Sleepless in Seattle: Why trade is keeping people up

Labor groups, environmentalists, and politicians use the coming worldtrade meeting to raise pet concerns.

Get ready for a food fight over trade.

In a few weeks, delegates from 134 countries will arrive in Seattle to kick off a new round of trade negotiations, which President Clinton calls essential for a more prosperous, open, and equitable world.

But they won't be alone.

Trade unions are planning rallies, environmentalists are drawing attention to the effect of trade on the environment, and anarchists are talking about turning off Seattle's lights in an act of civil disobedience.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting is attracting people who oppose global governance - such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The ruckus will make the Seattle Round, as it is known, the most controversial trade negotiations yet. And that's before the trade ministers even start debating.

"I don't recall any trade meeting ... with this kind emotion," says Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. It's "highly probable" that the disruptions will divert attention from efforts to lower tariffs, end agricultural subsidies, and expand trade, he says.

Trade, it seems, has become a turbo-charged issue among labor groups, environmentalists, and some politicians.

But there are other signs that concern about trade is growing. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of those polled think the global economy will hurt America; 63 percent of low-income families think so. "I think it's two concerns: competition for jobs, particularly at the low end of the wage scale, and the unpredictability of the global economy," says Andrew Kohut, director of the center.

The public's concern parallels the rise in the United States trade deficit, which has been setting a new record almost every month. For the most part this benefits consumers, giving them low-cost goods to buy.

But some of these goods are entering the country at the expense of US-made products. Almost every week another company announces it is shutting down a factory and moving production to a lower-cost country. "We've lost some jobs but created a lot more," counters Mr. Hormats.

It's a message the Clinton administration is hammering as the meeting nears. US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky recently enumerated the reasons for expansion of trade, noting that 80 percent of world economic consumption takes place outside the US and 96 percent of the world's population is non-US.

More than 12 million American jobs are attributed to exports. "To grow and remain competitive in the years ahead, our farmers and businesses must have fair access to these markets," Ms. Barshefsky said at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The government will be joined by a coalition of businesses, called the US Alliance for Trade Expansion or US Trade. "We are planning to collect success stories, to find people who will go on the record and talk about their business success," says Scott Miller, chairman of the group.

It will be easy to be sleepless in Seattle. Organized labor is planning a rally opening day, Nov. 30, with 15,000 people. "The point of the march is to send a message to the WTO that it must address workers' rights and environmental standards, and open up its own operations to be more transparent and accountable," says David Smith of the AFL-CIO in Washington.

But this rally will be more than a picket line. Mike Dolan of Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader group, calls it "a creative critique of the WTO and corporate economic globalization more generally." Anarchists have been practicing civil-disobedience drills for months. Will some groups try to shut down Seattle? "Some will," he replies.

Yet others see the Seattle gathering as a chance to publicize a cause. The International Forum on Globalization, a think tank of intellectuals and activists, will hold a teach-in to lecture about the evils of global institutions. "It's the perfect venue. We have folks who have been analyzing, writing, and doing serious research on the issue," says Debi Barker, deputy director of the San Francisco-based group.

The WTO is hoping to defuse the situation by allowing some nongovernmental organizations to give speeches the day before the actual trade negotiations. In addition, the US is hoping the WTO will agree to set up a "working group" to look at the intersection of trade and labor policy. But, this group will have no real power.

Barshefsky has been listening to environmental groups as well. She hopes the WTO will agree to form an advisory committee on trade and the environment "to better identify opportunities."

However, environmental groups say they are disappointed. "We have talked but we don't think they have heard our views," says Daniel Seligman of the Sierra Club. In the past five years, he says, a similar committee made no recommendations on environmental reform. "We have very little confidence in more talk." The Sierra Club will also march during the WTO meeting.

Administration officials hope the distraction on Seattle's streets is not the only story reported. "The media has a responsibility for all the meetings, including what is being accomplished," Barshefsky says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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