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Trade negotiations that target public services including health care and education as ripe for liberalization are rotten to the core.

Last month one of the worlds biggest privatization pushers unleashed an all-out assault on public services. The pusher is the World Trade Organization, or WTO. This group is quickly becoming the most powerful body on the planet, dictating the rules in a global trade game thats stacked in favour of corporate interests.

The WTO has already overturned domestic laws designed to protect key areas like clean air, endangered species and public health. The Millennium round of talks, which started in Seattle and conti-nues over the coming year, has services in its sights. The goal: strip public services of all regulation and protection anything thats a barrier to a corporation coming in and making a quick buck.

The WTO is bent on privatizing public services and restricting the power of governments to protect human rights and the environment so multinationals can maximize their profits. The plan is to vastly extend the scope of the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS, to cover all services, giving multinational corporations enforceable rights to set up private hospitals and clinics, private schools, colleges and universities and private social services.

WTO threatens jobs, public services

Right now, the GATS doesnt cover most public services. But if the dominant powers at the WTO the U.S. and the European Union have their way, public services would be treated like profit-generating commodities. Corporations will decide how and if services are delivered. Governments would lose their power to regulate services. And corporations would be guaranteed a share of the services market.

That means foreign, for-profit corporations would be guaranteed the right to bid on services Canadian public institutions currently deliver. And governments would be unable to earmark funds for public services, diverting public dollars into private, for-profit services.

Under these terms, workers wages and jobs would be under immediate threat. The WTO says the biggest boost to freer trade is opening up service jobs to foreign workers because they are less costly than Canadian workers. Translation exploiting migrant labour to undercut Canadian salaries and collective agreements, or moving work offshore.

“I know exactly how this is going to affect me,” says Steven Seaborn, who works with developmentally disabled adults at the Toronto Association for Community Living and chairs CUPEs International Solidarity Committee. “If the GATS comes in, the rules will mean the lowest bidder will scoop up our work. Clients will suffer. Their families will suffer. CUPE jobs will suffer. And well lose public investment in and regulation of community services.”

He says the downward pressure of competitive bidding, which has already started in the social services sector, will become the norm if the WTO has its way. “We cant let the marketeers get their hands on our services. Its time to think globally and bust our asses locally.”

Pettigrew fiddles while services get burned

Despite the dire threat, the Canadian government is aiding and abetting the process, with Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew refusing to protect Canadas public services by exempting them from any new trade deals. Apparently hes more interested in opening up foreign markets to Canadian corporations and Canadian services to foreign corporations than protecting the best interests of Canadian citizens.

In fact, the Canadian government has already opened the door to GATS expansion, by agreeing at hemispheric trade talks to establish trade rules for all services. The U.S. plans to use this model for the GATS negotiations.

And this past summer, the Department of Foreign Affairs distributed a survey to Canadian service providers that promoted the benefits of free trade in services but was notably silent on the fact that if public services fall under the GATS, foreign for-profit corporations would move in and take them over.

Stopping the spread of GATS

While the WTO is getting ready to flex its muscles, activists in CUPE and in grassroots coalitions around the globe are pumping a little iron of their own.

“We have to match the WTO with a single world trade union movement,” Rodney Bickerstaffe said at an international solidarity forum held during national convention. Bickerstaffe is general secretary of UNISON, CUPEs sister union in England.

“The struggle always continues,” emphasized Vusi Nhlapo at the same forum. Brother Nhlapo, a veteran in the fight for justice and well versed in the power of international solidarity, is president of NEHAWU, CUPEs sister union in South Africa. “Community links are key to these struggles. If the public doesnt understand why we are on strike or why we are fighting so hard, they will never support us,” he said.

Through a cross-Canada caravan, a fax-your-MP campaign, postcards, petitions, demonstrations and teach-ins, CUPE members are mobilizing to build those community links locally and globally.

Activists like Brother Seaborn are mobilizing like never before because if the GATS extends to cover all services, it will be virtually impossible to reverse.

“Alarmism is appropriate. This is time for an alarm, and the bells need to sound. And CUPE has a really important role to play,” says Seaborn. “Were fighting for the quality of our lives.”

As last years defeat of the dangerous Multilateral Agreement on Investment shows, fighting back works. It is possible to stop these trade deals, and we can do it if we act together now.

Karin Jordan