Posted on 06 December 2000.
Interview of Juliette Beck by Ed “Redwood” Ring
The cold war is over. Capitalism has won. The brave new world of free trade and global integration is upon us. What does this mean? Who benefits? Who loses?
Technological advances and globalization have given rise to new ethical issues of staggering complexity. How can democracy be extended to international trade? Do multinational corporations currently exercise inordinate and undemocratic influence to manage international trade? Is the World Trade Organization just a puppet of multi-national corporations? At what point do the answers to these questions become obvious, and are they? If so, at what point is the time-honored American tradition of non-violent civil disobedience an acceptable option?
The issue of globalization moved to the forefront of international news coverage in 1999, when in Seattle nearly 50,000 protesters succeeded in literally bringing to a standstill the first meeting of the World Trade Organization ever to be held on U.S. soil. The sheer number of the protesters, along with their stunning success in paralysing a city and captivating television news audiences around the world, did not happen by accident. Long prior to these demonstrations, preparations were afoot throughout the world, particularly on the west coast, and perhaps more than anywhere, from a coalition of activist organizations based in San Francisco.
Global Exchange is headquartered on the third floor of an older building in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. Since 1988 this non-profit has worked to get their message of economic, social, political and environmental justice out to citizens around the world. They have engaged in traditional public education campaigns as well as actions that are somewhat more, shall we say, creative. To get ready for demonstrations against the World Trade Organization’s planned meeting in 11-99 in Seattle, Global Exchange hired a young University of California, Berkeley graduate named Juliette Beck. For over a year she worked with a disparate coalition of activist groups, and she has been annointed, possibly inaccurately, as one of the principal architects of the protests.
For her efforts Juliette Beck has become, at the ripe old age of 27, an international celebrity. She has had a feature about her in the New Yorker as well as the London Times, she has been interviewed by Charlie Rose and others, and when it came time for EcoWorld find an authority on the issue of globalization, we were fortunate enough to schedule an interview. When we called Beck she commented that December would probably be a good time for us to meet, since she didn’t plan on shutting down any international organizations that month.
We met with Juliette Beck on a mild, cloudy afternoon where the sun didn’t break through until it was setting on the horizon. Their office suite was broken up into several large rooms that were all warm and comfortable, with a multicultural group of mostly young people who seemed to be working hard and enjoying themselves. All the furniture was mismatched and all the workspaces were highly individualized. Posters with Global Exchange campaign messages hung on the walls along with art. Mobiles hung from the ceilings. The place quietly hummed with activity. Just outside the windows, swarms of pigeons wheeled through the air to settle on the nearby powerlines or onto the roof of the Raley’s market across the street.
Juliette Beck is a confident, engaging, knowledgeable and passionate advocate of the issues she represents. Like many we have met in the environmental movement, she appeared to have the serenity of someone who derives immense personal fulfillment from their work. Here is what she said:
How did you begin working at Global Exchange?
I came in to help organize the World Trade Organization campaign because for the first time the Geneva based World Trade Organization was meeting in Seattle in the U.S. and President Clinton was hoping to use this as an opportunity to launch a “millenium round” of trade talks. The backlash against corporate managed trade has been growing both in the U.S. and worldwide.
What were you doing before you came here?
At UC Berkeley I studied an interdisciplinary approach to the global problems and it broadened my eyes to the way that institutions based in the U.S. have major impact in the lives of people all around the world. It didn’t seem like it was very responsible the way that the World Bank and multinational institutions were carrying out their policies was very much in head-on collision with the limits of the natural ecosystems. It was obvious that this was going to become one of the pressing issues of my day and age and my lifetime. Unsustainable usage of resources are causing extinction rates that might not have occurred since meteorites hit the earth. These are the issues that started to preoccupy me back at UC Berkeley.
I didn’t know what to do till I discovered a group called “50 Years is Enough” which was formed on the fifty-year anniversary of the World Bank and the IMF about 5-6 years ago. They are part of a network along with Global Exchange and The Rainforest Action Network among the founding organizations, they are headquartered in Washington DC but I worked with the Bay Area Chapter. One of our first campaigns was about sweatshops. Clothes are a great window into the global economy, getting consumers to think about who makes their clothes. Are people who make their clothes being treated fairly? Some of the most heinous human rights abuse occurs in factories where our clothes are coming from.
How do human rights and environmental issues connect?
Even though my heart and passion is about preserving the environment for future generations, I realize you have to be able to speak to people and get people to change their practices and take action in order to stop the disruption that’s happening on a global scale. It’s important to be educating U.S. consumers on how to change the way that the people are normally taught to get their needs met. We are trying to promote a vision of global justice. Its not just about donating money to poor people in the global south to get life-saving medicines or a new well for their community, but also to promote awareness here in the U.S..
