Free Trade Isn’t Fair

Mike Dolan is leading a long-shot crusade against the new economy’s most widely shared belief: that global economic integration — of countries, companies, currencies, and markets — is both virtuous and inevitable.

Name: Mike Dolan
Occupation: Deputy director, Public Citizens’ Global Trade Watch
Aspiration: “We want trade agreements that make human rights and labor rights as important as copyrights. We want environmental and consumer standards to be enforceable by trade sanctions.”


It doesn’t look like a war room. In fact, it looks a lot more like a chaotic storage closet — a tiny attic space with lousy ventilation in a building near Capitol Hill. Tucked away at the top of a long staircase, the room is crammed with so many files and is overflowing with so much paper that it’s nearly impossible for a person to find a place to sit — let alone think of this as a work space that is conducive to strategizing a massive campaign against the perils of global corporate expansion.

But this is just such a place. It is where Mike Dolan has spent the past five years waging an intellectual and political battle against an idea that, perhaps more than any other, defines the intellectual underpinnings of the new economy and unites this country’s economic and political elite. It is the idea that global economic integration — of countries, companies, currencies, and markets — is both virtuous and inevitable. The consensus around this idea is genuinely remarkable: What other economic principle rallies old-line Republicans and new-style Democrats, Business Roundtable conservatives and dotcom upstarts, Ivy League professors and midwestern farmers?

Don’t count Mike Dolan in that consensus. The 44-year-old Dolan is by temperament — and by job description — an old-fashioned organizer, a man who thrives on creating the kind of grassroots movement that exploded into public view last December, when some 50,000 protesters shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. The ferocity of those protests took pundits and politicians by surprise: The anti-globalization movement looked like an overnight sensation. Dolan knows better. He’d spent several months in Seattle, working seven days a week, to get ready for the WTO meeting. “People talk about Seattle as though it just suddenly happened,” Dolan says. “But we’d been building toward a moment like this for years. Seattle brought together many different constituencies in a historic confrontation between corporate rule and civil society. And now we have the attention of the international media as well as the corporate and political elites.”

If the diversity of new-economy believers has been a revelation, it is a mantra of the anti-globalization movement that there is not just one voice — not just one spokesperson — for its multifaceted coalition, which includes environmentalists and human-rights activists, college students and factory workers. And while it’s true that this is an unruly, hydra-headed phenomenon, it’s safe to say that Mike Dolan is the coalition’s closest thing to a mastermind.

After all, he’s been working in this field since 1995, when he entered the battle over the South American expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Dolan wears two hats in his battle against the forces of corporate trade. He is deputy director of Public Citizens’ Global Trade Watch, founded by Ralph Nader, which tracks institutions like the WTO and the impact of international trade agreements, educates citizens, and tries to help shape public-policy debates to effect change. He is also the national field director of the Citizens’ Trade Campaign, a coalition of groups fighting for fairer trade policies.

Raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he lived with his mother and his grandfather, a former admiral in the U.S. Navy (his father died when he was 5 years old), Dolan has always been a nonconformist. As a teenager, he was kicked out of some of the best private schools in the country. It took him years of dropping in and out of college before he finally graduated from the University of Maryland and then George Washington University’s law school, going on to work in the Midwest as a labor lawyer. But it wasn’t until he moved to California in the mid-1980s and was trained in grassroots organizing by the United Farm Workers that Dolan found his calling. “I loved it,” he says. “I found that my particular talents were better-suited to organizing and empowering and movement building than to litigating.”


As Dolan says, he “never looked back.” After working briefly in the early 1990s as a field director for the California Democratic Party and then for Rock the Vote, which registered millions of young voters for the 1992 presidential campaign, he moved on to Global Trade Watch in 1995, where he has been on the front lines of almost every major trade battle. Although globalization foes lost the original NAFTA debate, Dolan helped organize the campaign that later frustrated the Clinton administration’s attempts to expand that agreement to South America. He also helped shut down a new round of negotiations over the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1997. During the next two years, he was instrumental in the ultimately successful fight in Congress to defeat the fast-track trade-negotiation authority sought by Clinton, which would have cut Congress out of its constitutionally mandated role of regulating international commerce. And in 1999, there was Seattle, where Dolan was widely recognized as the single most effective organizer of the massive WTO protests. He sat out the demonstrations against both the World Bank and the IMF this past April because he was working — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to defeat the vote on normalizing trade relations with China. Undaunted, he was back on the front lines in August, organizing fair-trade protests at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

How does Dolan manage to do so much so fast? The Web is an important tool in his arsenal. “The Internet has been a big help,” says Dolan, whose email inbox on any given day may contain more than 2,500 messages from people across the country, as well as from international contacts. “We wouldn’t have been able to house all the people that we housed in Seattle, a couple of thousand of them, without a Web site. We wouldn’t have been able to collect the numbers of people that we knew were coming to Seattle if it weren’t for the email reporting. It wouldn’t have been as big as it was without the Internet.”

