They're often portrayed as obstructionists to trade and the global economy. But the social movement that mobilized thousands in Quebec last month -- and earlier in Seattle and Prague -- is maturing beyond street protests. While a fringe clashes violently with police, the leadership is increasingly proposing alternatives for a more just world economy in the 21st century.
The activists don't want to stop commerce or revert to isolation.
They advocate instead "fair trade" and "grassroots globalization" to benefit the majority, instead of programs they say are now dominated by big corporations and help a few.
And they want to take that message beyond the streets and the Internet to the bargaining table, where countries are writing the rules that govern the future of global business.
Just how to turn alternatives into action is still a work in progress for the diverse movement that spans labor, environmentalists and more. Yet the outlines are crystallizing.
"Fair trade," the activists say, involves safeguards for natural resources, workers and women's rights.
That could mean tighter standards for emissions on ships to limit the water pollution that comes from more ocean commerce. And it might mean new independent monitoring agencies to make ensure women in factories in China and other nations don't become victims of sexual abuse, or firing for union organizing.
"Grassroots globalization," they say, involves direct participation by citizens groups, so trade pacts won't be crafted largely behind closed doors by government officials and business advisory groups.
That could mean adding labor and environmental representatives to teams drafting trade agreements. Or it might mean putting trade accords to referendums by voters, instead of approval only by legislatures.
"What we're facing is globalization by corporations, for corporations, summed up Joshua Karliner, executive director of San Francisco-based CorpWatch, an Internet clearinghouse for the movement. What we want is globalization by the people, for the people.
To see how the movement is evolving, look no farther than the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 labor unions and citizens groups across the Americas.
In Quebec last month, where leaders of 34 countries met, the Alliance spearheaded the alternative People's Summit, a four-day forum attended by some 2,000 people. It led a peaceful march that drew at least 20,000 people. And it received more than $30,000 from the Canadian government for activities, including translation into four languages at its forums.
Less than a decade old, the Mexico City-based Alliance today ranks one of the world's largest civic organizations, with affiliates representing more than 45 million members. The coalition includes some of the hemisphere's biggest labor groups: the U.S.-based AFL-CIO, Canada's labor congress and Brazil's umbrella union group. It also features some of the region's oldest non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, such as the San Francisco-based environmental group Sierra Club, founded in 1892.
"I don't think there's a similar labor and NGO network like this anywhere else in the world," said Sarah Anderson, director of the global economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
To prepare for Quebec, Anderson worked with at least 100 others involved in the Alliance to update and flesh out an 85-page"Alternatives for the Americas" position paper.
Their report suggests, among other things, that drafts of new free-trade accords be made public, that pacts offer "adjustment assistance" to communities hurt by imports, and that accords allow programs encouraging government to buy from women-owned businesses.
"We think there should be rules to guide relations in the hemisphere," said Anderson, 36, a former newspaper reporter who holds a masters degree in international affairs from American University. "But the rules being devised are wrong. They put the interest of corporations pretty much before everyone else."
To be sure, there's still limited consensus in the diverse social movement on action agendas.
In Canada, anti-hunger group Oxfam International is busy promoting "fair-trade" coffee, so that small farmers get more of the money that consumers pay. The group works directly with farmer cooperatives in Guatemala and other nations, trying to cut out layers of middlemen.
"We believe in better distribution of resources," said Oxfam volunteer and college student Jacinthe Lemire, 22, displaying fragrant bags of "fair-trade" coffee at the People's Summit. "So, we promise the farmers a minimum, even if coffee prices fall on world markets."
On many U.S. college campuses, the push is to end production of clothing with university logos in "sweatshops" in Central America and Asia. Student groups demand monitoring of factories, so that T-shirts and other gear are not produced with child labor or by workers paid sub-minimum wages.
In France, there's a campaign for a tiny tax on speculative capital that darts in and out countries and can destabilize currencies. Such flows contributed to the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Cash raised from the proposed tax would be used to create social safety nets for the poor, said Pierre Tartakowsky, who leads the Paris-based group known as %-attac.
Activists say such varied agendas are understandable -- maybe unavoidable -- in such a young movement of so many different groups from so many countries. "We need to stop bad trade deals before we can get to good ones," said Dan Seligman, 43, Sierra Club's program director for responsible trade, who holds a masters in international relations from Johns Hopkins University. "We need to do defensive work for years before a positive agenda can fully emerge."
No more NAFTAs
Where the groups clearly converge is in opposing an extension of current free-trade accords.
In the Americas, activists are especially united against a chapter in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which binds Mexico, Canada and the United States. The provision gives corporations broad powers to sue for compensation, when governments adopt regulations that might diminish their profits.
Under the provision, a Virginia-based company Ethyl Corp. sued Canada for banning a gasoline additive the company made. Canada settled for $13 million, withdrew the ban and apologized. Now, Canada's Methanex Corp. is suing California for $970 million for banning a gas additive that it produces.
Opponents say the NAFTA provision is so broad that it intimidates governments from taking new environmental action for the public good. And it gives corporations more room to seek compensation than they'd have under domestic U.S. laws, which carry less weight than the NAFTA treaty.
That's why the activists in the United States have united on a common target this year: blocking upcoming efforts by President George W. Bush to obtain "fast track" or "trade promotion authority."
Bush said in Quebec that he will ask Congress to renew presidential powers to craft free-trade accords that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend. U.S. trade partners say they can't sign off on the complex trade deals unless Bush has such authority, because they don't want to risk changes in Congress.
Since 1994, labor unions and environmental groups have helped scuttle attempts by former President Bill Clinton to get fast track. Now that the movement against corporate-led globalization is maturing, many activists are more confident they will prevail and block White House efforts -- again.
That would further set back Washington's plan to create a free trade area throughout the Americas in 2005.
"There's not going to be one beautiful day, when their model crashes, and ours comes into being," said John Cavanagh, an activist who leads the Institute for Policy Studies. "But there will be gains."
The movement is counting on those gains to further develop its alternative proposals and gain a seat at the global bargaining table.
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