Social Protectionism

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Thu Mar 9 03:35:07 PST 2000

I might be deluded, but it seems there's a perfectly obvious way to make both sides happy in our local debate and to unite first and third world labor, namely to support a social clause that doens't operate through the WTO. And it just so happens that the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) put forth just such a proposal in their Bangalore Consultation in October 1995, when they all got together to discuss what they thought was the imminent social clause both with each other and with Renato Ruggiero, then head of the WTO. The Indian trade unionists all vehemently rejected having a social clause in the WTO. But they had a clear alternate proposal, which was:

1. Minimum labor standards, which are definately a good thing, should be reconceptulatized as labor rights rather than labor standards.

2. The means of fostering them should not be trade standards, but the same "name and shame" standards we use to better woman's rights or get banks to cut down on money laundering. Achieving compliance would be nice, but the first struggle is an ideological one -- to establish that worker's rights are important part of civilization, and not something that people should be able to boast about cutting back, any more than they should be able to boast about setting back women's rights;

3. These rights should be enforced by a UN agency set up or revitalized for the purpose.

Since none of us on either side of this debate trusts the WTO or expects them to do much for labor, this seem the best possible plan to me. Not much may be come it, but certainly nothing bad will come of it. And good things could come of it. Personally, I think Walden Bello makes a good case that the to the extent we believe in reforming international regulatory bodies, the goal of reform should be to build (or reinvigorate) UN agencies that are outside the sole control of the rich countries. If they can be made stronger, the WTO is necessarily constrained by democratic forces. And for non-reformers, this strategy is completely compatible with the goal of abolishing the WTO. (Which for Bello simply means going back to the pre-Uruguay GATT, not some ur-anarchy.) Naturally we could just end up with a toothless restatement of toothless ILO pieties. But the possibility for it being different are the capacities and enthusiasm for international organizing around these issues. A UN organization with a real base of internetted activists would be a qualitatively new thing on the world stage.

So reformers, abolishers, first world, third world, we could all be happy with this strategy. And it would be a great gesture in itself for first world unions to accept a lead on something from the third world. Is there a downside I'm missing? Or put differently -- is there any reason putting a social clause in the WTO should be preferred to setting up one outside it?


__________________________________________________________________________ Michael Pollak................New York City..............mpollak at

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