We Told You So: On Trade, the Working Class Was Right


It seems impolite to say “we told you so,” but the working class and labor unions were so unjustly maligned more than two decades ago—when they fought the push to expand unfettered global trade—that it seems more than fair to serve some humble pie to global trade’s champions.

With today’s broken supply chain and working-class communities across the nation still struggling from the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, it’s important to look back at the consequential trade agreements a generation ago, when then-President Bill Clinton assured “a future of greater prosperity for the American people.”

Back in late 1999, the World Trade Organization held its Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle. It was the first (and, to date, the last) WTO ministerial conference to be held in the U.S. Others have been held in places such as Singapore, Doha, Cancun, Geneva, and Bali – locations inconvenient for American protesters. Some are hostile to the concept of protest itself.

During the Seattle conference, America’s working class could see the storm on the horizon for the American economy. Fifty thousand people showed up to protest the WTO during its Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 1999 meeting and their presence couldn’t be ignored. It became known as “The Battle in Seattle.” The ranks of protesters included thousands of union members who were concerned that the lack of global labor regulations would encourage even more multinational corporations to shift manufacturing operations to offshore locations with low-paid workers and few labor protections.

A majority (52%) of Americans supported the protesters in Seattle, according to a national Business Week poll conducted after the conference. In another survey, the same percentage predicted that the future global trade economy would hurt average Americans.

The protests of 1999 warned of what might happen to advance the global trade economy. And the warnings were right. In 2000 the U.S. Senate approved permanent favored nation status for China, greasing the wheels for its accession to the WTO in 2001.

The protesters were also correct that the WTO would not help workers. Despite their occasionally welcoming language about labor standards, or their creation of a working group on Trade and Labour Standards at the 1999 meeting, the WTO ultimately took no action. More than 20 years later, it still has not endorsed any labor standards to aid the working class in this country or in any of the member countries.

Read the rest of this piece at Working-Class Perspectives.

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

Photo: courtesy Working-Class Perspectives