Trade Unionists Working Within the WTO
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Six years ago, trade unionists led 40,000 protesters out onto Seattle's streets, confronting tear-gas-wielding riot police and torpedoing World Trade Organization talks.
As the WTO reconvenes Tuesday in Hong Kong, some of the same trade unionists are fighting again -- but this time for the trade negotiations to succeed. They are among organizations waging free trade arguments inside the halls of the talks instead of outside on the streets.
"I don't believe in throwing stones at the World Trade Organization," said Guy Ryder, secretary general of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
Members of the confederation helped lead the 1999 Seattle protests. Now, while some maintain a protectionist line, Ryder's group has redefined its position. "We need international organizations to deal with trade issues in a rational way," said Ryder, who joined the confederation after Seattle.
Plenty of vehement anti-free-trade protesters remain. Millions of workers in Indonesia and South Korea fear they will lose their jobs to free trade, and groups from those countries plan demonstrations. In South Korea, farmers have recently clashed repeatedly with riot police. Some have even committed suicide to make their point.
Many international organizations, however, have moved toward trying to shape trade rules to meet their priorities, rather than disrupt the talks. There are a number of reasons. Massive street riots are harder to pull off in the heightened security of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. Also, the terrorist attack on the world's most visible symbol of free trade dampened enthusiasm for protesting free trade directly. And a number of former opposition groups now see trade talks, and the WTO itself, as a means to tackle poverty in developing countries.
If they are angry these days, it is at the rich countries for not doing enough to open up their markets, rather than for pursuing more open markets at all.
Finally, groups say more WTO members are listening to them. "Now you have developing-country governments looking to local and international organizations for guidance," said Todd Tucker, research director at Global Trade Watch, a branch of U.S. group Public Citizen.
Groups trying to affect global economic issues -- especially poverty -- have changed their media strategies. Oxfam has celebrities tour the world with its message of pressing rich countries to give up trade barriers to help poorer countries.
World Wide Fund for Nature, once a vocal opponent of global trade, said its work inside the WTO has brought it some of its biggest successes.
Because of its lobbying of trading nations, the group said, the WTO has declared that trade deals must take into account environmental concerns.
"We used perhaps to be more aggressive about publicizing our concerns and using that as a bat to beat the WTO," said Gordon Shepherd, international policy director at the WWF. "Trade is linked to the development pattern in the developing countries. If that doesn't happen, then everyone is going to suffer."
The environmental group Greenpeace also has become adept at working within the corridors. Even as the group prepares a stinging critique of trade talks that favor business over environmental concerns, the group's tactic is to "work within existing power dynamics and start discussions with countries such as Brazil, which are moving to the front of the talks," said Daniel Mittler, trade policy adviser for Greenpeace International.
Such pro-trade activists fear a collapse of talks in Hong Kong would discredit the WTO and open the way to alternatives -- such as a proliferation of bilateral trade deals -- that could be bad news for poor countries and workers. "There will be some who want violence, but there will be a lot of pressure from us to not take that road," said Phil Bloomer, campaign director at Oxfam, which is lobbying for poorer countries' trade interests.
Gordon Fairclough contributed to this report.