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Stake of Labor in the WTO Seven years of trade negotiations at last gave birth to the World Trade Organization WTO in 1995 the US labor movement was one of its leading skeptics A world trade organization labor supporters argued would only accelerate the headlong rush to laissez-faire by dismantling national regulations It would overwhelm attempts by nations to defend living standards and the ability of unions to fight for wages and health and safety lawsand it would make it harder for nations to defend the rights of workers to join unions Labor lobbied hard against the WTO But now ironically the WTO could become a critical venue for advancing workers rights worldwide For the WTO has the power to review nations domestic laws that create unfair trade advantages including potentially labor laws The WTO could define fair trade to include labor standards Such linkage would be a historic change in the worlds trading regime and labors stake in it The idea of linking labor rights with trade policy has been around since shortly after World War II when efforts to create an international trading regime began in earnest However the WTO represents the first opportunity since 1948 to give the issue serious attention Proponents of linking labor rights to trade rules build on the conventional case for free trade For international commerce to be free markets within countries must not be rigged to encourage exports and discourage imports This is the fundamental principle of free trade and it is the central precept of the WTO Labor markets are a special case because they are not conventional free markets Minimum-wage laws and guarantees of free collective bargaining change the wages that market forces might otherwise produce But the economic mainstream in advanced industrial countries has long accepted that some regulation of wages and working conditions can enhance overall economic efficiency as well as fairness If employers are compelled to treat workers decently
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