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COMMENTARY–WTO’s Seattle Summit Reveals New Age of Activism

When almost 40,000 working families and environmentalists, human-rights activists, students and people of faith joined together in the streets of Seattle during the meeting of the World Trade Organization in the closing weeks of 1999, they forced critical questions into the forefront of the debate: What are the rules for global trade? And whose values do they represent?

By the end of the meeting, fair trade advocates had built a roaring conversation about the global economy and propelled it out of the halls of Congress and corporate boardrooms, and into the living rooms of America.

In towns and cities across the country, people are saying something’s wrong with a world trading system accountable to no one save the corporations that created and control it. They can’t understand why organizations like the WTO have endless rules protecting copyrights and patents and corporate rights, but no rules protecting workers’ and human rights and the global environment.

Average citizens see and read that global inequality is growing , not shrinking , with the escalation of global trade under these rules and that in many poor countries, per capita incomes are now lower than they were in 1970. And they know all too well that in the United States, “free” trade , trade with rules protecting corporations but not people , and NAFTA have eroded the wages and working conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers and devastated families in every corner of our country.

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Changing Ideologies

The tide was turning even before Seattle. A growing number of Americans are fed up with the influence that huge multinational corporations exert over their lives. And they look at the ability of corporations to rewrite the rules determining whether we have fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink and whether children are forced to miss school to make surgical instruments and matches.

Earlier this year, a University of Maryland survey found 93 percent of Americans agree that “countries that are part of international trade agreements should be required to maintain minimum standards for working conditions.”

The poll also showed 88 percent think that while increasing international trade is an important goal, it should be balanced with other goals, like protecting workers, the environment, human rights and the public health, even if it means slowing the growth of trade.

Plainly put, a huge majority of Americans support the notion that corporate interests should not be allowed to ride roughshod over the interests of working families and our communities.

In a survey by Peter Hart Research Associates this summer, 78 percent of working men and women under the age of 35 said corporations, CEOs and shareholders are reaping the lion’s share of the benefits of a growing economy.

This is a notion that knows no boundaries or borders, and it’s driving a new activism.

A growing international coalition of religious leaders, unions, and environmental and consumer activists shook the international investment community to its foundation by putting a halt to secret negotiations over the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Under the banner of Jubilee 2000, this same coalition has finally put debt relief on the global agenda. And the student-led movement to stop colleges and universities from selling goods produced in sweatshops is reaching like a rainbow from city to city and country to country.

Rewrite Global Rules

Our demands are based on values shared by people of goodwill everywhere. We want deliberations over our future opened up to the public and we want to be at the table when the discussions take place.

We want new rules written for the global economy. We think all workers deserve basic protections, whether they live in Mississippi or Malaysia. Human rights’ prohibitions against child labor, slave labor and discrimination. Freedom to join unions. And we want to be sure legitimate national laws protecting public health and the environment aren’t vetoed by global trading institutions.

We will continue to fight against any trade accord that does not protect workers’ rights and the environment. And we will continue to oppose normal trade relations with countries like China that flagrantly violate these rights.

We want to replace corporate-run globalization with a new internationalism driven by concern for dignity, fairness and freedom, and with a new global economy that works for working families here in California, this country and around the world.

Butkiewicz is secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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