Vol. VIII, Bulletin No.10                                                      October 4, 2003 

How To Design Your Own Collapse

What caused the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its human crew last Febuary?  It isn't enough to identify the specific mechanical and human failures, the Economist magazine wrote in a lengthy analysis August 30. "Instead, there is a need to look at NASA's whole culture and organization....The heart of the problem...is that the shuttle is a bad design, full of compromises, too risky, hopelessly optimistic, and trying to be too many things to too many people."

What caused the collapse of the international trade talks in Cancun, Mexico, last month? It isn't enough to identify the specific issues and human errors that contributed to the failure at Cancun. Rather, it is essential to look at the heart of the problem: the whole culture and make-up of the World Trade Organization.

For, in its own way, the WTO suffers from afflictions similar to those of NASA's space shuttle. The evidence is there, not just in the media post-mortems on Cancun, but in the pronouncements and policies of the WTO itself.

WTO's Ambitions To Rule the Whole Global Economy

"We are writing the constitution of the single global economy," the first WTO director general, Renato Ruggiero, declared seven years ago. His successors have not proclaimed the WTO's mission in the same words, but have dedicated the organization to the same goal of  global governance. Just check the WTO's own Website, and you'll get a sampling of its grandiose global activities.

Take a look, for starters, at a section describing the WTO agenda established at the November 2001 ministerial conference in Doha, Qatar. In Qatar, a desert kingdom safely isolated from the distractions of street demonstrations, the world's trade ministers agreed to a "work program" covering 21 topics, most of them involving separate negotiations, including those on:
And those are only 10 of the 21 topics covered in the work program. Add to that a list of 12 subjects on an "implementation program." Put all these issues together, and you have a one-world agenda staggering in the sweep of its ambitions.  Dig into the particulars, and you learn how far this agenda intrudes into the internal affairs of the WTO's 148 member nations, big and small..

WTO Moving Toward 'Classical Protectionism'

One example of the WTO's long reach into domestic policies is its set of global rules on intellectual property rights, including strong protection of the drug patents of U.S. pharmaceutical companies. These rules, TRIPS under the WTO acronym, take global trade policy into a new direction, away from the approach of the WTO's predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT for short. The new approach taken under the WTO "differs fundamentally from classic GATT-type market access rules," Razeen Sally of the London School of Economics points out.

"Its short-term effect is to close, not open markets," Sally writes in a report for the Center for Trade Policy Studies of the Cato Institute. "Strong patent protection in particular increases prices and transfers rents [profits] from poorer developing countries to multinational enterprises headquartered in the West, especially in the pharmaceutical sector....The actual and potential effect [of detailed rules such as in TRIPS] is to hinder, not promote, market access....The effect is the same as classic protectionism."  (For more information, see "U.S. Comes to the Aid of Rich Drug Firms.")

Benefits of Trade Liberalization Funneled to the Elite

In a statement after the Cancun talks flopped, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney blamed "the trade ministers and corporate elite of industrialized countries...for an overly ambitious agenda,...an agenda which serves corporate interests, but has left working people, the environment, and communities behind." He added that the necessary support for the WTO "in both rich and poor countries will be elusive so long as the benefits of trade liberalization remain concentrated in the hands of a small multinational corporate elite."

But top negotiators like Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, continued to see the Cancun failure as a defeat for their idyllic vision of "free trade" and a setback for poor countries. The media mostly chimed in. Paul Blustein of the Washington Post, in a September 16 article, framed the basic issue this way: "Do the nations of the world lack the stomach to open their borders further to trade and investment?"

Blustein showed keener insights in an earlier article (August 3) in which he analyzed "one of the most spectacular economic collapses in modern history":  Argentina's default on most of its $141,000,000,000 debt and its slide into a recession that threw 3,000,000 people into poverty last year.  The Post headlines summarized the major reason:
-- Page one: "Argentina Didn't Fall on its Own -- Wall Street Pushed Debt Till the Last"
-- Inside page: "Argentine Economy Collapsed With Wall Street's Help"

That article, spilling over into two full inside pages, spelled out in detail Wall Street's complicity in that disaster. "Investment bankers, analysts, and bond traders served their own interests [raking in fat fees] when they pumped up euphoria about the country's prospects, with disastrous results," Blustein wrote. If printed in a publication like the Nation, Blustein's recital of the facts about Wall Street's unbounded avarice would have been dismissed as "corporation bashing" or "anti-globalization."

