The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The Labor Party is Founded
– But for What Purpose?

Aug 17, 1996

The Founding Convention of the Labor Party was held in Cleveland, Ohio, at the beginning of June. According to its organizers, the decision to found an American labor party was taken by 1367 delegates representing nearly two million union members.

The convention had been prepared for by 5 national unions: the OCAW (Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers); UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America); BMWE (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a railroad union); ILWU (International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union); CNA (California Nurses Association); and by several other intermediate bodies, the most important of which were the California State Council of Carpenters and the Ohio FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee). Several other unions endorsed the convention in the last few months: International Brotherhood of DuPont Workers; Textile Processors, Service Trades, Health Care, Professional and Technical Employees International Union; and several others at the last moment: AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees), UMWA (United Mine Workers of America). The SEIU (Service Workers International Union) passed a vague resolution of "support", but did not endorse, although a number of its local unions did endorse. By the time the Labor Party put out the first issue of its new paper, Labor Party Press 161 local unions, 22 central AFL-CIO councils, as well as assorted other labor-based organizations like CLUW (Coalition of Labor Union Women) had endorsed the founding of the Labor Party.

What Can Labor Do When the Democrats Are Not So Friendly?

The first moves to establish a labor party were taken in the late 1980s, when officials of the OCAW began approaching other unions about such a project. In 1991, the OCAW and UE established LPA (Labor Party Advocates), at first little more than a loose committee whose aim was to "educate" the labor movement about the need for such a party. At the beginning, LPA was composed of a few officials from a few unions plus a range of leftists, some active in unions, some not.

The 1992 elections gave the unions what they wanted a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president together for the first time in 12 years. The unions had worked hard to put Clinton in office, despite the fact that Clinton had not been their choice for the Democratic nomination. They expected, in return, to see Clinton sponsor and push through some part of "labor's legislative agenda".

Instead, they got only more of what Republican presidents had been pushing through Democratic congresses. The defeat of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was the unions' chief goal. The unions also had two pieces of legislation they wanted passed: a ban on permanent replacement of strikers once a strike is over, and an increase in the minimum wage. Clinton let the striker replacement bill die in committee, and he completely ignored the minimum wage. For the whole first two years of his presidency, he never once mentioned the issue, and Democrats in the Congress didn't even introduce a bill into committee. But the biggest shock came with NAFTA. During the election campaign, most Democrats had promised to oppose NAFTA. But once in office, Clinton announced he was supporting NAFTA, and enough Democrats switched their votes so it passed.

Nor did Clinton bother making those usual gestures with which Democratic presidents try to flatter the leaders of organized labor. They weren't invited to important events. The NLRB was allowed to run without a new chair for months. Interviewed by the New York Times, Clinton's labor secretary, Robert Reich, proclaimed, "The jury is still out on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace." His Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, declared, "where they [unions] are not, it is not clear yet what sort of organization should represent workers."

Late in 1993, the Clinton Administration actually went into federal court to argue that the court should uphold a 52 million dollar fine levied against the UMWA, even though the mineowners had asked for the fine to be vacated when the strike was over.

For 12 years, the Democrats had been able to hide what they were doing behind the threat of a Republican Presidential veto. But in 1993-94, they were in complete control of the government, its legislative and executive branches. To the dismay of the unions, they demonstrated what that meant.

In September of 1994, J. H. Joseph, a leading official of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, commented thus on the first two years of Clinton's presidency: "We didn't win everything we wanted, but the Unions got nothing they really wanted"." It was salt in the wounds of union officials already smarting from their treatment by the Democratic Administration.

It seems that Clinton and the Democratic Party calculated they didn't have to give anything to the unions. After the NAFTA vote, Teamster President Ron Carey said, "Some members of Congress apparently thought there would be no political cost in voting for NAFTA because working people supposedly have nowhere else to go.' We need to develop political alternatives so that we can't be taken for granted." He was not the only union official to express such sentiments.

The heads of organized labor reacted to the Clinton record by doing very little in the 1994 Congressional elections. They refused to give any money to the Democratic National Committee and withheld financial contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, supporting only those Democrats who were the most closely allied with labor. For the most part, union officials sat out the election. They were putting the Democrats on notice that the unions would not be taken for granted.

