Trade Free Opponent Rallies Support In Reno

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An international organizer is helping Reno labor leaders reach out to allies in building a coalition opposing corporate globalization and free trade agreements like NAFTA.

"We need to learn more about how things like the North American Free Trade Agreement affects us here in Reno,"said Tom Stoneburner, director of the Alliance for Worker's Rights.

Stoneburner organized a forum in Reno this week that attracted dozens of people from varied backgrounds to hear and talk with Antonia Juhasz, a program director for the International Forum on Globalization based in San Francisco.

Her group _ made up of 80 international activists, scholars, economists and researchers from 25 countries _ maintains that free-trade agreements benefit only multinational corporations that move jobs to cheaper markets overseas at the expense of American workers. It also warns about the erosion of health, environmental and safety protections at home.

Juhasz has helped organize protests from the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999 to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa last summer.

She was surprised more than 40 people showed at Tuesday night's meeting at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada in Reno.

"We had an amazing collection of different activists and members of the community from across Reno and Sparks who _ at least it seemed to me _ had not necessarily been in the same room together before,"said Juhasz, a former congressional aide who has written opinion pieces for the New York Times and Washington Post.

"There was labor and environmentalists and academics and students and civil rights leaders and representatives of the Hispanic community.

"To me, it was extremely impressive particularly because the topic of corporate globalization can have a difficult time attracting people if there is not a critical issue happening in the community along those lines, like a plant being closed,"she said.

One of her chief complaints about NAFTA is that it restricts the United States'ability to enforce environmental laws that are tougher than those in other countries.

A Canadian company currently is seeking more than $900 million from the state of California for banning the gasoline additive MTBE, a cancer causing chemical that threatened water supplies at Lake Tahoe, she said.

"They are challenging the state of California's right to ban the chemical. They are saying that either we have to pay them $1 billion or we have to eliminate that law,"she said.

Environmentalists, including leaders of the Reno-based Great Basin Mine Watch, worry about the potential for similar legal challenges at gold mines operating in Nevada.

"Several mining companies doing business in Nevada are Canadian organizations that would have access to NAFTA to challenge environmental regulations,"she said.

On another front, the Alliance for Workers Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union are working to draft a proposal that would require diversity in local hiring for companies that receive state money.

"Such a policy is absolutely illegal under NAFTA,"Juhasz said.

"There are immense, devastating impacts to the environment, to labor to human rights as a result of these agreements,"she said.

"But simultaneously, there is an amazing movement organizing across the United States and the world to not only combat these agreements but to make room for the alternatives that already exist,"she said.

Darin Bue, a carpenter from Floriston, Calif., said he shares the concerns of those who see corporate globalization as"an assault on American democracy."

"It's an effort by corporations to undermine democracy and remove the ability of people to legislate safety and environmental regulations that corporations see only as unnecessary barriers to trade,"he said.

"It was really encouraging to me to see such a broad cross-section of attendees there this week. There was somebody there that represented just about any point of view,"he said.

"Reno is not traditionally progressive, but there are more people here better informed than I had thought."

Juhasz has her sights set next on a WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun in September and a meeting in November of the Free Trade of the Americas in Miami aimed at expanding NAFTA.

A meeting in Montreal this week in preparation for the Cancun talks attracted hundreds of protesters who claim the WTO is boosting corporate profits at the expense of the poor and the environment.

"I don't know what will happen next in Reno, but you don't need to have a large protest to have an impact on decisions made in your community,"Juhasz said.

"You don't have to go to Cancun or Miami. You can work to raise awareness locally. That is the type of activism that ultimately creates momentum for large protests."