Trade is a pretty hot topic these days. For us in the United Auto Workers, that's a welcome development, because we've been pretty hot about trade for quite some time.
For more than 20 years, we've been sounding the alarm about lost jobs, closed plants and the downward pressure on wages and working conditions that result from the galloping U.S. trade deficit. But as demonstrators made clear in the streets of Seattle, Washington, the erosion of U.S. manufacturing is just one of the problems caused by the current structure of global trade.
The central issue is not a goods and services deficit. It's a democracy deficit - because the rules of international trade now are written and enforced behind closed doors without review or input by the public, the press or any genuinely representative body.
Our protest against the World Trade Organization must not be confused with a protest against the world or against trade. More than a dozen speakers at the labor-sponsored rally in Seattle were from unions in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. They all forcefully agreed that new trade agreements must include strong, enforceable labor standards.
Those who claim that the effort to enhance labor rights overseas is nothing but U.S. protectionism in disguise should pay less attention to foreign trade ministers and more attention to foreign trade unionists.
One of the largest U.S. contingents at the rally, meanwhile, was from the longshoremen's union. These men and women, who earn their living by loading exports and unloading imports, have no interest in shutting off trade and economic growth. Instead, like the rest of us, they want to make sure that growth is distributed evenly - and that workers and the environment are not harmed in the process.
As currently structured, however, the WTO - like the North American Free Trade Agreement before it - protects only the rights and interests of multinational corporations, with elaborate mechanisms to safeguard investment, copyrights, patents and other forms of corporate property. There is no mechanism to protect the working men and women who actually produce the goods and services that are traded between nations, or the environment, which is our common heritage.
That needs to change. The tens of thousands of people who protested peacefully in Seattle - representing tens of millions in their respective workplaces and communities - made it clear that the WTO must undergo a radical transformation if it is to continue to function at all.
Public support for a new approach to trade policy is nothing short of overwhelming. A recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland shows an incredible 93 percent of respondents agree that 'minimum standards for working conditions' should be part of international trade agreements.
Seventy-four percent agree that imports of products produced in an environmentally harmful manner should be restricted 'because protecting the environment is at least as important as trade.'
This broad public sentiment developed after years of grassroots political effort by trade unionists and environmentalists, human rights groups and citizen organizations. We have been working together to forge a people-centered fair trade agenda since the original fight over NAFTA in 1993.
We were not successful in blocking the implementation of that flawed agreement, but we were right on target in predicting its negative consequences for working families in the United States, Mexico and Canada. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, more than 400,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost to Mexico since NAFTA went into effect in 1994.
The flow of U.S. capital south of the border, unfortunately, has not been a boon for Mexican workers, who still are routinely denied the right to join free, independent trade unions. As a result, despite the continued growth of maquiladora plants, Mexican workers actually have seen a decline in their living standards in recent years.
Environmental conditions along the U.S.-Mexican border have continued to deteriorate, while promised investments in sewer, water and other public infrastructure have been pitifully inadequate.
In the face of the clear failures of NAFTA, President Clinton has had a difficult time extending his trade agenda to other parts of the world. Even with support from Republican leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, every living ex-president and nearly every editorial writer in America, the president has been unable to persuade Congress to grant him 'fast-track' authority to negotiate additional trade agreements.
We've been engaged in a critical dialogue with Clinton about trade issues ever since he took office. To his credit, even when our disagreements were quite severe, the president was always willing to listen.
Judging by his statements and actions in Seattle, the president was not only listening. He must have been taking careful notes. His reform agenda for the WTO - an end to secret tribunals, and the inclusion of labor and environmental standards in the core of new trade agreements - is a proper first step toward creating accountability and fairness in the international trade arena.
Some commentators have described Clinton's new position on trade as a political maneuver, designed to aid candidate Al Gore in the coming presidential election. And what, exactly, is wrong with a little politics during an election campaign?
Isn't that one reason we have elections - to ensure that government policies are carried out with the consent of the governed? Clinton's previous trade policies were unpopular, because they delivered little or no benefit to working families, here or abroad. Popular pressure now has convinced the president to change his policies. That's how a democracy is supposed to work.
The Seattle trade talks and accompanying street demonstrations have been described as a 'fiasco,' a 'failure' and a 'stunning rebuke' to the United States because there was no agreement to begin a new round of trade talks. But no deal is better than a bad deal - and if the WTO continues to operate as it has in the past, the result can only be more flawed and unfair trade agreements.
For those of us who believe that important political decisions should be made by actual citizens engaged in democratic dialogue, instead of unelected bureaucrats meeting behind closed doors, Seattle was a great success. It's clear that the present international trading regime is not adequate to the needs of a dynamic global economy.
The challenge ahead is to replace it with something better - a process that spreads the rewards of trade in a fair, environmentally responsible manner.