Teaching About the WTO

By Wayne Au

I could see the crowd from a mile away.
It was then I knew I had to stay.
People shouting fair trade,
With a human barricade.
Determination on their face,
Everyone from every race.
There they were joined together,
In a protest that will be remembered forever.

— Excerpt from an untitled poem
By April Smith, student

SEATTLE – It’s about 10 a.m., Dec. 1, 1999, the morning after the international days of protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO). My high school humanities classroom is full of students, on time and anxious to talk about what had happened.

The day before, the eyes of the world had been on Seattle. At least 70,000 people – labor activists, human rights advocates, environmental activists, populists, anarchists, socialists, religious activists, educators, students, and media – converged on downtown for what was part demonstration, part direct action, part rally, and part righteous street festival. It was a conscious party, the likes of which haven’t been seen here since the Seattle General Strike of 1919. The atmosphere was electric, and my students were appropriately buzzing with interest and curiosity.

Our classroom discussion was lively. Students were shocked and outraged at the police brutality they saw on TV or suffered in the streets. While some students who took part in the demonstrations relayed stories of being shot with rubber bullets and getting gassed or pepper-sprayed, they also talked about being amazed at the number of people that showed up and the empowerment they felt. We even discussed the anarchist “black blocs,” with some students feeling disgusted and others noting that only exploitative multinational corporations had been targeted.

Daniel, a thoughtful white working-class student with Punk leanings, was melancholy in his remarks, sad about the focus on property damage during the protests, and tired from running around downtown the day before. But as he raised his head up to the class, Daniel asked the most provocative, most important question of the day: Were the protests successful?

He thought that they weren’t. The WTO was still doing its thing, he said. People and natural resources were still being exploited around the world. Downtown Seattle had been trashed and protesters, including himself, had been gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot with rubber bullets. As far as he could see, nothing had improved.

I then asked Daniel and the class to consider a few questions, such as: What were the purposes of the demonstrations? After some discussion, we concluded that it wasn’t realistic to expect the WTO to fall apart and world exploitation to end with one demonstration. Our conversation then moved into issues raised by the conference and the protests, and how everyone they knew was talking about the demonstrations or asking questions about the WTO. It became clear to all of us that in many ways, the World Trade Organization, the protests, and the ministerial meetings in Seattle were largely about education.


I teach at an alternative public high school for students who have been unsuccessful in traditional high school environments. During the fall, my teaching partner, Alonzo Ybarra, and I had prepared our students for the WTO meetings in Seattle by teaching about global issues. Using an eclectic smattering of online resources, pamphlets, videos, and books, we ran our students through a crash course in imperialism, globalization, labor rights, environmental protection, and the role of the WTO. We had asked key questions such as: How does our global economy work? Who benefits from existing trade relationships? What impact do current trade practices have on the environment? On workers?

We watched movies about Disney’s sweatshops in Haiti and The Gap factories in Central America. We studied imperialism and how, in recent world history, nations such as the United States, Japan, and those of the European Union had used the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to extract wealth from impoverished nations.

Pulling together the unit was difficult because we had to reach out to a wide variety of resources. Fortunately, we had the luxury of being at ground-zero for the WTO conference and protests. Teach-ins for students and teachers were taking place at least once a week. Articles about the WTO appeared in both the mainstream and alternative media nearly every day. And probably most important, there was an increased activist presence in Seattle.

My students, who come mainly from Black, white, and Asian working-class families, related to the labor and human rights issues in particular. They, along with their families and their communities, understood the working-class pangs of too much hard work for too little pay. They were able to connect with the problems of child labor, of 13-year-old girls working 16-hour days for a few dollars in wages. This connection became an important part of my students’ growing political awareness; it allowed them to recognize their relative privilege in comparison to Third World workers while simultaneously finding solidarity in knowing that the same system treats people unfairly both in their own neighborhoods and internationally.


As I researched WTO materials to use in class, I found that several WTO curricula had been published in the months preceding the meetings in Seattle. I found one curriculum that, for the most part, was useful: “Approaching WTO Education: How to Bring WTO into Your Classroom by Engaging Students in International Trade Disputes”. The curriculum was sponsored by the Seattle Host Organization and King County and was developed by individuals from the World Affairs Council of Seattle, the University of Washington Business School, and the University of Washington for Inter-national Business Education.

The curriculum lays out the WTO perspective in a straightforward manner and also gives clear voice to forces opposed to the WTO’s policies and actions. Aside from the introduction, which is useful for its detail but lacks critical questions about the WTO, the curriculum delivers multiple viewpoints on the WTO and includes varied and engaging lesson plans. I particularly liked the second lesson, which explores the various perspectives surrounding the WTO and “free trade” and uses materials excerpted from original sources. The information is presented in a way that students can easily sort out and is done quite fairly – even down to an equal number of pages for each perspective.

Unfortunately, of the six WTO curricula I looked at, “Approaching WTO Education” was the exception. As I looked at the different WTO educational materials, I found some disturbing myths about the nature of free trade and the WTO. Here is a glimpse of a few of the most common, and a rough outline of how teachers might begin to provide an alternative perspective. (See the box on this page for a listing of websites and resources where teachers can get more information.)

Myth #1: Free trade, in the long run, will improve life for everyone around the world. The central idea is that certain nations, through regional specialization and access to resources, can produce certain goods more efficiently and more cheaply than other nations. Free trade advocates say this benefits everyone who wants less-expensive products. They also assert that people in poorer nations benefit twice, once when they get access to cheaper goods like everyone else and the second time when they get jobs created in their countries as a result of free trade policies.

