Clashing heads at WTO talks


AUSTIN, Texas -- Sorry to interrupt your busy week with a thumb-sucker on a serious topic, but this is important. The World Trade Organization meets in Seattle today, and the results will affect your life.

In theory, everybody's in favor of free trade -- but. Everyone has a but.

It helps if you think of the world on the eve of the 21st century as being like the United States on the brink of the 20th -- rampageous capitalism with no regulation.

The decades it took this country to build labor rights, a social safety net and environmental protections -- all that has to be done again, on a global scale: labor rights, human rights and environmental health.

The big corporations will have enough clout at the coming WTO meeting. The good news is that an awful lot of people power will be there, too.

The AFL-CIO will be there in force; environmentalists, human rights activists, the anti-sweatshop movement and a whole grab-bag of groups concerned about everything from saving the sea turtles to Third World debt will be there raising Cain. What are they up against? Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says:

"Environment and labor standards won't be tied to trade even if the United States stands on its head and spits wooden nickels. The chamber won't let it happen, and the rest of the world won't let it happen."

The chamber's interest is simple: money.

The rest of the world has a variety of problems with tying free trade to rights for people. Asian countries think that penalizing countries that abuse workers and trash the environment is a form of protectionism -- a way of giving the advanced industrial countries an economic advantage.

Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative who is an ace at what she does and just concluded some negotiations between China and the United States, told the New York Times:

"The WTO, in a formal sense, does not recognize that links between trade and labor exist. This is not a position which can endure."

Ms. Barshefsky, meet Mr. Donohue.

Right now, the whole meeting is in some disarray. The 135 nations due to attend, mostly represented by their trade ministers, could not work out an agenda in Geneva, where the WTO is headquartered.

One of the many thorny issues is what to do about European subsidies to farmers, which the United States regards as protectionist.

Several hundred years of experience by various French governments have produced an iron-clad rule: Don't Mess With French Farmers.

Beats me why we're so determined to go after the European farmers. Our own efforts at free-market farming, the Freedom to Farm Act passed by Newt Gingrich's Congress, have so far led to (among other unhappy results) a wave of suicides in farm country.

As John Kenneth Galbraith, the dean of all agricultural economists, will tell you, farming is a pursuit singularly ill-adapted to pure free-market economics.

The most discouraging feature of the coming meeting is how few developing countries see either labor rights or human rights as anything they need to be concerned with. One would think that at least India ("the world's largest democracy,") would get it.

India standards

But one of Ms. Barshefsky's top aides, Sue Esserman, went to India recently and was unable to persuade leaders there to engage in a global study intended to lead the WTO to start setting labor standards.

Most of the multinational corporations are American, and they're the ones that go in and exploit foreign labor. What good does that do Third World countries? Not to mention the jobs it costs here.

A bloc of 77 developing countries is united against efforts to use the WTO to set labor and environmental standards. They're afraid if they're forced to improve the lot of their workers, it will price their products out of the overseas market.

Why not use the Third World debt issue or a commitment to increase imports from those nations as a carrot to win their cooperation? Mike Moore, the former prime minister of New Zealand who heads the WTO, says, "Cooperation is not a choice; it is indispensable to survival."

John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, has signed off on this country's agenda for the Seattle meeting. This reflects labor's recognition that even though trade agreements cost U.S. jobs, exports also account for American jobs -- three out of four jobs in Washington state, according to Time magazine.

The AFL will be shutting the ports down today in Seattlejust to remind people of its muscle.

Mr. Donohue is already behind the curve on this. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, Monsanto and other major companies agree that labor issues and trade deals should be linked.

"Even the business community is ready to accept what organized labor wants if that means in the future we don't have these vicious disputes over things like NAFTA," one exec told the Los Angeles Times. "There is some degree of sympathy for these points of view if we can move the U.S. agenda forward."

But there is a backlash against Mr. Sweeney's position in the American labor movement. Some want an immediate moratorium on trade talks and a complete overhaul of the existing system.

This leads to the perennial Most Boring Headline, "Trade Talks Continue."

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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