Debating Trade

In the 1990s, trade protests made the news. Consumers and economists generally favored free trade, because low tariffs and quotas made imported goods cheaper and promoted efficient production. Many politicians liked protectionist policies, believing they maintained jobs and cultural traditions. Workers’ reactions varied, depending on how policies affected them.

WTO protest in Seattle, 1999

WTO protest in Seattle, 1999

Courtesy of Peter Yates

Trade negotiators often make rules without local input. In 1989, Congress banned the import of shrimp from any country that did not require turtle excluders on shrimp nets. Mexico, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan filed a protest with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Demonstrators objected to free trade coming before the environment.

WTO protest costume, 1999

WTO protest costume, 1999

WTO conference badge, 1999

WTO conference badge, 1999

Steel worker’s protest badge, 1980s

Steel worker’s protest badge, 1980s

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan refused to impose new trade barriers on steel imports. In 2001, Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. This button was collected from a shuttered plant.

Humane Society protest poster, 1999

Humane Society protest poster, 1999

In 1989, the European Union banned the use of hormones in cattle. The U.S. challenged the ban, and the WTO declared it an unfair trade barrier.

Mexican Coca-Cola, 2002

Mexican Coca-Cola, 2002

Around 2000, Mexico began taxing U.S. high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The WTO supported the U.S. free-trade position rather than protecting Mexican farmers.

Jumanji VHS tape, 1996

Jumanji VHS tape, 1996

Despite copyrights, some Chinese criminals copied and sold U.S. intellectual property, like Hollywood films. Fearing price retaliation, the U.S. government did not always push enforcement of the law.