When will the Post and other news giants have the guts to open their pages to how the immoral, self-enriching culture of Wall Street & Co. shapes the World Trade Organization and U.S. trade policy?

WTO Blind to Mass Exploitation

Glaringly absent from the WTO's agenda at Cancun were issues involving the human rights of workers. Unionists from every continent descended on Cancun, hoping to persuade the September 10-14 ministerial meeting to pay some attention to international worker rights. They failed, as they have at all the four previous WTO ministerial conferences.

Gus Ryder, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, said at a press conference: "Globalization has the potential to bring prosperity to people across the world, but today's crude, free market globalization is pushing standards down and leading to massive exploitation."

Exposing Violence against Unions in Dominican Republic

Evidence of that exploitation was presented in a new ICFTU report on the poverty and working conditions of most of the 43,000,000 men and women now working in the world's export processing zones (EPZs). The details supporting the report's title, "EPZs: Symbols of Exploitation and a Development Dead-End," include testimony about gross labor abuses in a Dominican Republic factory owned by the largest private company in that country, Grupo M, which produces apparel and footwear for some of the world's best-known brands. Part of that testimony:

"There were 18 members of the union committee last year. Only one of them still works in the factory. After they began to organize, the company brought two gang members into the factory to begin attacking union supporters. Union members were chased by the gang members, and physically attacked with metal tubes, hammers, and machetes inside and outside of the factory. When inside, they [the attacks] were carried out in full view of managers and workers, and with the explicit support of company security."

Loans Can Subsidize Mass Exploitation

While the WTO trade rules ignore that kind of exploitation, international financial institutions can subsidize it. And indeed sometimes do, according to the ICFTU -- for example, the prospective beneficiary of  $20,000,000 loan from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation is none other the Dominican Republic firm, Grupo M (see above).

On the IFC Website, you can find the following information on this IFC project, which is still awaiting approval:
Among the conditions that IFC puts on its loans is that the corporations commit themselves to respecting two ILO core labor standards -- those prohibiting child labor and forced labor. In a face-to-face meeting last month with the Peter Woicke, IFC executive vice president, ICFTU representatives urged the IFC to condition its private sector financing on compliance with all core labor standards, including the right to organize and to bargain collectively -- starting now with the Grupo M project. A follow-up letter to Woicke, released publicly, put pressure on the IFC board to introduce "the labor standards provision into all IFC loan agreements."

In a phone conversation, an IFC spokesman told me that the IFC hasn't "found any evidence of union-busting practices on the part of Grupo M," but they will continue to look into the charges made by the ICFTU and a local non-governmental organization, the Haiti Support Group.

Double Standards for Elections in U.S.

Imagine that you are a candidate for a public office (school board, city council, Congress, or even president). Naturally, you assume that you will be running under the usual standards for fair political elections.  For example, you and those who support you won't be subjected to coercion or intimidation. But you find that's not so -- people who support you are threatened with firing, harassment, and other forms of retribution.

Then, on top of that, your candidacy is handicapped in other ways, such as:
Unfair conditions of that kind normally do not exist in U.S. political elections. But they are the norm in elections in which workers seek to be represented by a union. President John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO sharply criticized those "de facto ground rules for union [representation] elections in America" in a talk he gave August 30 in Philadelphia to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

"If Jimmy Carter were asked to monitor such an election in a Third World country," Sweeney said, "he'd be on a plane and out of there in a heartbeat. But this isn't a Third World country. This is supposed to be a first-rate democracy, yet we treat workers like second class citizens."

Graduate Student Employees Union Opposed by University of Pennsylvania

Sweeney highlighted a current example of how even a Ivy League school -- the University of Pennsylvania -- does not hesitate to intervene in a union representation election and to oppose the right to organize. On the platform with Sweeney was David Faris, a graduate teaching assistant in political science at Penn in Philadelphia and a member of Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. GET-UP has struggled for more than two years to gain a voice for Penn's 1,000 graduate teaching and research assistants.

