When the World Trade Organization holds a ministerial meeting in Seattle late next month, organized labor plans to put thousands of protesters into the streets demanding a voice at the bargaining table inside.
"We're going to be making our voices heard," said Ron Judd, the coordinator of the protest for the AFL-CIO, which hopes to attract 15,000 demonstrators.
The globalization of international commerce has left labor unions in a quandary. While trade can create jobs--as in a city like Seattle, headquarters of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co., which sells many of its planes overseas--unions increasingly believe that global deals cut to foster trade have few provisions to ensure that the rights of workers are protected.
That situation won't change, union officials believe, until labor has as much influence over the deals being hashed out as do business groups or unless negotiators are directed by their governments to address labor concerns. Among the basic rights that need to be addressed, according to officials, are the freedoms to organize and join a union, and guarantees of minium wages and workplace standards.
"If workers have no seat at the WTO table, then the WTO is the wrong table," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka told the opening session of the federation's biennial convention in Los Angeles.
Many environmental organizations and consumer groups are taking the same tack, saying that the WTO should ensure that world trade doesn't generate more pollution. They will also be sending people to join the Seattle demonstrations.
For labor, causing trouble for trade deals is not an idle threat. Twice in the past two years, the labor movement has successfully led the fight in Congress to block efforts to give President Clinton "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade agreements. Labor refused to back the authority unless it specifically spelled out that workers' rights would be protected--something that Republican leaders would not accept.
Working with international groups during that same period, labor helped defeat the Multilateral Agreement on Investment being negotiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The AFL-CIO argued that the agreement would have undermined the bargaining power of labor unions.
"These trade agreements are never designed to protect workers," said George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has withheld his union's support of Vice President Gore's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination until he gets assurances about Gore's plans for dealing with Mexican trucking issues under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The United Auto Workers union has taken a similar position as it seeks other assurances on trade.
At a dinner honoring Hoffa in New York last week, Clinton acknowledged one of the Teamsters' major complaints when he said, "The big problem I have with trade is that it's too hard to enforce the rules."
Clinton told members of the trucking union that the U.S. government now has evidence that two-thirds of the trucks coming across the border from Mexico are not safe. "They don't meet our standards," the president said. He pledged not to allow changes in the NAFTA trucking rules with Mexico until the safety problems have been resolved.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), for years one of labor's strongest allies on trade issues and a man labor hopes will be the next speaker of the House, told the convention that people were beginning to listen to the arguments for a new trade model that would impose labor and environmental standards on U.S. trading partners.
"We have begun to win," Gephardt told the convention, "but we're going to have a lot more battles. We've just begun this fight."
Gephardt later told a news conference he encouraged labor's plans to demonstrate at the Nov. 30 WTO meeting in Seattle. "Working people and labor unions need to go to the table," he said, adding that if the unions don't take to the streets, they're never going to get invited into the hall.
"I think the agenda at the WTO has been set by people who show up" at the meetings, Gephardt said. "If labor shows up and asserts itself, we can get these issues on the agenda."