A tutor at our local polytech has asked me to do a 90 minute class in November on the antiglobalization movement. Preparing for this presentation is somewhat daunting. Apparently being the only veteran of the 1999 Battle of Seattle in New Plymouth makes me an expert. I find I'm facing some of the same problems we encountered in 1998, trying to recruit local activists to assist with planning and preparation for a major protest at the Third WTO Ministerial. No one had heard of the WTO, and no one had time for a 30 minute explanation of how it worked or why it threatened to end the last vestiges of democratic government in the US .
A Watershed Event
Then, as now, most of the published material about globalization is in legalese and narrowly focused on international trade law. Even articles on the Battle itself concentrate on events in the street, rather than the mammoth (twelve month) organizing strategy feat that made N29 ( November 29, 1999 ) possible.
The "official" alternative media also fails to emphasize the Battle 's significance in uniting previously single issue environmental and social justice activists (and religious activists from Jubilee 2000) in a single movement focused on the wealthy elite. N29 organizers put the word "anti-corporate" in the dictionary. Even more significant, the so-called alternative media glosses over N29's significance as the first major North/South demonstration in which protestors from the industrial north and the developing world joined forces.
It was the presence of 50,000+ militant protestors in the streets that empowered third world WTO delegates to stand up to the industrial north for the first time. Moreover it was their continued refusal to cave in to one-sided trade agreements that led to the collapse of the Doha round -- and the ultimate marginalization of the WTO as an international body.
The "official" media of the progressive movement also neglects to mention 1999 Seattle as the birthplace of Indymedia, providing activists with their own media outlet independent of either corporate or foundation funding.
The Role Played by Nader and Public Citizen
For obvious reasons, the Nation, Mother Jones, Democracy Now! and other foundation-funded alternative media outlets also omit any mention of the role played by Ralph Nader and Public Citizen in funding part-time organizers, not only in Seattle , but in Los Angeles , San Francisco , and other major cities to educate and recruit local contingents of activists to participate in the Seattle protest. No one mentions the million dollar debt that was incurred or who (I suspect it was Nader) ultimately paid it off. In 2000, the alternative media was too busy castigating Nader for daring to embarrass the Democrats with his presidential candidacy to acknowledge some of his most important accomplishments -- including behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to a major antitrust suit against Microsoft.
Hardly anyone mentions the mind bending two day teach-in by the International Forum on Globalization the week before the Third WTO Ministerial arrived in Seattle . Any knowledge I have of water privatization, genetic modification, third world debt, agricultural dumping, and other nasty side effects of free trade is indelibly linked with the amazing third world activists I met in November 1999.
How the WTO Works
For activists from the industrial North, the Battle of Seattle was a fight to preserve the last vestiges of democracy. For those from the developing South, it was about basic survival. In 1998 I and my friends had never heard of the WTO, which receives virtually no media coverage. In fact much of our preparation for the November 1999 demonstration consisted of educating ourselves about globalization, the WTO, and "free" trade. Once we realized what the WTO was -- that it had the power to overturn all federal, state and local legislation harmful to business interests -- we realized that "free trade" erased any pretense that Americans still have democratic input into the political process at any level of government. That the WTO and similar treaties had robbed us of any input into our government, community or workplace.
The WTO, created by international treaty in 1995, gives corporations (member countries file complaints on their behalf) the right to complain to the WTO about the laws of any country, state, city, or town that interfere with their ability to conduct business. These cases are decided by a tribunal that meets in secret in Geneva and nearly always rules in favor of the corporations. The country (or state or local authority) must then rescind the law or face major economic penalties.
The Ability to Overturn ANY Federal, State or Local Legislation
In many cases, these laws relate to environmental protection or public health. Examples include a 1998 ruling against the US Endangered Species act that forced the US to allow shrimping fleets to use deep sea nets that were killing endangered sea turtles. Other WTO rulings forced the state of California to rescind a ban on a dangerous gasoline additive and the European Union their ban on imported US beef treated with growth hormone and requirements that genetically modified foods be labeled. The WTO also has the ability to overturn labor rights legislation.
Destroying Third World Farmers
Although the WTO was supposedly created to lift third world countries out of poverty, its impact on developing countries has been even more disastrous. There is no level playing field at the WTO. Countries with the most money, best lawyers and most political influence nearly always win out.