We incorporate both the environment and human rights into an alternative economic model that contrasts with the corporate model in our fair trade coffee campaign. This grew out of an effort in Europe to bring together producers, small farmers, who grow coffee in the tropical areas in the world with the go-between people who distribute and the purchasers and the consumers. When you bring all those groups together to sit around the table and say “what would be a fair price” you make sure that built into the trading process is a fair price so that the bottom line isn’t just making money for the middleman but guaranteeing a fair price for the people that grow the coffee.
Small farmers have to be organized into a cooperative that’s supporting one another in their community. They will have a guaranteed fixed price so that regardless of how the people on Wall Street are betting on the price they will be paid a fair amount. They will get credit, which is very important because the coffee producing families only get one payment per year.
What about the coffee plants that have now been developed that tolerate full sun instead of growing as understory crops?
It’s been a disaster. Coffee is an understory crop and these new strains have contributed to the destruction of the rainforest. They take these products that are developed in laboratories and plots in the U.S. by Navartis and Monsanto and other corporations and they are engineered to grow faster and have a higher yield but they aren’t sustainable, they require higher chemical inputs. These new high yield varieties are sold and marketed to developing countries, and the World Bank gives loans to buy these products and its been disastrous.
Do you think all genetically engineered food is bad?
I’ve been very alarmed at some of the studies that have been coming out showing that corn pollen from genetically engineered corn made the larvae of Monarchs unable to reproduce.
What about genetically engineered rice that contains vitamin A? Wouldn’t planting this rice prevent severe malnutrition, especially in Southeast Asia?
Its very tempting to look for a quick fix, but any nutritionist will tell you that the key to good nutrition is a balanced diet. There’s a lot of ethical problems with genetic engineering. There is a new term called bio-piracy. A Texas based company has shifted around a few strands of DNA and they are claiming ownership of a strain of rice that has existed in India for thousands of years. Chiapas has declared itself a bio-piracy free zone.
Can these organizations be reformed?
Yes, for example, they’ve got literacy projects in Turkey. I was emailed by someone on the ground there who said look at all the things we’re doing to improve literacy. The changes that have been made have been in response to popular uprisings by local communities who say they want more openness, transparency, participation by local communities; the World Bank has made small progress on all of these things. But countries now have huge foreign debts that they have to make interest payments on, and how do you generate hard currency? You turn your forests into cash and you turn your fisheries into cash.
Centralized development projects have turned these countries into exporters of one or two commodities, while at the same time the global commodity prices in all these raw materials have just plummeted.
The current World Bank ideology is growth uber alles, free market expansion, do what’s good for the multi-national corporation and somehow that’s supposed to benefit these countries, thou shalt attract foreign investors. We believe there should definitely be international institutions that should be involved in setting rules for the global economy but they have to incorporate different world views. The one that is being cooked up now at the University of Chicago and the London School is a very limited economic paradigm.
So to date they really haven’t made any significant progress towards reform?
If you’re a country that is already cash strapped you have to make very inhumane decisions, sometimes a country is paying five times as much for debt service as they are for health care. Countries in Africa have been forced to reject loans to deal with the AIDS epidemic because of the payments. The World Bank is reacting to mass protests in these countries to accepting new loans. This has been an extraordinary year for raising the issues we’re talking about, the World Bank is getting pressure from the outside, from inside Congress, from the right, from the left, from all spectrums.
Who is the anti-globalist coalition? Who was in Seattle? Who were they?
The call that went out for Seattle was that this trade affects everyone on the planet, we’re all affected, we should all be there and be represented. Form a group of people, a group of 15-20 people and create your message. Create your single sound bite that you want to deliver about what’s wrong with the WTO, the issue that your particularly passionate about. And people came with the most amazing creativity, I can’t even begin to fathom, what people came to express. It resulted in a very good picture of the widespread impacts of world trade, everything from people dressed up in turtle costumes to indigenous rights groups to people from faith-based organizations who formed prayer circles. There were hip-hop youth that came and did rap in the streets to demonstrate against the corporatization of culture.
Is this a culture war as much as an economic war?
There was an affinity group there that had a beautiful banner that said “life is not a commodity” and for me that pretty much summed up what was happening with the WTO who is really trumping other aspects of life, their spirituality, their education; there’s lots of spheres of our life that should not be commodified and turned into a vehicle for making profit and yet that’s exactly what the WTO is facilitating.
The general consensus in the mainstream of top political circles is that capitalism has won. The ideological struggle between capitalism and communism is over and capitalism has won. Whether or not that is true, do you think there is subtlety to the idea of capitalism? Are their kinds of capitalism that can exist in a way that is positive for these other values?