But there’s definitely a limit to what the Internet can do, says Dolan. “It’s necessary but not sufficient for the maintenance, care, and feeding of this movement,” he says. “It’s necessary to keep the data moving, but it’s not sufficient because you can’t trust people making commitments over email. It’s like: I’m home alone at night, I’m an activist, I care about these issues, I’m reading my email, and somebody asks me for something. I’m having a beer before bed, and I type in — it’s easy — and I say, ‘I can do that.’ And then I forget about it completely the next morning. And it doesn’t get done. There’s no follow-up, no accountability. It isn’t real organizing. I believe in face time, meetings, people taking responsibility, and the appropriate follow-through. A high degree of accountability and clear lines of reporting and responsibility — that’s my organizing model.”

Free Trade, Open Minds

Much of Mike Dolan’s work involves tactics — coordinating messages with a diverse group of constituencies, planning rallies, meetings, and seminars. But the movement itself begins with an agenda — one that is deeply at odds with virtually every piece of conventional wisdom about the value of global economic integration. The arguments in defense of free trade have become familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in politics and business. Free trade makes it easy for companies to manufacture whatever products they want to, wherever they prefer to make them — therefore it is good for everyone. It provides cheaper products for consumers in developed countries and creates jobs for Third World workers. Free trade is good for democracy too. The quickest route to fair elections, free-traders say, is open markets. Free trade is modern, progressive, futuristic — a welcome antidote to old-fashioned (and dangerous) nationalist passions. And (here’s the clincher) free trade is inevitable: How can you erect barriers to the movement of factories, goods, and money in a world where ideas and information travel over the Internet at the speed of light?

Mike Dolan has heard all of the arguments, and he disagrees with every one of them. Globalization “is a new colonialism,” he says. A slightly rumpled, bespectacled man, Dolan, in his button-down shirt, khaki pants, and white sneakers, looks (and sounds) a bit like a rogue professor. “A hundred years ago, it was the British Empire or Portugal or France or Spain who were exploiting the natural and human resources of what we now call the ‘Third World,’ ” he says. “It’s not countries anymore. It’s big corporations that are doing the same thing in the name of this so-called free trade, which is, in fact, corporate-managed trade.”

The case against globalization, which Dolan makes over and over again as he crisscrosses the country talking to grassroots groups, takes all of the free-trade arguments and turns them on their head.


Free trade doesn’t make things better for the average person. It makes things worse.

Dolan calls the phenomenon “downward harmonization,” which is a riff on “harmonization,” the term used to describe efforts by industries to create national product standards and regulatory policies that make it easier to move production anywhere in the world and to create jobs in developing countries. But those jobs, Dolan says, often go to countries with the weakest laws governing labor, health and safety, and the environment — countries where corporations can pay substandard wages and can employ workers in sweatshop conditions. More often than not, the result is that a lowest-common-denominator logic prevails, he says, especially if big companies are able to influence the rule-making procedures.

Dolan’s group has documented how the movement of jobs across borders compromises living standards for workers in industrialized countries, and how pressure from international regulators and from big companies has hurt efforts to regulate dangerous technologies or hazardous products in developing countries. Even human-rights issues suffer — getting pushed off the agenda in favor of business-driven rights like copyright protection. “It’s a lowering of consumer protection globally that we’re documenting here at Global Trade Watch,” Dolan says emphatically. “Each of these sectors feels the costs of globalization.”

Free trade is bad for democracy, not pro-democracy. Forget places like Indonesia or China, and the complex interplay between market forces, cronyism, and democratic advances and retreats. International free-trade organizations like the WTO are themselves undemocratic institutions that are driven by corporate agendas, rather than by popular needs, Dolan argues. The WTO is made up of one delegate each from its 135 member countries. Those delegates, who are often drawn from trade ministries and who have close ties to corporations, are involved in the negotiations over free-trade rules. Conflicts are heard by a three-person panel behind closed doors — and its decisions are binding.

In the name of free trade, then, the WTO essentially overrides national sovereignty. Over the past two years, as a de facto international court for trade disputes, it has regularly overruled national safety and environmental regulations that have been judged to be a barrier to trade — and it has levied stiff fines on nations that have refused to alter their domestic standards. For example, the WTO ruled that the European Union had no right to ban imports of hormone-treated beef from the United States, and then it hit the EU with $116 million in tariffs on its goods. In another case, it overruled a U.S. trade ban that had prohibited the sale of shrimp caught in nets that aren’t designed to let sea turtles escape. India had protested the rules to the WTO, which subsequently sided with India over the United States. The list goes on and on, says Dolan, but it all adds up to the same thing: The WTO is an institution that flies in the face of democratic decision making.

What Dolan and his fellow activists envision is an entirely different global entity, one that is based on a broader set of concerns than the WTO agenda. “We want to create multilateral agreements and supranational institutions that reflect our interests and not the narrow interests of transnational corporations,” he says. “We want trade agreements that make human rights and labor rights as important as copyrights. We want environmental and consumer standards to be enforceable by trade sanctions, the same way that corporate rights are protected by trade sanctions. Values other than the bottom line should be incorporated into commercial agreements. That’s what we want.”


