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A Citizen’s Guide to the World Trade Organization: Everything You Need to Know to Fight For Fair Trade

An activist resource pamphlet on the World Trade Organization (WTO) with information on major cases, history of the WTO, each of the component agreements and how citizens can get involved to fight for fair – not free – trade.

Download our pdf version of the pamphlet

What do the U.S. Cattleman’s Association, Chiquita Banana and the Venezuelan oil industry have in common?  These big business interests were able to defeat hard-won national laws ensuring food safety, strengthening local economies and protecting the environment by convincing governments to challenge the laws at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Established in 1995, the WTO is a powerful new global commerce agency, which transformed the the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into an enforceable global commercial code. The WTO is one of the main mechanisms of corporate globalization. While its proponents say it is based on “free trade,” in fact, the WTO’s 700-plus pages of rules set out a comprehensive system of corporate-managed trade. Indeed, the WTO has little to do with the 18th Century free trade philosophy of David Ricardo or Adam Smith, who assumed neither labor nor capital crossed national borders.

Under the WTO’s system of corporate-managed trade, economic efficiency, reflected in short-run corporate profits, dominates other values. Decisions affecting the economy are to be confined to the private sector, while social and environmental costs are borne by the public.

Sometimes called the “neoliberal” model, this system sidelines environmental rules, health safeguards and labor standards to provide transnational corporations (TNCs) with a cheap supply of labor and natural resources. The WTO also guarantees corporate access to foreign markets without requiring that TNCs respect countries’ domestic priorities.

The myth that every nation can grow by exporting more than they import is central to the neoliberal ideology. Its proponents seem to forget that in order for one country to export an automobile, some other country has to import it.

Now the world’s transnational companies want more–a new “Millennium Round” of further WTO negotiations which would accelerate the economic race to the bottom by expanding the WTO’s powers.

But this concept’s failure goes beyond this inherent sham: the lose-lose nature of export-led growth was exposed in the aftermath of the East Asian financial crisis of 1998. When the IMF compelled Asian countries to try to export their way out of their crises, the U.S. became the importer of last resort. U.S. steel-workers lost jobs to a flood of steel imports, while workers in Asia remained mired in a terrible depression.

The neoliberal ideological underpinning of corporate-managed trade is presented as TINA–“There Is No Alternative”–an inevitable outcome rather than the culmination of a long-term effort to write and put into place rules designed to benefit corporations and investors, rather than communities, workers and the environment.

The top trade officials of every WTO member country are meeting in Seattle at the end of November. If you haven’t bought the public relations campaign on TINA and want to help change the rules, join your fellow citizens on the Road to Seattle and Beyond. To start with, the WTO must assess the effects of its current rules before negotiating new agreements. This booklet explains what the WTO is, how it is damaging the public interest, how corporations and some governments want to expand WTO’s powers, and what you can do.