A Season to Mobilize

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

The Editors

USUALLY FREE TRADE agreements in the neoliberal era are negotiated behind a mask of ceremonies and implemented in the name of the people.  But since the Zapatistas announced their presence to the world on January 1, 1994—the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect—a new social movement has challenged the inevitability of the market.

It is a rowdy movement that challenges the wisdom of those who impose structural adjustment policies, the privatization of public services and intellectual property rights in order to legalize the transfer of knowledge from farmers and workers around the world to corporations.  It is a movement that spotlights the get-togethers of world “leaders” as they batter down any impediment to capital’s rule.

It is a movement that seeks to understand the trade mechanisms whereby wealth is transferred from those who produce it to those who exploit it, in order to figure out an alternative.  This new and growing social movement understands that the growing inequality between the rich and poor—both within a nation’s borders and between nations—is driven not by natural forces, but by politics and interests which can be challenged and at times defeated.

The movement has many social actors.  The ruthless attack on indigenous communities and farmers has led to their organization and participation on a global scale.  But these are not the only targets of corporate globalization: The willingness of almost all leaders of the nation states to dismantle any so-called “trade barrier” means that any social, environmental or safety legislation can be nullified.

Thus the measures that the trade union and social justice movements have been able to build in the industrialized countries over the last century can fall as quickly as any legislation Third World countries devised to build themselves internally.  Hence the potential for solidarity among affected working people in the global North and South is much greater than a decade ago, when—especially in the United States—protectionism was often the first choice of defense.

Confronting the Summits

As in many great issues in the past, students are on the front lines of the anti-corporate globalization movement.  Over the last couple of years campus organizations have carefully researched the labels that sport their campus logo. They have found that what stands behind the label is a sweatshop that produces great wealth for a corporation, a nice income for the university and poverty wages under appalling conditions for young workers in factories strung across the world (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and even in the United States).

They have also discovered that the wages of many campus workers—particularly janitors, food service workers and clericals—hover around poverty level.  They realize their dreams and aspirations cannot be realized in such an unjust world, and that propels them to speak out.

Thus the mobilizations against the summits of institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, or against planned new international corporate agreements, that have exploded particularly since Seattle—Washington DC (April 2000), Milan (June 2000), Windsor (August 2000), Prague and Melbourne (September 2000), Seoul (October 2000), Nice (December 2000), Quebec (April 2001), Gothenburg (June 2001), and Genoa (July 2001)—have attempted both to confront the secrecy of the official meeting and counterpose to its elitism and secrecy a people’s summit.

What has been the response of the government leaders and IMF/World Bank officials?  They have explained in innumerable press conferences that trade liberalization is good for all of us, built walls to ensure their secret meetings and unleashed savage police repression, resulting in arbitrary arrests and beatings, the use of teargas and live ammunition.  While British Prime Minister Tony Blair found Gothenberg significant because “we did not yield an inch to these people,” French President Jacques Chirac was seen on TV lecturing Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, “This is very dangerous, you could have killed people.”

While in Gothenberg three demonstrators were wounded, in Genoa the death of 23-year-old Carlo Guiliani—shot and then run over by a police vehicle—was the logical conclusion to the massive mobilization of police Chirac noted.

What Are the Movement’s Alternatives?

The dual aspect of protest and positive alternatives is also built in to the September-October protests against the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, DC. Yet the growing anti-corporate globalization movement is not united in thinking through the alternatives.

For some, merely having a “seat at the table” and being able to insert their particular needs into the overall agreement is the demand they most often suggest.  But after the experience of NAFTA’s toothless side agreements that is a less tenable position.

A second alternative is to abandon these agreements and go back to the status quo. This vision is most usually posited by the trade union bureaucracy, but has little resonance because it doesn’t offer a positive vision.

A third alternative—at this point definitely a minority but one that offers a vision of a society based on social needs—goes in the direction of radically challenging corporate domination.  This vaguely formed anti-capitalist pole begins by asserting the need to immediately cancel the Third World debt.

This debt was contracted against the interests of local populations, who often suffered displacement from ill-conceived megaprojects and from policies that lined the pockets of dictators and corrupt regimes.  Why should Nigeria, the Congo, or Argentina be saddled with the money their dictators borrowed?  Why should post-apartheid South Africa repay the debts of the white minority apartheid government?

This growing anti-capitalist pole also asserts the right to sustainable development and an egalitarian and democratic society in which public policies are designed to guarantee a society’s basic human needs for education, recreation, work, housing and health.  Social justice and ecological sustainable development, not a profit motive, represent its growing alternative vision.  Global capitalism cannot be “civilized,” it must be replaced.

The next round of mobilizations is set for September-October when the IMF/World Bank has its semi-annual meeting in Washington, DC. In face of anticipated demonstrations the IMF has decided to scale down its usual week-long meeting to two days. But it cannot avoid the confrontation.

The 50 Years Is Enough Network, a U.S.-based coalition of over 200 organizations, has raised eight clear demands to the World Bank: 100% cancellation of all debts without any conditions, end the imposition of economic austerity measures (“structural adjustment”) as a condition of loans; make all board meetings public and all documents available; accept responsibility, as determined by a Truth Commission, for the disastrous impact of structural adjustment policies through reparations to those peoples and communities who have borne the consequences; accept a Truth Commission’s evaluation of the social and environmental devastation caused by projects funded by the World Bank and pay reparations to those harmed; stop aiding corporation globalization; agree that agencies and individuals within the World Bank be held legally accountable for the corruption that has taken place as a result of loans; and assess the existence, structure and policies of the World Bank Group by a democratic, participatory and transparent process, building on the findings of a Truth Commission.

Throughout September there will be local teach-ins on the impact of globalization.  Washington-based actions will begin with a housing conference on September 22-23, an Immigrant Rights March on September 26, an Alternative Summit September 26, a mobilization in solidarity with Colombia on September 27, and a conference to mobilize around defeating fast track for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and a UNITE! anti-sweatshop action on September 28.

A march against the militarization of Latin America will be held on September 29, and a second demonstration against Bush’s policies, a sunrise religious vigil and a big rally on September 30, with direct actions between September 30-October 2.  (Consult GlobalizeThis.org at www.september30.org/s30/ or www.globalizethis.org for latest details.)

Organized Labor on Board

It is significant that the AFL-CIO has endorsed the call and agreed to provide some resources.  This indicates that despite the violence-baiting, the official wing of the U.S. labor movement feels under pressure to participate.  (See the interview on labor and Quebec elsewhere in this issue.)

In particular, the AFL-CIO is joining with a coalition around the Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ)—including Jobs with Justice, United Students Against Sweatshops, 50 Years is Enough, Oxfam and several debt-cancellation and environmental groups—for a permitted September 30 march and rally on the Ellipse.  As reported by the MGJ Working Group for the rally, the AFL-CIO is emphasizing two issues: opposition to “fast- track” authorization for FTAA, and funding to address the global AIDS crisis.

This suggests that there remains life in the tenuous alliance of labor with social movements that appeared in Seattle.  Nonetheless, recent actions by the United Auto Workers and the Hoffa-led Teamsters—respectively defending the Ford Explorer’s dubious safety record, and supporting the Bush oil-drilling program!—show that the union officialdom is far from breaking with the agenda of corporate America.

Many students and working people will be able to get to Washington, DC for some of these actions.  Others will attend local meetings, teach-ins or demonstrations.  But for all who participate, many more will pass by on their way to work on the bus, read about it in the newspaper, or see it on TV. They will recognize that the demands being raised speak to their needs and will take hope. Another world is possible.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)