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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
China's US trade critics
Seattle was the high point for the trade critics
Seattle was the high point for the trade critics
by BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes

The critics of the US trade deal with China believe they have the public on their side.

They also believe that they are swimming with a tide of opposition to globalisation which began in Seattle but is now sweeping the world.

Worldwide protests now greet the WTO
Worldwide protests now greet the WTO
The critics have a broader agenda than just stopping one trade deal.

They are attempting to build a bipartisan coalition for what they call "fair trade" which takes into account human and worker rights and concern for the environment, not just the needs of multinational corporations.

The trade battle in Seattle united activists from the student movement, the trade unions, the consumer movement and the environment in a way that has not been seen since the l960s.

Now they are attempting to resist the drive by corporate America for closer links with China.

"It is not a battleground of our own choosing," Thea Lee of the American trade union federation the AFL-CIO told me in her office overlooking the White House.

"But we will fight for our jobs - and in an election year we have real influence the Democrats in Congress."

Although Big Labour does have the political clout it once had, 28% of registered voters coming from union households, and its ability to get out the vote is important.

Many of its members are concentrated in the key industrial states in the Midwest.

But the question is whether it can still deliver its vote, which has been trending Republican ever since Ronald Reagan made his appeal to working class Democrats.

Activists organise

Much of the grassroots organising against free trade has been done by activists from the consumer movement.

On the other side of Washington, in the far less grand offices of Global Trade Watch over a Chinese restaurant, the leader of the trade activists, Lori Wallach, is mobilising her forces.

She is convinced that public opinion is moving against the WTO, and hopes to mobilise a global campaign to "fix it or nix it."

Ms Wallach argues that countries should not have to give up their sovereignty to set environmental or labour standards when they join the WTO.

And she is convinced that the organisation must respond to these concerns if it is to have any future.

She would like the US Congress not only to reject the China trade deal, but repeal US membership in the WTO altogether.

And she believes that not just in the US, but around the world, opposition to globalisation is growing.

Global Trade Watch was instrumental, for example, in blocking the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a plan to unify codes for business investment, in 1998.

Public opinion

The fair trade activists are a broad church with a variety of motives.

Environmentalists, for example, may not agree with some trade unionists about the need for stricter controls over industrial production at home.

And the unions are reluctant to push the sovereignty argument as far as wanting to abolish the WTO, fearing that protectionism at home undercut attempts to agree international labour standards.

But the activists do have one thing on their side - the fact that US public opinion does seem to be moving their way.

Most opinion polls suggest that the public - in so far as it is informed about the issues - is sceptical about the benefits of globalisation.

And since the riots in Seattle, the polls have been moving against the China trade deal.

However, if asked whether free trade is a good thing, most people also support that stance.

Union job worries

Many of the unions are worried by the example of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which they believe led to American jobs moving to Mexico where wages are lower.

According to George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers, "there is no way US producers can compete with the slave labour wages in China."

He sees the issue of one of jobs, and asks whether politicians are going to "stand up for workers and their families and protect their jobs, or yield to the multinationals."

The unions lost the argument over NAFTA.

But the environmental and union coalition did succeed in blocking the attempt by President Clinton to gain fast track authority to negotiate future trade deals, and have seriously disrupted world trade negotiations.

Even if they lose the China trade vote, they have become a force to be reckoned with on the American political scene.

See also:

18 May 00 | Business
Business lobbies hard on China
10 May 00 | Business
US trade battleground
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