We all have our ideals about how we’d like to live but I’m more concerned about the present and the fact that we live in a capitalist and highly globalized society and how are we going to transition this system. Yes, capitalism has won, the cold war has ended, and there are very few examples of socialism left. How do we transition this to a more people-centered and environmentally centered system?
How many people were in Seattle?
There were 50,000 people, the labor unions alone mobilized 23,000 people. In SF there is the International Longshoreman’s Warehouse Union. I went and spoke at labor union halls for the ILWU everywhere from the Port of Stockton to San Francisco to San Diego to Los Angeles. They shut down the whole western coast during the WTO meetings in Seattle; they had a work stoppage from Vancouver to San Diego.
What’s the biggest problem the labor unions have with the WTO?
They’ve been really heavily hit by the de-industrialization of the United States. There’s such a huge trade surplus now, the trade is coming in and it’s not going out and the workers are paid by what they lift.
What were you doing during the Seattle demonstrations?
My main concern was how the corporate media was going to frame what was happening. I wanted to make sure that there we had really good spokespeople and that our communications were as professional as possible and that our press releases were going out in a timely way. We had a desk inside of the independent media center covering the WTO meetings; I worked with the Direct Action Network media team. We also had a number of meetings to organize the action beforehand – the action to shut the meetings down – of course when the people started getting arrested we had ongoing vigils and the response to the martial law that went out.
How did you coordinate your efforts?
We were a pretty high-tech group. Lots of cell phones. When I was in Seattle on the morning of November 30th, I went into the convention center where we were accredited by the WTO along with other NGOs, many of which are industry associations, so we actually had had a press conference on that morning inside the WTO’s hotel about how we intended to shut down the WTO.
Later on November 30th when the tear gas was flying and all hell was breaking loose in the streets I went into the main convention center and realized it was totally empty except for a few hundred people that had gotten there, so I thought, for these few hundred people who are here let’s invite them to have a dialogue. They are always (WTO) telling us “don’t go out and protest in the streets, be good, talk to us around the table,” so here we were. Three of us walked up to the podium at the front of the hall and said “We’re from Global Exchange and we’re here to have a dialogue about the way that human rights and the environment and labor standards are being undermined by the WTO’s rules.”
They didn’t like that too much and they grabbed us and as they threw us out we started screaming “where’s the democracy, where’s the freedom of speech?”
You guys were also at the WTO meeting in Washington DC in April and again over the summer at the conventions. Those weren’t quite as disrupted, is that because they were ready for you?
Oh yes, they had definitely studied us. The Philadelphia police and the Los Angeles police departments all had representatives in Washington DC to observe our strategy. I’m sure they were spying on us. What they did in Philadelphia right away was they came in and stole all of our art. One of the ways we were going to get a very creative message was through giant puppets and by creating a festival atmosphere. We wanted to blockade the streets with giant puppets; it’s hard to arrest a giant puppet. They came into the warehouse where the things were being made and just shredded everything. They put it all through a giant wood-chipper.
How do you keep turnout high on an issue like this? It’s not exactly like the Vietnam War years where people were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. It’s a little more cerebral, a little less tangible. How do you sustain this?
Well that’s really what our challenge is right now. There are people who have had their lives transformed by being part of a mass action, being with ten, twenty, thirty thousand people who passionately believe there can be a better world. Now we’re trying to figure out how to bring that back into their communities, their work, their professional lives. I doubt a lot of the people who were on the streets of Seattle can become a corporate lawyer; things have changed because of how they’ve been impacted. Things are going to happen through a groundswell of grassroots activity, talking to people who weren’t on the streets and explaining why we were there. Lots of public education, lots of campaigns, targeting corporations who often are headquartered in a particular city. We have our campaign against Gap sweatshops. Gap operates factories as part of a subcontracting regime in over forty countries worldwide. In Cambodia we are fighting for a living wage of about 60 dollars a month; they’re currently paid about 40 dollars a month.
How does that compare to wages for other jobs in Cambodia?
That’s a good question, but it’s not a subsistence wage.
What about the people in these countries? What are you doing in terms of working directly with local groups around the world?
The cross-border organizing is one of the foremost parts of our strategy, building global-local links. Often the head of the World Bank or the WTO or Clinton will say “you people in the U.S. are standing in the way of development when in fact it’s workers in this country and workers in another country where Ford Motors has relocated to that are the target. So now there are efforts to build global unions, to organize across borders. The work that I’ve been doing here in the wake of Seattle is looking at the next major international corporate managed trade negotiations; where the corporations are coming together, where they are in their coalitions. Right now it’s to negotiate the free trade area of the Americas, NAFTA expansion to all 34 countries in the Americas except for Cuba. This is the same flawed process of corporations sitting behind closed doors and meeting rooms that are laying out their agenda and there’s no democratic process. We don’t even have access to copies of the text.