A Green Light from the AFL-CIO

It was in this circumstance, that a few more unions began to associate themselves with LPA. In 1993, soon after Clinton announced he had decided to support NAFTA, the San Francisco Labor Council and the San Francisco Building Trades Council not only added their names to the list of sponsors of LPA, they actively began to campaign for other unions to adhere to LPA. The result of that can be seen today in the number of local unions from Northern California which endorsed the Founding Convention.

By the end of Clinton's second year, when it became clear that none of labor's agenda would be addressed, the BMWE added its name to the list. In early 1995, almost all the important northern California AFL-CIO councils endorsed LPA, as did the head of the California state AFL-CIO. By mid-1995, the first AFL-CIO council outside of California, in White River Indiana, had endorsed. By early 1996, there were endorsements from AFL-CIO councils in southern California, as well as in Seattle, Washington; Cleveland, Ohio; Butler County, Pennsylvania; Lawrence County, Pennsylvania; Mercer County (Trenton), New Jersey; Ithaca, New York; Rochester, New York; and Madison, Wisconsin.

By the time of the Founding Convention, the main convening unions were still the somewhat marginal unions. Noticeable by their absence were the major industrial unions, the backbone of organized labor. But it was clear that the national AFL-CIO was giving indirect encouragement and support to the effort. Maybe this was a result of the change in leadership of the AFL-CIO. But even before the new AFL-CIO officers took over in October 1995, local councils had already been inviting LPA representatives to present their case. In any case, the new leadership, while not ready to organize a labor party itself, did send signals that it was ready to let this party be organized. The Cleveland Central Labor Council reported that when it called AFL-CIO Washington headquarters before endorsing the Labor Party's Founding Convention, it "got a green light." And two of the main union officials responsible for the labor party movement, Bob Wages of the OCAW and Mac Fleming of the BMWE, were put on the new AFL-CIO's Executive Council, as part of Sweeney's slate.

The two top leaders of the new AFL-CIO leadership are John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Sweeney's union, the SEIU voted to "support" if not endorse the Founding Convention of the Labor Party. Trumka's union, the UMWA voted to endorse, even if it did not send much of a delegation to the convention. Moreover, the UMWA accepted one of the seats on the Interim National Council set up by the convention.

Sweeney, in an article in the Summer 96 issue of Labor Research Review, writes: "...while I'm personally dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, I'm a bit chary about the chances for a Labor Party. I would be the last person, however, to discourage the dedicated brothers and sisters who are organizing the Labor Party movement from taking their best shot and I hope the progress they are making sends a clear signal to a Democratic Party that has moved away from working families just as surely as it has moved away from the old, the young, the disabled, and the poor. In the 1950s, the progressive forces in the labor movement, led by Walter Reuther, waged an all-out war against the notion of a Labor Party. That was then and this is now, and the Democratic Party should realize that the current effort is being led by the very forces that once disdained this notion."

On the other hand, Sweeney was very careful not to be openly associated with the Founding Convention. He managed to be in Cleveland during the convention, but turned down an invitation to address the delegates.

In any case, a labor party, or at least the embryo of one, has been formed in the United States, the first time in almost 50 years that there has been a move in this direction. The question is, what is that party, what are its aims, what does it propose to the working class, where might it go?

Based on the Unions, But Where Are the Ranks?

The Labor Party, both in its structures and its base, is clearly a party which is based on the unions, or at least on certain unions. In the early days of LPA, there was a great deal of discussion about what the base of LPA should be. What some of the leftists wanted was to aim LPA's activities toward "the community" and toward the various "movements" which often still dominate leftist thinking, as well as toward the unions. They wanted a party somewhat like the Greens, with maybe a slightly more populist language. What the unions wanted was an organization under their control, a tool they could use.

That discussion was resolved rather quickly, since the OCAW which initiated this drive had made it clear from the beginning that it would not work to build any party that was not based on the unions and under the control of the unions (or, more exactly under the control of the union officials).

At the June convention, voting was weighted in such a way as to give the leaders of the three main unions the means to determine the course of the party. Despite wide ranging discussions and many openly expressed disagreements, the main national unions had sufficient votes to decide every question.

Representation on the Interim National Council was set up so as to achieve the same result. Each of the nine main national or local unions responsible for organizing the convention were given one seat and one vote on the council. The 36 local chapters, which were where most of the leftists as well as other activists were concentrated, and from which a great deal of the discussion at the convention sprang, were allotted five seats, to be decided among themselves, with each seat carrying only one fifth of one vote.

