Struggle persists with global free trade

Seattle skyline

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: In Geneva today, there is a meeting of trade ministers from countries belonging to the World Trade Organization. It was a similar meeting 10 years ago today in Seattle that drew tens of thousands of agitated activists denouncing globalization for undercutting wages and worker protections. Protesters sometimes clashed with police, thus the nickname the "Battle of Seattle."

That Seattle WTO meeting was supposed to launch a new era of global free trade. But as Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman tells us, it hasn't quite worked out that way.


Mitchell Hartman: Dave King used to be a union carpenter. His wife, Laurie, is a retired teacher. They're still active labor organizers. Ten years ago today, they were piling out of buses onto the streets of Seattle.

Laurie King: And people were screaming and cheering. You know, United Food and Commercial Workers, carpenters who were holding up "Organize or Die" banners.

Now, 10 years after the Battle of Seattle, we're standing on the deck of their modest home in Portland, Ore. It overlooks the main shipping channel to the Columbia River and the Pacific.

Over the past decade, the Kings have seen ever-more imports come up the river -- cars, shoes, computers, toys. And they've seen jobs flow out the other way. Several years ago, an entire dry dock for repairing cargo vessels was shipped to the Caribbean.

Dave King: They found cheaper labor in the Bahamas. The good jobs were exported along with the dry dock.

That kind of outsourcing to cheaper, less-regulated countries has accelerated since Seattle. But global free trade has been stopped in its tracks, says Laurie King.

Laurie King: It really put the whole issue of globalization -- corporate globalization -- on the map. And that's why the WTO has been dead in the water for all these years.

Not exactly, says Jeffrey Schott. He's a trade expert with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Jeffrey Schott: What really stopped the talks was not the demonstrations outside in the streets, but the divisions inside the conference room, particularly between developed and developing countries.

Schott was in Seattle 10 years ago -- on the other side of the barricades. He says since then, disagreements over tariffs and agricultural subsidies have persisted. And that's hobbled follow-up negotiations -- the so-called Doha Round -- to establish a global free-trade regime under the WTO.

Schott: That's not a great record, to go a decade without bearing any fruit. And so you've seen a proliferation of trade agreements, either bilaterally or in regional groupings.

Schott says the anti-globalization movement that made such a ruckus in Seattle is partly to blame for giving global free trade a bad name in the U.S. So is outsourcing of jobs and economic fears due to the lingering recession.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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