Corporate Mardi Gras

Last month, a jubilant Clinton administration and Washington state officials announced the landing of a big prize: the next round of global summit talks for the World Trade Organization would be held in Seattle, November 29-December 3 of this year.

Local media played it for the sort of cash-rich media hyperevent our local leaders love: sorta like the NCAA's Final Four for policy wonks. But the largest single trade event in US history will be more important, and more ominous—which is why protesters from around the world will also be coming to Seattle. These next steps in the formal corporate usurpation of democracy may well be tagged around the world as the "Seattle Round." What great publicity!

The World Trade Organization isn't familiar to most people, but it should be. It is, essentially, our unelected global government. The entire purpose of the WTO, created in 1993, has been to lessen the restrictions that local and national governments can place on transnational corporations. It does so by hammering out NAFTA-style trade agreements on various side issues—Al Gore, your next president (acck!), has already announced that Seattle talks will focus on "open markets for agriculture and services and trade issues for biotechnology and electronic commerce"—and by deciding trade "disputes" between nations.

The WTO's decisions, it turns out, have often been at the behest of corporations, and the small and not-so-small national governments that do their bidding. For example, the shrimp industry convinced the governments of Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Malaysia to lodge a complaint about the US Endangered Species Act, over the use of safety devices in shrimping nets that protect endangered sea turtles. The WTO killed the law. The protection of sea turtles, which was sweated over by US citizens, was summarily overturned—in a secret hearing in Geneva, by an appointed body with no accountability to voters anywhere and no limits on possible corporate conflicts of interest. In the sea turtle case, the dispute-settlement panel was composed of three individuals from countries with conflicts of interest on the issue. There is no appeal process.

Similarly, "competitive disadvantage" has been the mantra as dolphin-safe tuna restrictions have been overturned in the US and as Europe has been prevented from banning import of hormone-fed US beef. Such usurpation of local law has invariably worked to the advantage of transnational corporations and to the disadvantage of environmental, public health, and worker safety laws.

That, in a nutshell, is why organized labor, economic justice, human rights, and environmental groups are up in arms with the WTO, and why they are promising to descend upon Seattle in force. Already, AFL-CIO head John Sweeney has announced that he'll be in Seattle for the week before the talks, to convene a meeting of the International Coalition of Free Trade Unions (the global equivalent of the AFL-CIO). Numerous groups are calling for street protests. Last year in Geneva, in the previous round of WTO talks, both the alternative conventions and the near-riots in the streets made global headlines.

Local free trade apologists like Patty Murray—for whom Seattle's landing of the WTO talks was "like hitting the jackpot"—would rather not acknowledge this sort of opposition. That's only natural for a state politically dominated by Boeing, one of the most persistent corporate advocates of unfettered trade. But for the average resident of the Puget Sound area, such concerns are far more germane than Boeing's stock prices.

Both of the host committee co-chairs of the Seattle Round, Phil Condit (Boeing) and Bill Gates (Earth), are relentless practitioners of outsourcing—exporting jobs to wherever the labor wages are lowest and the workforce most pliant, the corporate welfare most lucrative, the environmental and worker safety laws laxest, and the local government most eager to place its gendarmes and jails at corporate disposal. The net effect, which matters very much to you and I, is a "race to the bottom," where countries and localities are left to compete with each other over who can loot its treasury and screw its workforce the most efficiently.

Seattle plays this game like everyone else— by giving enormous tax breaks to the Boeings and Immunexes and shoveling out money to billionaires who don't need it, in the hope that we'll get a tiny percentage of it back in economic benefits.

This, in essence, is what the World Trade Organization is about: preempting local control of public policy on the behalf of struggling, impoverished transnationals. The public in the US has been somewhat behind the rest of the world in protesting this agenda—the disadvantages to farmers around biotechnology and export issues led to a million people in the streets and some 70,000 arrests in India when the WTO was created.

Domestically, a massive labor and environmental mobilization helped forestall the Clinton administration's efforts to win "fast-track" authority (the ability to implement trade agreements without congressional approval). Globally, grassroots opposition helped delay negotiations toward an even more ominous successor to WTO, the US-led Multilateral Agreement on Investments, which would allow corporations to directly petition each other to overturn national and local laws.

The Seattle Round will, in a sense, be a referendum, contested between those in the suites and those in the streets—between corporate-friendly tribunals that craft our public policy in secret meetings in Geneva, and the rights of local governments to rein in corporate abuses. Decisions made here later this year will affect such issues internationally for years to come. That's rather more important than promoting Seattle's glorious November weather, or how many postcards the delegates buy.

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