CLINTON’S WTO STAND ANGERS RETAILERS, IMPORTERS
Byline: Jim Ostroff
WASHINGTON — President Clinton hardened his position Wednesday that the World Trade Organization must include labor and environmental protection provisions in future accords — a stand some say led to the collapse of talks aimed at opening world markets to retailing, apparel and textiles.
The President’s assertions drew harsh criticism from American retail and importer interests, saying he was, at best, disingenuous.
Some said his comments were designed to rally support for Al Gore in next year’s presidential election from within the labor sector.
“[Clinton’s] comments were calculated and aimed more for consumption of domestic [unions] than members of the WTO,” said Steve Pfister, the National Retail Federation’s senior vice president of government relations.
Julia Hughes, Washington vice president with the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said that if Clinton really wants to aid the poorest nations, the U.S. should eliminate duties for their exports here “so that they actually meet the goals of the protesters to expand human rights and improve working conditions around the world.”
Clinton, in his final press conference this year, dismissed charges made within trade circles that he committed a tactical blunder last week in Seattle by saying he favors giving the WTO authority to penalize nations with lax labor standards, and that new industrial development should not degrade the environment.
These comments galvanized developing nations to oppose U.S. initiatives on labor, environment and agriculture reforms and, in part, led delegates from 135 nations to give up trying to set the agenda for an ambitious new series of trade talks, dubbed the Millennium Round.
Developing nations vehemently denounced Clinton’s initiatives, arguing these are thinly veiled protectionist efforts to make imports from the poorest nations less competitive in the U.S. market. So enraged were some delegates at Clinton’s comments on Dec. 1, the next day they openly booed U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky during a briefing.
It is unknown when the WTO might convene again to consider starting a new round of trade talks. Some of its proponents had hoped that it would have led to a worldwide reduction in apparel and textile quotas, an opening of foreign markets for American-made textiles and apparel, and a lowering of barriers that would allow retailers easier access to operations in overseas markets.
In the aftermath of the Seattle meeting, which was marred by opening day riots Nov. 30 and civil unrest until the delegates threw in the towel Dec. 3, some non-partisan trade analysts suggested Clinton had sabotaged the WTO meeting, raising issues guaranteed to enrage certain trade blocs — and win the support of U.S. unions for Al Gore in next year’s presidential election.
Clinton dismissed this allegation Wednesday when asked about it by a reporter. The President, speaking in the State Department’s Dean Atchison auditorium, said the meeting failed because the various world trading blocs refused to budge on key issues, such as revising the U.S.’s anti-dumping laws.
As for the developing world’s delegates, Clinton said, “They felt they had not gotten enough benefits from the last [Uruguay] round and+ they, the Europeans, the Japanese, everybody, thinks we ought to have more open markets for agricultural products, which doesn’t affect America so much, and for textiles, which does affect us.”
At the summit, Clinton appeared to endorse an initiative to give poorer nations quota- and duty-free access to the American market for apparel and textiles, but his trade advisers quickly pulled back from that position in the face of intense opposition from U.S. labor and textile industry interests.
The President said his labor and environmental proposals aimed at the WTO are consistent with those he has advocated since 1992.
Clinton added that while his push for labor and environmental links with trade agreements may seem out of step today, it soon will be seen as important as integrating intellectual property rights protections into WTO and other trade accords. “It was just as alien a subject a few years ago to trade talks as questions of labor and environment are today,” he said.
Responding to Clinton’s remarks, Carlos Moore, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s executive vice president, noted that U.S textile companies have implemented programs dubbed “Encouraging Environmental Excel-lence” and “Quest for the Best” in safety and health, adding, “It seems only fair and equitable that industries in other countries engaged in international trade should make similar commitments.”
Retail and importer industry officials had decidedly different reactions to Clinton’s statements about his WTO initiatives. “The President of the U.S. is a very calculating individual and he never makes a comment without thinking of the political ramifications that he is addressing,” said Pfister of the NRF. “The President arrived in Seattle well aware of the unanimous opposition to the WTO proceedings by organized labor, who were there in force.”
Hughes of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel didn’t go along with the Clinton version, either.
“It’s too bad that the President continues to focus only on the labor and environmental issues that contributed to the failure of last week’s WTO ministerial meeting,” Hughes said.”