"We played by the rules," Faris said. "We garnered majority support in just under three months of organizing in fall 2001. Penn refused to recognize us. We then filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Penn used the law to stall our vote for over a year. We finally got to vote in February 2003. Exit polls and surveys indicate that we won by a solid majority. On election night, federal agents impounded our ballots because Penn appealed our right to even have an election. Here we are six months later and the votes have not yet been counted and bargaining has not begun."

A GET-UP petition, "Count-Our-Votes," calls on Judith Rodin, Penn's president, to drop the university's appeal of the November 2002 NLRB ruling that granted Penn's graduate employees the right to vote. It also urges Rodin to allow the ballots cast in the February election to be counted and "should the union prevail, to bargain in good faith and reach a fair agreement with GET-UP/AFT." 

"Our position," Peter Conn, Penn's deputy provost, told  the Daily Pennsylvanian, "is that graduate students are primarily, fundamentally and essentially students. To superimpose an adversarial collective bargaining model on well-established collegial practices is destructive."

Human Dignity and Democratic Principles at Stake: Penn Law Professor

In a lengthy analysis of Penn administration's multi-faceted objections to unionization, Clyde Summers, a professor of law at Penn, wrote in the Daily Pennsylvanian:

"I see no insuperable obstacle to the administration dealing with those graduate student employees who wish to speak collectively. I see no compelling reason that they should not have an effective voice in the decisions which affect their employment as teaching assistants and research assistants. To me, it is unseemly that their terms and conditions of employment should be dictated unilaterally without meaningful discussion with representatives of their own choosing. Recognition of their human dignity and democratic principles requires no less."

The University of Pennsylvania is just one battleground in the struggle to gain equal rights for working people, but it's worth following because of what it teaches. For a fascinating graduate educational program run by GET-UP/AFT, check out the Website at http://getuponline.org/index.shtml.

More Light on Pollution and Workers

In the past couple of weeks, spam and computer problems have caused me to lose some incoming email. Fortunately, the following message, from a foundation previously unknown to me, came through okay.

Hello, Robert:

Thanks for your musings and notes on the state of worker rights. I've looked them over from time to time since I came upon your Website a while back. Your post-May Day installment did raise my eyebrows in surprise. Not surprise at the dastardly deeds of employers and such. Actually, it was your note
on "Seeing the Light on Environmental Pollution."

I am delighted you had this epiphany on the relationship of pollution, worker and community health, and globalization. To expand your insights further, it might be useful to look into the large and growing world of labor/environment activism (much of it outside the U.S.). The tight link between the way workers are treated inside a factory and how the community outside is treated (via the emissions from the plant) has been known for a very long time. For centuries, I'd estimate.

The idea that pollution and bad working conditions are moved from richer to poorer locations, from places with more empowered to less empowered people, is as old as the ages. Some call in "globalization," some call it "environmental racism," "discrimination," "exploitation," whatever. It is all of these things, and it has changed its precise economic, social, and political forms over the years.

In the current day, workers via unions at the local and global level are doing environmental activism because of the direct link between what goes on inside and outside a factory, hospital, or other workplace. To give you a few links: 
  -- Maggie Robbins, Project Coordinator, Health Guide for Workers in Export Processing Zones, Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley, Calif.

(According to a note on the foundation's Website, "Health Book for Workers in Export Processing Zones" is scheduled for publication late next year.)

Diary: Walking in the Park with Mai

I have not been in the mood to do any writing in recent weeks. Thanks to my little granddaughter, however, my creativity revived one day in late  August. It happened on a scintillating morning when my wife and I took Mai for a stroll in a small park not far from our home. The sun was in full bloom, and so was Mai, two and a half years old.

Afterwards, back in the house, I felt an urge to put something, anything, on paper. I picked up a yellow legal pad, and started writing in a form I had never tried before. I jotted down some lines based on one special conversation I had with Mai during our walk. Later, I did some editing, so that the final product read as follows:

Where, I wondered, did it come from,
This dimpled little ball so white on green?

Did it grow in grass, like a dandelion?
No, said Mai at two and a half.

Did it run away from home to hide here?
No, said Mai at two and a half.

Or did it travel wide on someone's hasty swing?
Mai turned and bent to pick another dandelion.
And so the doldrums and I parted one happy morning during our walk in the park.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-10    October 4, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
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