- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

Four hours after the House of Representatives approved a landmark trade agreement with China in late May, Scott Nova was licking his wounds by downing a few beers at the Hawk 'N' Dove, a watering hole on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Nova, director of the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC), had spent much of the previous six months helping to rally the opposition to granting China permanent access to the American market on the same terms most other countries enjoy, a status known as permanent normal trade relations. But the House ultimately passed the bill by a decisive 237-to-197 margin.

CTC, a coalition of labor, environmental, religious, consumer and family farm organizations that was formed to fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, is a microcosm of what many observers have come to call the "Seattle coalition." That assortment of groups helped derail global trade talks last year. Mr. Nova often calls it the "fair trade movement," a contrast to the "free trade" label often applied to the Clinton administration and major U.S. corporations.

Whatever the label, even Mr. Nova concedes that House passage of the China bill was a bitter defeat, and a tremendous letdown after the heady days of Seattle. Now, Mr. Nova and his allies are retooling for the trade policy battles sure to come when a new president moves into the White House next year.

Q: After the House voted for the China trade bill, did a few beers in the Hawk 'N' Dove ease your pain?

A: Yes, they did. I felt a little better.

Q: Is the Seattle coalition on the ropes after failing to defeat this legislation in the House?

A: Despite our failure to secure a majority in the House, the battle over permanent normal trade relations for China still indicated progress for the fair-trade movement. Our primary focus was the Democrats, and we got more Democrats in the China fight than we did on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The reason we didn't win China isn't because we didn't make progress with Democrats, because we did. It's because there just aren't as many Democrats in the Congress now as there were seven years ago. If there were, we would have won this. It's not an indication of a weakness in our movement. We had corporate America and the White House allied against us, and it's extraordinarily difficult to defeat those forces.

Q: The business of America, Calvin Coolidge once remarked, is business. How can you hope to fight the good fight when Americans generally want their politics to be pro-business?

A: One opinion poll after another throughout this decade has shown that Americans want human rights, the rights of workers and the sanctity of the natural environment protected in trade agreements. Americans have made this crystal clear to their elected leaders. Corporate money in the political process is deafening elected officials to the voices of their constituents. That's the battle we face over and over again.

Q: But trade does not seem terribly important to most Americans. People do not vote on the basis of trade issues.

A: When the mainstream media announces on a daily basis that this is the best of economic times, it is not surprising that the focus of most voters is not on economic issues in general, and trade in particular. But the potential of international trade in the context of an economic downturn to rise very rapidly to the forefront of the political debate is very large. If we have one, voters will begin to make the connection with [failed] trade policy, and politicians will have to get right with voters or find themselves out of office.

Q: Why? The system allows decisions that cut against the grain of public opinion if elected officials believe they are serving the nation's long-term interests.

A: What makes decisions like [passage of the China trade bill] illegitimate is that their motivation in most cases has had very little to do with the long-term best interests of this country, and a great deal to do with the extraordinary power of the corporate lobby. You had a Congress awash in campaign cash. That's why we lost.

Q: So where do you go from here? Assuming you are right, the Seattle coalition will not soon have a lot of cash on hand to play that game.

A: The $64,000 question for the fair trade movement is how we translate public support into victories for our agenda in the legislative arena, not just in stopping things like the China bill. We need, for example, legislation that prohibits the importation of products made with child labor, or products made by workers who do not enjoy the right to a safe workplace. There will also be additional defensive battles to fight, like the coming push for "fast-track" trade negotiating authority. But we need to try to advance our own progressive, pro-labor, pro-environmental agenda.

Q: Ideas like those bring up the classic rap on groups like yours: you are outright protectionists who want to close the U.S. market to everyone who does not measure up to a set of unreasonable standards.

A: We advocate an internationalist agenda that seeks to use international trade and globalization to raise living standards here and abroad. It is grossly inaccurate to characterize that as protectionists. We support international trade, but we think trade policy only works if it includes reasonable protections for workers and the environment. If such protections are absent, the net effect of trade policy is to advance corporate interests only.

Q: What are your main advantages in battles over trade policy?

A: We bring to the process the capacity to communicate with members of Congress as a coalition and to make clear that trade is not a narrow issue of concern to one interest group, but a broad public concern. We do a kind of grass-roots organization and lobbying that our volunteer activist network is good at creative media events, rallies, coalition demonstrations that bring a certain energy and verve to the movement.

Q: Do you ever get tired of waging what have, by and large, been losing battles?

A: It's physically exhausting, but it's emotionally rewarding. There is nothing better than coming home at the end of the day and knowing you did your best to beat the corporations. That feels good even on a bad day.

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