Feature

Labor Has a Party

But No Candidates—Yet

By Laura McClure

This article is from the September/October 1996 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/1996/0996mcclure.html

This article is from the September/October 1996 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 207 cover

The British have one; the Canadians do too. And now at last, a Labor Party has come to the United States. The newly founded Labor Party can't claim the support of all the nation's 16 million organized workers. But all told, the nine national unions and hundreds of local labor bodies and community chapters that sent delegates to Cleveland to found the Labor Party June 6-9 represent over one million workers.

Don't look for the Labor Party line on your ballot in 1996. For the next two years, at least, the convention delegates decided to adopt a grassroots, nonelectoral strategy to convince Americans to take our country back from the corporations and the rich."

The size of the Cleveland gathering was impressive - nearly 1,400 elected delegates occupied the sprawling convention hall. And it was a diverse bunch, including workers who harvest cucumbers in Ohio and nurses from California, as well as people who work in chemical plants in New Jersey and in government offices in Washington, DC. They included both union officials and rank and file unionists elected to be delegates.

Despite their differences (and there were many), this unwieldy group adopted a constitution and a program for the fledgling Labor Party. They debated fiercely about abortion and about the balance of power between unions and community-based delegations. But the hottest debate was over whether and when the party would vie for political office.

The delegates also voted to support a progressive, anti-corporate agenda to organize around. The first agenda item: a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing everyone's right to a job with a living wage. The Party also calls for: guaranteeing workers' right to organize, bargain, and strike; an end to bigotry against immigrants; support for affirmative action; universal access to quality health care in a single-payer system; a 32-hour workweek; paid family leave; a guaranteed adequate annual income for all (an amendment sponsored by the Welfare Rights Organization); and equal access to a good public education.

The Labor Party would not have come this far without the sponsorship of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), a small international union headed by Bob Wages. For years, the union helped finance and organize Labor Party Advocates (LPA) and supported its national organizer, Tony Mazzocchi. Mazzocchi, convinced that average working people were tired of corporate-dominated politics and were ready to organize around a pro-worker, anti-corporate agenda, crisscrossed the country tirelessly, speaking to groups of unionists from Texas to Massachusetts.

Along the way, OCAW was joined by nine international unions, hundreds of local unions and several local central labor councils. Recognizing that unions represent only about 15% of the American workforce, LPA also set up a system to allow unorganized workers to join LPA through local chapters (so long as each chapter was sponsored by at least one union).

While labor's biggest unions and the AFL-CIO itself have steered clear of the Labor Party, some have made sympathetic moves. Two of the nation's largest unions - the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - did send official observers to the convention. Newly elected SEIU president Andy Stern has said he is open to the possibility of supporting a labor party. Even the AFL-CIO's political director has indicated that the Labor Party might be complementary to what he's trying to do - presumably by providing some political leverage against backsliding Democrats.

Floor Fights

California Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro presided over much of the convention, a job that required tremendous patience and an intimate knowledge of Robert's Rules of Order. Convention organizers did everything they could to keep the 1,400 delegates from devolving into anarchy: Delegates held up colored cards to indicate what kind of statement they planned to make at one of the 20 floor mikes, and a stoplight at the front of the room flashed yellow and then red when they reached the end of their 3-minute per person time limit. The chair took statements pro and con in alternating order.

Voting was weighted according to the number of people delegates represented, which gave the balance of power to OCAW and the United Electrical Workers (UE), which combined had 22% of the total vote, and to other national union sponsors. These unions, who had representatives on the committees that prepared the draft constitution and program, had already hashed out some of their disagreements and were prepared to vote as a bloc on most issues. This left smaller delegations and local chapters at a disadvantage in challenging or amending the proposals. But there was some room for maneuver: In the course of the convention, delegates passed some two dozen amendments to these documents based on proposals and concerns raised from the floor.

Some delegates, especially those from smaller delegations or chapters, seemed shocked by the tight manner in which the debate was managed, and rankled when discussion seemed to be closed prematurely. Many of the union delegates, more accustomed to big conventions, were anxious to complete business, and were impatient with people they thought were making too many unnecessary motions and impeding progress.

To Run or Not to Run

The stoplight was flashing during the delegates' debate over electoral politics, which pitted key Labor Party backers against one another. Throughout the history of Labor Party Advocates, there's been a push and pull over whether or when the party should delve into the electoral arena. Tony Mazzocchi has long argued that even if the Party succeeded in getting candidates into office, those elected would have little real power without a large, mobilized base of support from below. A non-electoral stance (at least for the time being) may also make it easier for the Party to win union supporters, since many unions are heavily invested in Democrats, and aren't ready to pledge sole allegiance to an upstart party.