When the permanent National Council is formed, national unions, intermediate bodies and local unions with more than 2500 members can each have one vote on the council. The only condition is that national unions must sign up 1% of their members; AFL-CIO state federations or central labor bodies in local areas have to sign up 20% of their affiliated unions; the largest local unions can sign up as few as 1% of their members, locals as small as 2500 would have to sign up 20% of their members.

Both in its structures and in its method of organizing, the Labor Party has been built by the union apparatuses from the top down and it has not gone very far down into the ranks of the working class, or even the ranks of the unions. The main goal in organizing LPA was always to get union bodies to affiliate. That continues to be true today.

At the Founding Convention, Labor Party speakers announced that the newly formed party represented almost two million union members. That may be the number of workers enrolled in the unions that officially were there, but almost certainly, very few of those two million even knew they were being represented at Cleveland; much less do they consider the Labor Party their party. And that's not even mentioning the rest of the 16.4 million union members, and even more the unorganized part of the working class, which is its vast majority.

Up until now, the Labor Party has been made up essentially only of union officials and a few other union activists. Of course, the time period itself weighs heavily on all efforts to organize. The ranks of the working class, in or out of the unions, have not been rushing to do anything.

Whatever the reason, today there is no sizeable section of the working class which considers the Labor Party as their party.

A Labor Party Which Accepts Capitalist Society

"A Call for Economic Justice", the Labor Party's program, passed at the Founding Convention, proclaims, "We, the members of this Labor Party, see ourselves as keepers of the American Dream of opportunity, fairness, and justice." It then enumerates the legislation it wants to see passed so that dream can be realized for this generation.The Labor Party wants to "amend the Constitution to guarantee everyone a job at a living wage." It wants laws which will require corporations to pay severance pay and to pay communities for lost revenues when workplaces are closed. It calls for repeal of anti-worker laws currently on the books, and passage of a series of laws which would make it easier to organize unions. It calls for "guaranteed universal access to quality health care." It wants current labor laws to be amended to reduce the hours of work, increase the pay for overtime work, forbid compulsory overtime and extend vacation time. It wants national legislation to fund "high quality public education" for everyone up through the university or technical school level. It wants the overturning of NAFTA and GATT, and an end to government subsidies to the corporations. It wants a revision of the tax code so that the rich will be made to pay "their fair share."

Put aside the demands about NAFTA and GATT, which give a nationalist and patriotic tone to the new party. The other demands are essentially a range of proposals answering the crucial problems the working class faces today. They reflect the worsening situation of the working class, on the one hand, and the vastly improved situation of the capitalists, on the other; the fact that the capitalists have increased their profits by weighing heavily on the laboring classes. But even though these problems weighing on the working class are produced by the very functioning of capitalist society, nowhere in its program does the Labor Party address the question of this society, and of the necessity to change it.

Even just to accomplish some of these demands, which would only alleviate the weight of capitalist society on the working class, there would have to be a massive struggle by millions of workers. The only times this country has seen a real improvement in the situation of the working class were during and immediately after vast social movements.

But the Labor Party doesn't say this openly. In fact, it implies just the opposite. Its program proposes only legislative action as a way to gain these reforms.

Given the current record of Congress, how will this legislation be passed?

The Labor Party calls for "a level playing field." It wants an "end to corporate domination of elections." Concretely, it wants a cap put on what any candidate can spend in elections and it wants public financing of elections. It says that not only would such a system of electoral financing "encourage Americans from all walks of life, regardless of their economic means, to seek public office and save taxpayers billions of dollars of corporate welfare heaped on the rich and powerful." It would also "allow all of us a fair and equal voice in deciding who should represent us and what legislation should be passed. Such a system and a Labor Party would make democracy a reality."

In other words, the working class can change its situation by voting.

A Clear Signal to the Democratic Party

The major debate at the founding convention revolved around the question of elections: would the Labor Party call on workers to vote for its candidates or any other working class candidates? Given the rest of its program, that would seem only logical.

Yet, paradoxically, the organizers of LPA, and most of the conveners of the convention opposed that idea, as they always have "for now."

Although the ILWU and a few scattered locals from other unions wanted to test the electoral waters, for the rest of the organizers of the convention, this wasn't even a question.