One fallacy of this argument is apparent when one looks at the working conditions in the poorer nations. Yes, these workers may have jobs, but they don’t make enough in wages to feed themselves or their families, let alone to buy the shirts, shoes, or pants that they may have sewn in the first place. Not only are they super-exploited in their newly created production jobs, but they can’t even afford to buy the cheaper products now supposedly available in the global marketplace. (There are also other issues, such as how the global marketplace destroys local economies and industries and how peasants are forced off the land. And, of course, there are the environmental issues surrounding globalization, which raise serious questions about quality of life for the entire planet.)

Myth #2: The WTO only focuses on trade issues. The WTO actively promotes a free-trade ideology and, in doing so, is forced to defend such a position. Its first line of defense is plausible deniability – that the WTO focuses only on trade issues and that environmental or human/labor rights issues are “non-trade considerations” outside the WTO’s mandate. This allows the WTO to wash its hands of responsibility for its decisions. In response, teachers need to point out that the WTO cannot so neatly remove itself from the consequences of its decisions – especially when the decisions clearly challenge environmental protection laws or neglect international labor standards in favor of more profitable trading relationships.

Myth #3: The WTO is a democratic organization that makes decisions based on consensus. Consensus implies that all affected parties have a voice in the decision-making. But it’s clear that labor and environmental rights advocates have no official voice or power in the WTO. WTO representatives are government representatives acting in the interest of multinational corporations.

Further, while the WTO theoretically seeks agreement among all its members, it operates in the real world of power politics; many decisions are made bilaterally, mostly between the United States and the European Union.


The November 30 demonstrations became the climax of our quarter’s work – a final exam that gained life and erupted on the streets of downtown Seattle right before our eyes. It was the most teachable of moments. Real education was taking place, in people’s communities, at home, at work, and in the daily lives of those living in the area. You couldn’t live in Seattle without feeling the energy created by the protests. For my students, the WTO conference and protests represented education at its best.

During the protests, my students learned about the effects of free trade on human rights, the environment and sea turtles, and the labor movement. As the government responded to the protests with intensified police action – including a police assault on the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the creation of a “no protest zone” in downtown, and the banning and confiscation of gas masks and protest buttons or signs – my students learned first-hand about the reality of police brutality and the often tenuous nature of constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.

With all these lessons taking place in the streets, my partner teacher and I decided to have the students develop a magazine that spanned our quarter’s coursework and also discussed issues raised by the WTO protests.

We established a process for developing the magazine and let the students develop the story ideas and organization. A core group of students took the responsibility to make sure that other students were doing their part. We impressed upon the students the seriousness of the magazine’s theme and reminded them that whatever we published would represent the entire school.

In the end, the magazine was titled, “Stand Back! A Report on the World Trade Organization by the Students of Middle College High School – South Campus.” This magazine, which could be viewed as a class portfolio, is a collection of student artwork, poetry, political cartoons, graffiti, essays, protest narratives, and photographs that reflected the students’ varied skill and grade levels.

The student pieces in “Stand Back!” express outrage against injustice. Because many of the students had been involved in the protests, many pieces focused on the demonstrations.

Robbin Clemente, a junior who took part in the demonstrations, expressed in an untitled poem the lessons he learned:

Bombshells of canisters
right for human slaves
all brought together
awaken people today
inside this peaceful parade
the righteous have been sprayed
by an ignorant army
in hopes of some delays
but we stopped them
we did
delegates and corporate leaders
the power of all
a right to stand for freedom each
and everyone took part
in a march for human life
Took time from their work
school and daily life
for the innocent many
who have not been given life
we all laid arms down
and offer ourselves to sacrifice

Shannon Ryan, also a junior, wrote in her protest narrative:

Along with all of the positive things going around, there were some negative things happening too. Some of the protesters went around vandalizing things, breaking windows and spray painting local businesses. But the police acted the worst. They shot rubber bullets, sprayed innocent bystanders with tear gas, and arrested protesters – for what? For protesters using their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.

Shannon’s perspective reflected a common sentiment. There were a lot of people in the Seattle area who didn’t know what the WTO was about and who initially were ambivalent about (or annoyed at) the demonstrations. But when people saw the outrageous use of force by the police, many not only became interested in what was happening but also developed sympathy for the protesters and the issues they raised.

Admittedly, developing the magazine was not a perfect process. Due to time constraints and lack of resources, I personally had to do the layout. And we had our share of students who couldn’t complete their pieces on time. But for the most part, all the students contributed in one way or another. Most important, the magazine showed how the students came to realize that they had taken part in history and that they had decided to take a stand against exploitation.

Like many activists in Seattle, I have a flood of memories whenever I think of that momentous week. But the experiences of my student Anne touched me the most.

Anne had had a particularly hard quarter. Her alcoholic parents had been recovering but then had returned to drinking, leaving Anne and her four-year-old sister temporarily homeless and emotionally distraught. Throughout the quarter’s discussion on global issues, Anne had felt strongly about the injustices we had discussed in class. As a result, she had made a conscious choice to demonstrate on Nov. 30. On Dec. 1, Anne bounced up to me, beaming proudly.”Wayne, did you see me?” she asked. “I was downtown yesterday for five hours! I was in a human chain blocking WTO delegates, and I was tear-gassed four times!”

I could see the power and energy Anne had felt as part of a mass action for human justice. She had taken an active part in history.

More important, Anne had seen the possibilities of an uplifting and changed future, and had taken to heart the deepest educational lesson the WTO protests had to offer. She had learned not only that the world could indeed be different, but that we as people have the power to change it.

Wayne Au teaches interdisciplinary humanities at the Middle College Alternative High School in Seattle. The name of some students in this story have been changed.