WTO draws labor critics

Teamsters, AFL-CIO want workers' rights on summit agenda

Focus of globalization fear

Many groups gear up for vociferous protest of free-trade policies

November 29, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the organization was attacked yesterday by labor leaders for putting "corporate greed" ahead of human rights.

But for the government ministers attending the summit this week it represents a chance to extend a half-century of global economic expansion well into the new millennium.

And for the thousands who will be picketing and chanting outside on the streets, it's a chance to protest what they call the poor labor, environmental and human rights conditions of modern capitalism.

Years of free-floating dismay over corporate layoffs, stagnant wages, pollution, Third World sweatshops, executive riches, weaker unions, trade deficits and technological health threats have come into focus in Seattle, where the WTO, a global forum for overseeing trade, will meet for four days starting tomorrow.

The WTO, as referee over an increasingly turbulent global commerce, has become economic enemy No. 1 for critics on the right and left.

"Everybody who's concerned about globalization: Here's the target," said Thomas Carothers, head of the global policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The intensity of emotion that is spilled over the WTO reflects something much larger than tariffs. It's about what kind of international system are we going to have."

Environmentalists, religious groups, unions and human rights activists from dozens of countries are descending on Seattle to protest what they see as destructive profiteering by corporations and craven accommodation by governments.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, whose union is among the labor groups organizing the Seattle protests, said the demonstrators want a "seat at the table" to ensure the WTO stops putting "corporate greed, corporate profits, above human rights."

The AFL-CIO federation demanded that WTO member nations put labor standards on the agenda for the new round or face a backlash from workers around the globe.

In a warm-up for tomorrow's big march, several hundred demonstrators paraded through Seattle's trendy Capital Hill district yesterday.

This is the most important meeting in the WTO's four-year existence. It is the first time the organization has tried to launch a new round of negotiations to relax international trade barriers. If successful, the Seattle summit would continue a process of steadily freer trade that began after World War II.

But it may also produce one of the most important U.S. social protests in years, a boisterous, media-soaked demonstration that could affect the 2000 elections.

"American families understand the cruelty of a world economy regulated in favor of the corporations," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "In Seattle, working people from across the world will call on the WTO to review its record and reform its rules."

A broad centrist bloc of economists and policy makers backs trade unfettered by broad labor and environmental restrictions. Friction-free commerce, they argue, raises living standards in poor countries, lowers prices for consumers, boosts human productivity and binds nations that otherwise might be shooting guns at each other.

Most national governments generally support free trade, though that doesn't prevent them from trying to rig the system to support pet industries.

Heartened by discord

But people troubled by the effects of global trade on workers and the environment hope that the energy generated by the Seattle protests will undermine political support for less-regulated markets. They say they are heartened by signs of discord among WTO delegates in the days leading up to the meeting and hope that the group will fail to launch a new batch of trade talks.

"Seattle emerges as a critical test of whether the WTO and its member governments will actually do something about the rumblings" of discontent over globalization, said David Schorr of the World Wildlife Fund, which is harshly critical of the WTO.

Until now, its critics complain, the WTO has mainly looked after the interests of corporations that have been closing down cleaner, better-paying operations in developed nations and opening lower-wage, higher-pollution plants in the Third World.

But WTO issues aren't easy to sort out, which may be one reason why WTO delegates could not agree on an agenda before the Seattle meeting. Nations and interest groups allied on some issues find themselves yelling at each other over other issues.

The United States deplores government trade protections for European and Japanese farmers, but it wants to shield its steel industry from cheap imports. The United States and Europe support environmental restrictions that the Third World opposes -- on trading in endangered species, for instance.

Environmental groups favor some kinds of trade barriers -- for example, lumber tariffs that might protect old-growth forests. But they criticize others, such as government fishing subsidies, that might deplete scarce resources.

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