Of course, there were reasons given to explain why the Labor Party should not run candidates today: the Labor Party needs first to "recruit and organize hundreds of thousands of working people around a new agenda"; the aim today is to "promote this new agenda"; the Labor Party needs instead to "develop effective non-candidate/non-electoral political actions that turn our organizing approach to politics into reality," for example, a "constitutional amendment campaign to put the right to a decent job at a living wage directly into the Constitution"; besides, campaign financing laws would make it impossible for the unions to support the Labor Party; etc..

Obviously, elections are a limited tool; it's not through elections that the working class can basically change its situation. But elections could be a tool to help attract more people to the Labor Party; they could be used to "promote a new agenda". And clearly if the unions can figure out ways around the campaign finance laws to help fund Democratic Party campaigns, they could do the same for labor candidates. The fact that the Labor Party doesn't want to make use of this tool shows that those leading it do not want to break with the Democrats. "Send a clear signal to the Democrats"? OK, but don't break with them.

Obviously, as far as the AFL-CIO is concerned, this whole operation is little more than a way to put the Democrats on notice that labor expects not to be ignored this time. The AFL-CIO endorsed Clinton very early this time, much earlier than usual. At the same time, the endorsements that different unions have given to the Labor Party stand as a warning that the Democrats shouldn't take that early endorsement as a sign that labor is content with the current situation.

The AFL-CIO may certainly have given the Labor Party a big push in recent months, but, so far at least, this party is little more than a stalking horse aimed at the Democrats, one that could be put out to pasture if the Democrats come up with a few more crumbs for labor in the next legislative session.

Of course, this is undoubtedly not the view of everyone at the Founding Convention. But most of those who want something more don't want to offend the union officials who want to maintain ties with the Democratic Party.

In any case, the Labor Party is being led by people who agree with the way Tony Mazzocchi formulated the question several years ago, when LPA was first getting off the ground: "Unions do support the Democratic Party electorally. And we're not suggesting that they should cease to support whomever they wish, electorally. What we're proposing is an alternative party that does not run candidates immediately. Our goal is to create an alternative party that concentrates instead on developing and promoting a labor agenda, holding the feet of our elected officials to the fire. Running our candidates can come later."

That was in 1993. Today, 3 years later, is obviously not "later" enough. The Convention itself proposed to reexamine the question at the next Labor Party Convention, which won't be held for two years, too late, in most states, to run candidates in the 1998 elections. So "later" certainly can't come any time before the next century.

With Enough Pressure, Maybe the Democrats Will...

Right now, it's obvious that the union bureaucrats who have encouraged the development of this party see it essentially as a way to bring pressure on the Democrats. The fact that they postpone the question of running candidates shows that they don't want to use this tool, they want only to threaten to use it. If the AFL-CIO is able to come to an agreement with the Democrats, this Labor Party might easily be disbanded, or at least left in a corner to molder.

On the other hand, this Labor Party could be used as a way to prop up the Democratic Party, in the way that the American Labor Party was once used in New York or the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. At the end of the convention, Bob Wages, president of the OCAW, practically predicted this: "If we remain non-electoral for the near future, and have discussions that leave room for fusion candidates, running both on our line and that of the Democrats, I think other unions will be interested."

Of course, there are other possibilities. It depends, first, on what the Democrats themselves decide to do, or even what they are able to do to come to some kind of accommodation with union officials. If the Democrats don't offer the unions anything, then union officials might really push the Labor Party further than they are ready to do today.

On the other hand, if there were a real upsurge in the working class, if the working class begins to push past the traditional union structures, the union bureaucracies might see the Labor Party as a vehicle to keep that upsurge under their control.

Of course, a mass upsurge would change any number of things. Such a mobilization might end up transforming this Labor Party. It might also simply bypass this Labor Party, and build a party more in keeping with the struggles the working class begins to engage.

At this point, there is no way to predict what might happen. But the fact that union officials have even taken this step is certainly a sign that there are some problems with the old political framework, that is the two-party system. The birth of Ross Perot's Reform Party also testifies to the fact that this long standing arrangement no longer corresponds so well to the situation.

In any case, one thing is absolutely certain: the American working class needs its own party, a working class party in composition and program, a working class party ready to lead struggles, including the struggle to get rid of not only the effects of the capitalist system, but get rid of the capitalist system itself.

The number one priority for the American working class remains to construct its own party. The appearance of this Labor Party has not resolved the problem, nor does it even go in the direction of resolving it.