The argument is about how trade is to be controlled, how wealth is to be made and distributed. The WTO is simply an expression of the present balance of economic power on the world held by the big corporations, which see the present WTO round as an opportunity to lock in their gains, to enlist its formal backing in their ceaseless quest for cheaper labor and places to dump their poisons. So ours is a worldwide guerrilla war, of publicity, harassment, obstructionism. It’s nothing simple, like “Stop the War” in the l960s. Capitalism could stop that war and move on. American capitalism can’t stop trade (on its terms) and survive on any terms it cares for.

We truly don’t want a place at the table to “reform” world trade rules, because if we get one, then sooner or later we’ll be standing alongside Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin proclaiming that Nike, which pays its workers less than 20 cents an hour, has made “an astounding transformation.” Capitalism plays only by the rules it wrote in the first place. The day the WTO stipulates the phase-in of a Third World minimum wage of $3 an hour is the day the corporations destroy it and move on. Justice in world trade is by definition a revolutionary and utopian aim.

Publicity, harassment, obstructionism… Take the opportunities as they come. Think always in terms of international solidarity. Find targets of opportunity. South Africa forces domestic licensing of AIDS drugs. Solidarity. The Europeans don’t want bioengineered crops. Seize on that opportunity. Make demands in favor of real free trade. Get rid of copyright and patent restrictions and fees imposed on developing nations. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reckons that Mexico paid the industrial nations $4.2 billion in direct royalties, fees and indirect costs last year. Let’s have real free trade in professional services, with standardization in courses and tests so that kids from Mexico, India and elsewhere can come here and compete with our lawyers, accountants and doctors. Challenge the system at the level of its public pretensions. A guerrilla war, without illusions or respectable ambitions.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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