Ten years after Seattle and WTO

Posted Nov. 29, 2009, at 5:10 p.m.

Ten years ago today I was standing in the streets of Seattle. I went because I knew I had to be there, but I wasn’t entirely sure why. I was opposed to the undemocratic nature of the World Trade Organization and joined tens of thousands of ordinary people like myself who could no longer stand silently by watching the injustices grow. I went because I knew it would be a significant experience, but I had no idea that Seattle would fundamentally change my life.

It was Nov. 30, 1999, and the WTO was planning to convene its annual meeting for delegates from around the world in Seattle. We went to show them that the world’s people wanted a new direction for the global economy. We went to stop them from conducting business as usual, and we did.

Converging in the streets were people from all walks of life. Environmentalists joined with unionists from around the country, unlikely allies with a common goal — a new vision for trade policy. It was clear to us all, even then, that the WTO and free trade policies governing corporate globalization were benefiting investors and speculators at the expense of millions around the world.

We marched for a week, often in the rain and cold, because we had a common vision — a vision of an economy that allows workers their basic rights, that doesn’t rely on the destruction of the natural environment, and in which democracy matters.

Ten years later, we are still making progress toward that vision together. The new alliances that formed in Seattle, among environmentalists, unionists, political activists, citizens and small farmers joining together, are still engaged today. Here in Maine, a coalition of 55 groups across the state is working to change the rules of the economy to benefit a majority, not just a minority, of people.

These so-called “free trade” policies imposed on the world are hurting Mainers, too. Maine has lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, took effect in 1994. These jobs have been outsourced to countries that use child labor, don’t pay a living wage, and don’t have environmental standards. Countless other jobs in the service sector, like call centers and information technology, have been lost as well. This means entire communities have had the rug pulled out from under them, hurting other businesses, the schools and our entire state.

The WTO continues to undermine democracy. Local, state and federal laws can be deemed “barriers to trade” and subject to WTO fines for having such a law in place. Laws that have been challenged under this set of rules include environmental regulations, food and product safety rules and other important public health and safety policies.

The good news is that we are making a difference and by working together the fair trade movement is winning tangible victories. Today, we finally have a comprehensive vision for a way forward on trade. Maine’s own Rep. Mike Michaud has submitted The TRADE Act to Congress, a blueprint for reforming international trade policy so that it is people-centered. The title stands for the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act, and the bill has 130 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, including Maine’s other representative, Chellie Pingree.

The TRADE Act calls for a review of existing trade agreements, like NAFTA, taking into account what has happened as a result of these pacts. It lays out what must and must not be in future trade agreements, like enforceable labor and environmental standards. It also replaces the anti-democratic “fast track” approval process with a more democratic way to negotiate trade deals, one that gets more input of states and Congress.

Maine’s senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, should sign on as co-sponsors of The TRADE Act. Unfair trade has hurt so many Mainers, it’s time for our senators to sign on to this landmark legislation.

The “Spirit of Seattle” lives on today in this movement of unlikely allies, working together with a common vision of an economy that supports justice and democracy.

Kate Harris is an engaged citizen who lives in Belfast where she is a worker-owner at the Belfast Cooperative.

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