The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) led a fight for a resolution that would have allowed the Labor Party to run its own candidates or endorse independent candidates (in local elections only) during the next two years. Many of the chapter delegations ended up siding with ILWU on its resolution. žWe have to get our program out to working people now, or we'll fail to win their support - we'll be two years behind," argued Luisa Gratz, president of ILWU Local 26.

But most union delegations felt the Labor Party was not prepared to enter the electoral fray. žWe are a fledgling organization - we don't have the resources or the structure to run candidates," argued one delegate. We need to build a sense among people that politics is not just elections," said another.

Tony Mazzocchi pointed out that the Labor Party cannot, under federal election law, use union treasury money to run candidates, and so has to have time to develop independent financial strength before it can pull off election campaigns. (The money unions give to national Democratic and Republican PACs comes from voluntary contributions separate from the general treasury.) Mazzocchi pleaded for realism. žWe cannot rescue the labor movement and working people overnight by running candidates. Be practical. Let us have time to organize ourselves. Two years is a whisper in time to build this movement."

The delegates defeated the ILWU's amendment. Now this hot potato will be passed on to a special committee, which will explore the possibility of electoral participation and set the stage for another debate on the subject at the Party's 1998 convention.

Who is Labor?

Another floor debate reflected the ongoing tension between chapters and unions: Chapter delegates proposed changes that would give more weight to chapters in the new Labor Party's leadership body. These proposals were defeated. But delegates did vote to amend the constitution to give smaller local unions more weight.

The tension between unions and chapters has been a constant theme for LPA, and it reflects a larger issue facing the Labor Party. The Party is, by design, built on a foundation of union support - although its intention is to stand for and include all working people, organized and unorganized. Unions, the Party's organizers have argued, offer a good starting base for a class-based party: They have millions of members, they have significant resources, and they're built around issues of class. Unions also have limitations, including a history of social conservatism and a bureaucratic tendency.

The Labor Party's organizers created a structure of community chapters to provide a route for the unorganized to participate. But unlike the unions, the chapters have few resources and little in the way of a natural base. Some local chapters have had success in reaching out to community supporters. Many have remained relatively small, sometimes dominated by isolated political formations. So for now, the power imbalance remains great.

The Party will be led by a National Council that is made up of representatives from endorsing national unions, locals and chapters. In order to qualify for Council membership, both unions and chapters must not only endorse, but recruit a significant number of individuals to be Party members. This means unions can't just fall back on the passive support of members - they have to organize their members into the Party in order to lead it.

The whole structure of the Labor Party creates an incentive to get members at the base. And I think if we do manage to organize from the base, the Party will be less liable to compromise or to adopt a program that doesn't address the needs of the workers," said Carl Finamore, a grievance committee chair for a Machinists Union local in San Francisco.

Unions have a diverse base to draw from in recruiting for the Labor Party. But, while the Labor Party's leadership committees to date have been diverse, women and people of color were under-represented at the convention - perhaps 30% of the delegates were women, and 20% were people of color. Many of the larger endorsing unions, including OCAW, have mostly white male members.

During the convention, delegates convened Black, Latino, Women's and Gay and Lesbian caucuses. The Black Caucus submitted several proposed resolutions that were eventually incorporated into the Labor Party's program, including statements denouncing attacks on African American churches and efforts to dismantle žblack or brown electoral districts."

While these resolutions passed without much comment, there was intense debate on other social issues, particularly abortion. The language that was eventually adopted calls for žinformed choice and unimpeded access to a full range of family planning and reproductive services for men and women." The California Nurses Association led a floor fight to insert an explicit call for the right to a žsafe, legal abortion," a move that was strongly opposed by members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Bakers Union. Bob Wages got a recess in the debate to caucus his own members, the largest delegation, in support of the stronger language, but he failed to muster a majority.

Women at the convention were also divided over the issue, with several saying they could not be part of a Labor Party that did not explicitly support the right to abortion. But ultimately, the arguments of participants like Jane Slaughter prevailed: žWhen you win a debate, you don't have to rub people's noses in it," she told the convention hall. In the end delegates adopted the original language by a 2-to-1 margin.

Many of those who came to the Labor Party convention are thrilled that it adopted a constitution and a platform, and that most attendees walked away more committed to the Party than they were when they came in. But the convention delegates were not able to adopt a specific plan of action for the coming months. Crafting a national organizing strategy built around the Party's program will be the first order of business when the Party's interim National Council meets in August. One of the Party's central tasks will be recruiting many more members, a task that was stymied for years because LPA had no agreed-upon structure or program. The international unions, locals and chapters all now have a strong incentive to organize new members - if they fail, they won't get seats on the National Council.

Laura McClure is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY

Resources: The Labor Party can be contacted at P.O. Box 53177, Washington, D.C., 20009-3177, (202) 319-1932.
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