Confronting Corporate Dominance
Unless you live in Seattle or routinely scan the business pages for the
latest corporate news, you may have missed the preliminary stories about
the World Trade Organization's upcoming meeting. On November 30th, though,
the likelihood of major street protests--providing great visuals--should
push the economic summit to the front page. That's a good thing, because
the WTO is too dangerous to ignore.
Think of NAFTA raised to a higher level. When the North American Free
Trade Agreement went into effect a few years ago, critics rightly warned
that removing trade barriers would do more harm than good. By ending barriers
to free trade while failing to mandate uniformly strong environmental
and worker protection laws, NAFTA and other trade agreements made the
world safer for corporate growth while watering down concerns about global
exploitation. Today mergers and acquisitions continue at high speed. Profits
rise. Those at the top of the economic pile get wealthier, while those
lower down fall further and further behind.
Fortunately, political protest has also increased over the past few years.
Today's student activists increasingly expose and oppose abominable corporate
practices. Student organizers across the country, many of them graduates
of union-sponsored training programs, have begun to battle effectively
against the on-campus presence of companies that profit from sweatshops,
child labor, and forced labor abroad and poor pay and working conditions
here at home. Echoing the energized student activists are rejuvenated
labor unions and environmental groups and a broad array of Naderites and
others long skeptical of corporate intentions.
The protestors are not alone. Two weeks ago, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan,
the minister who drew up the 1977 "Sullivan principles" designed to pressure
American companies doing business in South Africa, announced a new set
of principles. Sullivan bluntly called on corporations to adopt new codes
of conduct to end discrimination, child labor, physical punishment, involuntary
servitude, and the abuse of women; promote equal opportunity; and provide
safe working conditions at fair wages. At a meeting of corporate executives
in New York, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan endorsed the
new principles, saying they would help fulfill the values in the UN Charter.
The principles do have a lot of promise--but only if they don't get derailed
by the World Trade Organization.
Which brings us to Seattle.
The World Trade Organization's goal is to build on the work of its predecessor,
the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The Seattle meeting brings
together thousands of representatives from more than 100 countries, along
with executives from the world's largest multinationals. The meeting seeks
new agreements to reduce trade barriers even further.
Whether the WTO will also demonstrate meaningful concern for human rights
and environmental protection remains to be seen. So far, freer trade has
not been hampered by enforceable protections. To the contrary, nations
seeking to enforce their own health and safety standards have consistently
been overturned by the unelected WTO on the grounds that high standards
hurt exports, thus violating free trade. This "coup against democratic
governance," as Ralph Nader's group Public Citizen calls it, is likely
to gain strength in Seattle unless the WTO delegates are stopped, or at
That's why thousands of people who reject the coming sellout will fill
the streets: students, union members, environmentalists, liberals, anarchists,
Marxists, and many others. Seattle, long a hotbed of anti-corporate organizing,
will see a huge labor-sponsored rally as well as direct action throughout
the city as protestors sing and march and block roads and try to infiltrate
the formal sessions. Training in nonviolent protest started months ago.
The demonstrators hope to inspire the rest of us to challenge the corporate
agenda. If they manage to shut down the meeting entirely, so much the
Civil disobedience has a long, proud, effective history. Unfortunately,
the mass media are likely to focus on the more bizarre episodes and personalities
rather than on the substance, if they cover the protests at all. Good
coverage or bad, it's important to remember that the activists are raising
crucial issues. Let's hope the press gets the message right, and let's
think about that message the next time we buy cheap products made abroad.