Why can’t the U.S. be a force pulling countries in the right direction in these meetings, instead of taking advantage of the fact that they don’t have our environmental standards and labor rights?
That’s what’s behind the corporate accountability campaigns and codes of conduct we’re encouraging U.S. corporations to adopt. Many companies, for example, have committed to a set of business principles for corporations doing business in China. We’ve gotten Levis, Intel and other companies to sign to this.
Is there momentum with these code-of-contact campaigns? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
I see shifts and changes being made in a lot of areas. The fact that socially responsible investment is the fastest growing sector of investments is really promising and shows that people are responding to the ways their consciousness is being raised with actual changes in the way they want to buy things and invest things. We’re seeing a lot of resolutions showing up in public company shareholder meetings addressing everything from the use of their rainforest products in construction to issues of income inequality.
In the U.S., whenever a union tries to organize, there is a threat to move the company overseas or bust the union. There is a much more conscious effort on the part of corporations to keep working standards low and to keep wages low. That’s why wages have stagnated to 1970′s levels. The threat of moving overseas has given corporations power over their work forces and compelled unions to accept lowering wages even in this time of a booming economy.
Are there opportunities coming up for your group to get the kind of exposure that you got in Seattle?
At the heart of these issues is democracy. This year we started to look very closely at the nature of democracy in the U.S. and we realized we are very far from having a true democracy. Corporations and their campaign finance contributions are calling the shots. There is no such thing as one person one vote, the electoral college gets in the way of that along with corporate influence in the election process. So we are launching a campaign to create true democracy, to democratize the political system of the U.S., to demand proportional representation, clean money reforms, easier voting and voting rights…
You mean going to a parliamentary system?
Right, it would not be winner-take-all. Most western democracies are parliamentary.
Wouldn’t that be a big shift for the United States?
We have to start somewhere. We hope that we have the attention now of the American public to also be questioning the archaic system and to overhaul the political system. For this December 18th we have put out a call for actions to occur in all the state capitols in the country when the electors go to cast their votes. The action theme will be to “create democracy now,” to “clean it, fix it, build it.” This is a theme we chose because we need to clean up our corrupt system and fix things like the Electoral College and build a true democracy and give people power and real representation.
There is an energy right now sweeping like a wave across the country of people thinking globally and acting locally like never before. There is a very complete, holistic view of what needs to be done. It’s not an either-or, where corporations are compelled to pay a living wage, but who cares what they do to the environment. People are really thinking about how to integrate social and environmental responsibility and that’s what’s different from even a decade ago. A movement’s occurring in the U.S. where the legacy of the environmental movement is now joining up with social justice advocates and forming new, more powerful coalitions. This is the wave of the future, people who want to form a socially just and environmentally sustainable system.
What kind of big project would you do if you had more resources and could really do something on a grand scale? What would you do?
That’s ambitious. Debt cancellation is probably the biggest impediment to sustainable and equitable development for people living in the global south. It hits me at a very visceral level. It’s a very immoral and usurious relationship that’s been created because of the way World Bank and IMF have loaned their money. When it comes to creating global equality it’s getting the boot off the developing country’s neck.
How do you deal with the plutocracy in these developing countries who are co-opted by multinationals?
You have to promote real democracy and empower people in different sectors, women and others, to have a voice. There are projects like micro-credit as opposed to a highly centralized development project. It’s happening right now, in Argentina there’s a mass revolt happening as we speak. It’s a global movement. There’s a new wave of awareness and resistance in the last few years. It’s a global movement that has its roots in peasant movements, anti-colonial movements, women’s rights movements, labor struggles. The growth of independent media centers has been a really important step to get accurate information to people instead of the corporate-filtered advertising barrage most people are reacting to. It’s really hard for us with limited resources to compete with the snazzy-groovy-sexy advertising campaigns of multi-national corporations.
Where can we go to buy clothes that aren’t made in sweatshops?
The problems with the sweatshops are systemic; they’re throughout the garment industry. If you really wanted to reform the whole garment industry you’d have to start with the way the cotton is produced. For every pound of cotton produced there is a third of a pound of chemicals. There needs to be a market for organic cotton. There would have to be a campaign that brought together organic cotton growers with unions and workers that are turning it into a textile, and then the mills that pay living wages to the workers that create the actual garments.
It would be nice to identify the good guys, and if you could drive people into the companies that are doing the right things, that might be a way to induce the other ones to follow suit.
Definitely, and some areas are easier than others. We’ve had some good progress with coffee. We demanded Starbucks sell fair-trade coffee, and they have started to do this.
How do you get these values into the mainstream?
That’s the challenge. There are studies showing that over 50 million people in the U.S. share these same values. They want to see systemic change, they don’t want to be wasting the earth’s precious resources, and they want to buy products that are from companies that are socially and environmentally responsible.