Free trade is an example of old-style economic thinking, not of some new intellectual paradigm. Champions of free borders and open markets love to portray their opponents as being hopelessly out of step with cutting-edge business practices. Nonsense, says Dolan. Free-trade policies are themselves old-fashioned — modeled on an outdated Cold War paradigm that has little relevance in today’s business world.

The theoretical underpinnings of free trade, loosely referred to as the “Washington consensus,” developed in the aftermath of World War II. Free trade, the reasoning goes, promotes economic growth, which in turn promotes an environment that is conducive to nurturing democracy and human rights — and, ultimately, to fighting communism.

But critics of globalization argue that things didn’t work out quite so neatly. Developing countries that were supposed to benefit most from free trade have often been most hurt by it. And any financial gains that have been made have often been limited to an elite segment of a population — creating greater social instability. Struggling economies that open their doors to free trade, critics say, do not necessarily become stronger; they become more vulnerable to outside forces and more likely to be victims of projects that consume valuable natural resources, rather than create sustainable growth.

“Without its historical underpinning, the raison d’être for this slavish devotion to something called ‘free trade’ is no longer there,” says Dolan. “It’s time for us to turn our attention to other historical trends — like global warming, like sustainable development. In the absence of a Cold War, economic globalization can be described according to a new value set. And that’s why I’m out there.

“Who has a stake in the business of transnational corporations?” Dolan asks. “Well, it’s clearly more than just the people who hold stock. It’s the consumers who buy the product, it’s the workers who toil, it’s the community in which the corporation has its headquarters as well as its operations. You need to actually look a little wider than the very narrow sort of MBA-driven bottom lines of transnational corporations. We have to define our economic interests bigger. We have to describe interested parties in the success and operations of corporations larger than they are now.”

Dolan even goes a step further. Free-trade policies are based on genuinely bad economics, he argues. The unfettered power to move operations around the world allows companies to externalize costs — through the exploitation of cheap labor or through the exploitation of the environment — often with devastating results. Social costs are not reflected in the price of goods, he says. “What they’re doing is completely aberrant to market economics,” he says. “It’s wrong. When transnational corporations move a village in order to create a mine, there are all kinds of social costs — relocating residents, uprooting the community, mercury and mining tailings left in the river — that they don’t have to pay for. You know why? Because the laws in those countries don’t require it. Until you itemize, quantify, and pay those social costs, you’ve got bad economics. That’s not a capitalist culture. It’s colonialism. But it’s colonialism by corporations, not by a country.”


Nothing Is Inevitable

Mike Dolan is utterly undaunted by the suggestion that his perspective on global markets is wildly out of step with the march of the new economy. He’s far more likely to tell you that he’s in step with a growing public sentiment, both in the United States and around the world, that is increasingly skeptical of the globalist agenda. He points to the coalition that converged in a “historic moment” on the streets of Seattle, an unlikely band of protesters that included right-wing isolationists, organic farmers, and faith-based activists — a group that he says is “greater than the sum of its parts.”

“It is broad and wide, but it is also deep,” Dolan argues. “All these different constituencies observe the costs [of globalization] in their own terms and among their own constituencies — in their own communities, even. And we are all joined together in this shared critique of that system.”

Dolan is aware that the very diversity of the movement could also tear it apart — that environmentalists and union activists, for example, have historically found themselves on opposite sides of major issues. But he believes that the intensity of grassroots feelings against corporate-style globalization is so strong, and is building in so many communities, that the movement will not be stopped. The victories of the anti-globalization movement in recent years — from the defeat of the expansion of NAFTA to the Seattle shutdown — has bought the movement more “political space,” he says.

“With each victory, we create momentum,” Dolan says. “We are getting new partners nationally and internationally, getting new sectors, new constituencies, and new communities involved.”

Dolan is also unfazed by the argument that everything he proposes is based on expecting the most powerful individuals in society — and the powerful institutions that they run — to respond to a social critique that challenges one of their most deeply held principles. He argues that history has known such moments. There was, for example, the decision by England’s House of Lords in 1851, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, to give up its power to rule and to sit only as a consulting body. And social conscience won out in the United States in 1964, he says, when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

“There are moments in human history that optimistic organizers like me can point to, when the entrenched powers have given up that power in a democratic way and really on behalf of democratic values. Right now, I believe that we can create a critical mass of political energy on behalf of those values that we all share in civil society, to focus that energy on the United States Congress, and to say, ‘You will cut no more deals that do not make labor rights and environmental standards enforceable by trade sanctions. What you have already done on behalf of the business community, you will now do on behalf of our interests and our values.’ It’s possible. I really believe it. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be doing this.”


Sara Terry (, a frequent contributor to Fast Company, also writes for The Christian Science Monitorand The Boston Globe. Contact Mike Dolan ( by email, or learn more about his work on the Web (