The violence in Seattle should not obscure the real significance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks: that the multinational corporations can no longer bulldoze through Congress trade agreements that do not incorporate core rights for workers and environmental concerns. President Clinton apparently got the message, but his staff did not. Neither did the "intransigents" -- Brazil, Egypt, India and Pakistan -- which blocked any consideration within the WTO of core rights for workers.
Here is the issue. We are creating an international economic system that is weighted disproportionately in favor of corporate interests without any of the balance -- worker rights and environmental protection -- that we have so laboriously constructed in our domestic society. The shorthand way of describing this process is globalization.
The WTO, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is both a trade and investment agreement. Chapters 11 and 17 of NAFTA explicitly protect corporate property rights; the WTO agreement now has trade-related investment provisions and intellectual property provisions. An effective dispute-resolution process for violation of corporate property rights is incorporated in both agreements. In contrast, the NAFTA labor side agreement contains no effective enforcement provisions for violation of the most basic worker rights: freedom of association and collective bargaining. The WTO agreement prohibits only forced labor. What we have then is a rule-based system that protects corporate property rights but not worker rights and environmental standards.
Lesser-developed countries, now in brutal competition for the same limited pool of foreign investment, are tempted to degrade labor and environmental standards. That is what has happened in Mexico. The U.S. Department of Labor, which is charged with administering the NAFTA labor side agreement, has documented the denial of the right of free association to Mexican workers. Then Arkansas governor Clinton in an Oct. 4, 1992, speech warned that such repressive practices could constitute an incentive for U.S. firms to relocate production to Mexico. Anyone doubting that this threat has materialized need only read a recent article in Business Week that detailed how General Electric is pressuring its suppliers to relocate to Mexico.
The experience with the NAFTA labor side agreement is, to a great extent, what is driving the union demand for a rule-based core-worker-rights addition to the WTO, including the possibility of trade sanctions. (No one is proposing that poorer countries be required to adopt U.S. labor and environmental standards. Alleged protectionist threats are exaggerated.)
Similarly, the experience with WTO efforts to reconcile environmental considerations with the free-trade mandate of the WTO is what is driving mainstream environmental organizations to demand an amendment to the WTO agreement. Such an amendment would place environmental considerations on a par with trade considerations.
It is in everybody's interest, including that of the intransigents, to craft a broad-based consensus in American society in support of a more open trade and investment system that can deliver self-sustaining economic growth for all. This can only be done by integrating into the WTO workers' rights and environmental standards.
The writer is a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law.