Derailing the WTO

At one level, an unprecedented unity has emerged across the nascent "global justice and solidarity movement" towards the trade talks in Cancun. Conservative trade union organisations like the TUC and its international lobbying body the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) can now agree on a basic platform of demands with radical Southern-based NGOs and social movements of the "Our World is not for Sale" network.

September 1, 2003
8 min read

These demands include:

  • drastic democratic reform of the WTO;
  • no expansion of negotiations into “New Issues” (see “Free trade on a knife edge“)
  • immediate removal of public services from the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats), and full disclosure of Gats offers and requests made so far;
  • an end to First World dumping of subsidised exports on developing country markets; and
  • greater rights for governments to regulate their economies in line with labour, social and environmental standards.

    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.


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