Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
These demands include:
Such consensus would have been unthinkable a few years ago. International trade unions publicly feuded with Southern civil-society groups over how to challenge the WTO. The ICFTU believed that by simply changing the rules managing trade, globalisation could be given a “human face”. Hence its longstanding campaign, backed by US and EU governments, for a “workers’ rights clause”, which would make membership of the WTO conditional on respect for “core labour standards”.
That campaign was opposed outright by most developing countries. They accused the North of a protectionist conspiracy to destroy their only competitive advantage – cheap labour. Southern NGOs supported universal workers” rights but opposed making them a condition of trade liberalisation. They wanted to halt free trade and curtail the WTO’s power altogether – not give it control over yet more issues.
The issue rapidly turned into a surreal dispute over who had the greater legitimacy to talk on behalf of the world’s workers. The ICFTU, formally representing over 100 million workers (almost none of whom knew that it existed), or unelected, unaccountable NGO “think-tanks” of middle-class intellectuals?
Since Seattle relations between unions and other NGOs have improved after determined efforts by both sides to overcome differences and draw up a common agenda on which they can work together. Encouraged by more progressive global unions like Public Services International, the unions have shifted their position some way towards groups like the World Development Movement, the southern African Alternative Information and Development Centre and the Third World Network. For example, the unions have toughened their line on Gats, now oppose negotiations on New Issues and have quietly dropped the workers” rights clause as their priority.
With the present WTO system on a knife edge, civil society speaking with one voice could create the political pressure both inside and outside the Cancun Convention Centre to bring the global neo-liberal agenda to a shuddering halt. Such an outcome is threatened, however, by entrenched divisions throughout the global justice movement that cut across trade union, NGO and social movement lines.
Civil society splits
Take the crucial issue of agriculture. Unions belonging to the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) agree with Via Campesina (an international peasant movement that includes the Brazilian Landless Workers and Jose Bove’s Confederation Paysanne) that food security cannot be achieved without food sovereignty – ie, the right of people to define and control their own agricultural and food policies. This would prioritise local and regional food production and consumption over export. As this is incompatible with a global agricultural free market, Via Campesina and the IUF want “agriculture out of the WTO”.
The word in the factories and fields, however, has clearly not made it up to the headquarters of the ICFTU, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) or even Oxfam. These organisations are calling for the developing world to have increased market access to industrialised country markets so it can trade its way out of poverty. There is no contradiction, they argue, between protecting small farmers while encouraging the growth of agricultural exports from developing countries.
They are wrong. As Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South argued last year in a public condemnation of Oxfam’s free-trade approach, encouraging export-oriented growth in developing countries will only benefit “monopolistic export agricultural interests” and encourage export-led development. Small farms and local control over food production would be destroyed.
The issue has led to major tensions within the UK’s Trade Justice Movement – a huge coalition of campaign groups, NGOs and trade unions. One NGO insider says: “Oxfam’s position enabled the government to say “we agree with you” on fair trade, which is not only untrue but has deflected focus away from our main priority – to expose the government’s hardline support for New Issues.”
New Issues are, themselves, a cause of similar divisions, as are trade agreements on services and intellectual property rights. Then there is a possible NGO advisory body to the WTO. Most international unions – especially the ICFTU – want this kind of ‘seat at the side-table”. NGOs like Focus on the Global South vehemently oppose it, warning that the movement could be co-opted.
In one sense, such splits shouldn”t matter given the basic consensus across civil society outlined above. However, they could be hugely significant when considering movement strategy towards the ministerial meeting.
The WTO: lobby or shut down?
Last October the National Peasant Federation of Ecuador initiated a People’s Global Action call for an Americas-wide day of action against the WTO. Hundreds of groups and movements attending January’s World Social Forum in Brazil agreed to “derail the WTO” at Cancun. Significantly, the ICFTU, formally representing 158 million workers worldwide, was not a signatory.
In May, an historic “Hemispheric and Global Assembly Against the FTAA [the Free Trade Area of the Americas] and the WTO” met in Mexico City to put this call into practice. A global day of action against the WTO has since been declared for 9 September. The day will kick off a week of peaceful, creative direct action and civil disobedience to disrupt the ministerial meeting. A “Global March against Globalisation and War” will take place on 13 September. In between, a “Peoples” Forum for an Alternative to the WTO” will run parallel to the trade negotiations, and will include a giant “Fair-Trade Fair”. Some 100,000 “alternative globalisers” are expected.
The call to “derail the WTO” is the correct one. While many “derailers” favour some kind of WTO, they realise that the neo-liberal agenda and huge political and economic clout of the US and EU (backed by a biased WTO secretariat) mean that any agreement reached in Cancun will inevitably mean yet more liberalisation and loss of democratic control – bad news for developing countries. The only strategy in this context is to stop any agreement being reached at all.
There are risks to this approach, however. If the US fails to get its way at the WTO it will turn its full coercive powers of persuasion to launching the FTAA – a far more sinister proposition. As presently drafted, the FTAA would expand an extreme version of the North America Free Trade Agreement to the rest of the American hemisphere, Cuba excluded. Corporations would be able to sue governments for imposing “costly” labour or environmental regulations on business. This ominous sceptre has mobilised a huge pan-American grassroots movement, led by the Hemispheric Social Alliance, to prioritise derailing the crucial FTAA ministerial summit in Miami. That summit begins just eight weeks after Cancun.
But we have little choice other than to try and derail both the WTO and the FTAA meetings. It won”t be easy. For Cancun especially, street protests will not be enough – activists won”t get anywhere near the convention centre. Disruptive NGO lobbying inside is thus essential in blocking consensus, but this too will be hamstrung by the clampdown on NGO numbers allowed accreditation at the ministerial.
This is why the role of the trade union movement could prove pivotal. The ICFTU and its affiliates are taking over 100 union officials, including a small group from Unison, to lobby trade negotiators. They will coordinate with the small number of trade unions that are part of social democratic government delegations, and the ETUC, which should be part of the European Commission representation. Most unions officially oppose the “derail” strategy, but if they stand firm on their declared intentions and work alongside other NGOs to stop consensus on New Issues, the meeting could collapse without agreement. If, however, unions treacherously pursue deals to get “positive language” on workers” rights in return for not working against a final agreement (however bad), then all could be lost.
The omens are not good. At Seattle, trade union leaders re-routed their massive 40,000-strong labour march away from the mass protests on the opening day of the WTO meeting in return for a meeting with Bill Clinton. More recently, a British union official was “amazed at how much the ICFTU was prepared to concede” at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development just to get a deal. This eagerness to compromise is not just ideological, but based on organisational self-interest: the ICFTU and ETUC receive large amounts of funding from Western governments. Are they really going to bite the hand that feeds them? We”ll soon know the answer.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook