Today marks the one-year anniversary of the “Battle in Seattle,” when 50,000 labor, environmental and human rights activists took to the streets to protest the World Trade Organization for its five-year assault on the poor and the environment. The WTO, an undemocratic organization with the goal of reducing all “barriers” to trade (such as worker and environmental protections), found itself in disarray when negotiations collapsed at the end of the five-day summit.
The WTO protest has since become a landmark in the movement for global economic justice. In April, we turned our attention to the WTO’s partners in crime, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The IMF is a global lending organization, which gives loans to developing countries on rigid conditions that they open their economies to foreign investment. This summer, we protested at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, challenging the two parties on issues of poverty, capital punishment, the exploitation of workers, defense spending and the selling out of democracy to corporations.
This activism over the past year has accomplished a lot. Environmental and social justice advocates came together like never before, and people increasingly understand the links between environmental and social justice. The WTO protest brought many people together in Santa Barbara. Because of coalition building, activism for tenants’ rights, affordable housing and protection of the rain forests has become much more powerful. The protests over the last year also exposed undemocratic organizations and the effects their decisions have on people and the environment. However, because just a few multinational corporations control most papers and news stations, media coverage was usually not thorough or representative. As a result, in the last year a surge of independent media has ensured that the voice of the people is heard.
While the protests have brought a lot of attention to many struggles, good and bad, it is the work afterward which is most important. How do we cultivate this energy and vision for a more just world? Some of us are victims of the “overseas” disease, meaning that it is much easier to talk about poverty and exploitation in Third World economies and governments despite the fact such issues dictate policy and politics in the United States as well.
One area in which this link is abundantly clear, is in the area of low wages. The WTO mantra is “free trade.” That is, a condition in which corporations are free to bounce from one country to the next, looking for the cheapest and most easily exploitable workforce, as well as the least environmental regulations. In need of jobs, developing countries compete with one another for work that pays 25 cents an hour. This has resulted in an exodus of many manufacturing companies from the United States, where wages and environmental regulations are much higher. Many U.S. based companies have used the threat of moving overseas to squash any demand for better wages and working conditions. This has driven down wages in the U.S., and many towns dependent on factories watched their economies crumble. Workers were either forced to leave town to search for other unstable low-wage work, or to find themselves in the burgeoning prison system as workers or prisoners. Job stability has become a thing of the past as super exploitative temp agencies (which make $5 each hour the temp works, just for marketing low-wage employees) now define our current economy.
The United States’ economy is transforming from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. As the gap between the rich and poor widens, the United States is becoming a country for the rich and the people that serve them. This is especially true in Santa Barbara, where poverty exists hidden beneath the beautiful architecture of the Spanish colonists. The working poor is ironically what makes Santa Barbara so physically appealing. They are the janitors, the construction workers and the gardeners. They serve food, tend to our shopping desires and ensure that tourists have a pleasant Santa Barbara experience. They are the agricultural workers that put food on our tables, and they work at gas stations that fuel our cars. Although low-wage workers are the foundation of the Santa Barbara economy and provide critical services many of us take for granted, they are making poverty wages. The working poor in Santa Barbara often has to choose between paying rent, feeding their families or paying their doctor bills.
One local organizing drive that is currently addressing this is the campaign for a living wage. The campaign is calling for the City and County of Santa Barbara to enact living wage ordinances, which would require companies who do business with the city to pay their workers a living wage of $11 an hour and provide health care. Currently, our tax dollars are going to pay poverty wages, and we are subsidizing companies that exploit their workers. Sound familiar?
The struggle for a living wage is based on some of the same principles of the anti-WTO campaign: justice for workers, corporate accountability and a government responsive to the people. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the National Day of Action for a Living Wage falls on the same day as the one-year anniversary of the WTO protest. The movement to challenge so-called “free trade” is unavoidably linked to the plight of the working poor in the U.S., and in our local community.
Harley Augustino is an IVRPD director and field organizer for the Coalition for a Living Wage.