Workers lose at WTO meet

George Becker, in a message from Doha, Qatar, told the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), “The apparent goal of the [World Trade Organization] at this session in Doha is to eliminate forever the idea that trade and labor rights can or should be linked ... Indeed, if the existing language on labor rights, as weak as it is, is rolled back, it will be a major defeat for workers the world over.”

Becker, the former president of the USWA, was representing the Steelworkers at the WTO ministerial meeting earlier this month. He was exactly right.

In truth, any move to raise labor rights was handily defeated in Doha. Labor around the world, including the AFL-CIO, has been pressing the WTO to incorporate the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) “core labor standards” in its trade agreements. No progress was made. Labor, environmentalists, human rights activists and youth were shut out again and not just by Qatar’s repressive police state; the WTO turned a deaf ear.

The ILO, part of the United Nations, includes in its core labor standards the right to organize and bargain collectively; freedom from discrimination based on race, nationality or gender; equal pay for equal work; no child labor; and prohibition against forced or slave labor.

It should be noted that the U.S. has only ratified two of the eight standards – the convention against forced or slave labor and one on the worst forms of child exploitation like child pornography. However, the convention prohibiting child labor is among those not ratified.

The Doha meeting sent steelworkers another signal from the Bush administration. Out of one side of his mouth, President Bush, through the trade commission, told steelworkers he will act to protect jobs. In Doha, out of the other side of his mouth, he agreed to let the WTO override U.S. trade law.

The U.S. negotiating team, led by Bush-appointed trade representative Robert Zoellick, agreed to put U.S. anti-dumping laws up for negotiations. Regardless of what many of us might think about the limitations of anti-dumping laws to protect jobs, Bush and big business are telling steelworkers to forget any government help.

To top it all off, the GOP right-wing leadership in Congress has called for a vote on Fast Track legislation for Dec. 6. Fast Track would give the president the right to sign trade agreements with only a yes or no vote of Congress, leaving Congress with no right to modify such agreements.

If you ask me, it’s time to get good and mad, and shed a few illusions. Labor is fighting the good fight, but the WTO is one of the main instruments of capitalist globalization. It is of, by and for the transnational corporations. It will not be an instrument for protecting labor’s rights. The foxes will not protect the henhouse. Instead, the ILO and the U.N. should be the world bodies regulating world trade and setting labor standards.

Despite all their problems, the U.N. and ILO are 1,000 times more democratic than the WTO. Labor, environmentalists, women and youth advocates, human rights activists, anti-globalization forces already have a seat at the table. Scrap the WTO altogether. We can start by mobilizing to demand that Congress ratify all of the ILO core labor agreements.

Sure, Jesse Helms won’t like it. It would mean that Congress would have to repeal right-to-work (for less) laws and truly allow the right to organize and bargain collectively. And you have to ask, why doesn’t Bush or the Congress want to ratify anti-discrimination and child labor conventions?

Secondly, only mass action is going to save the steel industry. U.S. Steel is buying up steel mills in Eastern Europe. With steel capital going global, can we really expect the companies or the Bush administration to stop imports to protect steel jobs? Not a chance.

Steel is still a decisive industry for rebuilding America and putting the country back to work. It’s in every working family’s interest to demand that local, state and federal governments use the right of Eminent Domain to take over the steel mills that the companies want to shut down. With public ownership and a skilled work force, steel can be made for what the country badly needs rather than to serve corporate greed.

Lastly, Fast Track has to be defeated. The Steelworkers just had the Supreme Court reject their challenge to NAFTA as unconstitutional. Forgetting the law that Congress has to ratify treaties, the court rejected the suit saying it was political. Damn right it was, but the court that appointed George Bush president isn’t about to challenge big business’ right to globalize as they see fit. Defeating Fast Track is the best first step in stopping trade agreements on the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the WTO.