The Spark

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

LPA – Is It Determined Enough to Found a Labor Party?

Feb 5, 1994

The interim steering committee of Labor Party Advocates held a special meeting in Chicago last October 9, at which they agreed to work toward convening a convention to establish a labor party. The October meeting established at least a target date for convening a founding convention: sometime in 1995. And it set up different committees in preparation for the convention: rules, finances, constitution, policy (platform), call and arrangements.

It also proposed to conduct a series of local "hearings" to shape the framework of a program submitted to the convention for debate, amendment and approval. Finally, it decided to address itself to the country's 65,000 local unions, in a call for funds, as well as support of the convention.

This is obviously a step forward for LPA. Since its inception in 1991, Tony Mazzocchi, Labor Party Advocates Organizer, and most of the others who play a leading role in LPA have insisted that they did not have the forces to set up a labor party, that it was necessary to be patient. What LPA could hope to do in the current situation was "to educate the American public about the need for a labor party in the United States" and "to convince as many people as possible to become Labor Party Advocates." They had talked of establishing recruitment committees for LPA in "100 population centers across the country, each committed to signing up 1000 members." Of course, an organization has to give itself goals, but this target appeared as a kind of barrier beyond which LPA needed to pass before it could establish a party. Mazzocchi, in a 1993 interview in a local APWU paper, made this barrier explicit: "If we can't recruit the necessary number of people – we've set a target of 100,000 – we'll only be an asterisk in somebody's term paper."

LPA certainly has not come anywhere close to enrolling 100,000 members, nor has it even set up recruitment committees in anything like 100 population centers. But only one month after LPA reprinted Mazzocchi's interview, the newly established interim steering committee of LPA decided, not only to advocate a labor party, but also to attempt to launch one.

The only public explanation for this shift was this statement by Mazzocchi: "The decision to move forward was based primarily on the general sense that the time is right to take the next step and that as it becomes much clearer that something real is happening with LPA, our ability to recruit more people to this idea will be much enhanced."

What about This Time "Is Right to Take the Next Step"?

Today, a large part of the union bureaucracies seem to be dissatisfied with Clinton. Maybe when he first entered office, most of them entertained vague hopes. And Clinton was ready at least to open the White House door to them, a door which had been locked for 12 years.

But it didn't take long for the milk and honey to turn sour. In August, Clinton finally dropped, without making any real effort to get it passed, a bill purporting to make the permanent replacement of strikers illegal – the unions' so-called number two priority (the defeat of NAFTA being number one). During the summer, he let two pieces of voter rights legislation lapse, without making any attempt to have Congress renew them. In September, his administration filed a brief in federal court supporting the imposition of more than 52 million dollars in fines against the United Mine Workers for its 1989-90 strike against the Pittston coal company. Clinton never even bothered to pretend that his much heralded medical reform would adopt the system the unions have called for – a single-payer, i.e. direct government pay, system. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that the multiplicity of for-profit payers under Clinton's plan will leave many cracks through which people currently not covered can continue to fall, while it will penalize those workers whose unions have negotiated above average coverage.

What's even worse – certainly from the standpoint of the bureaucrats themselves – is the attitude the Clinton Administration has expressed toward the unions. In August, when Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, was interviewed by the New York Times about so-called workplace cooperation, he actually said, "The jury is still out on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace." Commerce Secretary and former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Ron Brown raised the same question: "Unions are OK where they are ... and where they are not, it is not clear yet what sort of organization should represent workers." During the NAFTA debate, not only did Clinton push for NAFTA, he also openly attacked the unions for opposing it, speaking about their "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics," about "the raw muscle, the sort of naked pressure that the labor forces have put on." One of his spokespersons even referred to the union leaderships as "dinosaurs."

In the wake of the NAFTA affair, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland proclaimed, "NAFTA leaves U.S. workers sold down the river." The Executive Council of the California AFL-CIO decided to withhold all support, financial or otherwise, for any Democrats who voted for NAFTA, and it voted to continue indefinitely withholding all financial contributions to the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Even the UAW, despite its exceedingly close ties with the Michigan Democratic Party, used its publications to expose particular Democrats who switched votes at the last minute after Clinton came up with "pork barrel" deals for their votes. Teamsters President Ron Carey proclaimed, "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."

Apparently, LPA thinks that in the union movement there now are enough people who can be convinced to develop these "political alternatives."

Join Us or Else...

LPA started with the assumption that for a labor party to be created it would have to rest on at least a sizeable fraction of the existing unions. It certainly pinned its hopes for constructing the party on the official union forces. Its earliest proposals for recruiting focussed on getting local unions and local AFL-CIO Councils to affiliate with LPA.

Its newsletter continues to emphasize statements from different union officials that they support LPA, or at least agree with the need for a labor party. For example, the issue before last, September 1993, quoted approvingly from a St. Louis Post Dispatch article: "Kelly said he has 'heard more talk about a labor party or a labor-farm coalition than I have in the past 15 years. And the guys who are doing the talking aren't the fringe, left-wing radicals who used to do the talking. It's more the moderate, the middle-of-the-road centrists.'" For LPA, this statement by St. Louis Labor Council President Bob Kelly, who is also a member of the Democratic National Committee, was "evidence that the idea is catching on."

Nonetheless, by deciding to convene this founding convention, LPA seems to be saying that it is no longer going to wait on union officialdom to become active. Rather, they seem to be gambling on the union bureaucracy's current dissatisfaction with Clinton, as they try to force the issue.

Effectively, they seem to be throwing down a challenge to the existing union bureaucracies: "We are going forward, now you have to decide. Either you stay in the camp of the Democrats, even when they won't give you anything, or you have to cross a line to help us build a labor party."

Up until now, LPA has always made it abundantly clear that the union officials could continue to support the Democrats while working for a labor party. LPA's current small recruitment brochure quotes Jan Pierce, CWA vice president: "There are many trade unionists who say there's nothing we can do about the rightward, pro-business drift of the Democrats. But I'm here to say that we don't have to accept it. We can continue to work within the Democratic Party. At the same time, we can begin to create a real political alternative outside the party that will give working people a more effective voice in the country."

For LPA "voice" means education, surveys, a "labor agenda" – anything but elections. From the very beginning, in all its literature, LPA has avowed: "Labor Party Advocates is neither running nor endorsing candidates for political office and therefore is not interfering in on-going COPE work or other political activity." Mazzocchi spelled it out very explicitly, for example, in a 1993 interview from the APWU (American Postal Workers Union) paper: "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 in 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 own candidates can come later."

In October, when LPA's interim steering committee changed its perspective on setting up the party, it did not change its views on participating in elections. And this raises doubts about how determined they are to go ahead. Of course, right now, LPA doesn't have the possibility to run campaigns everywhere. But there must be spots where its current strength makes a credible campaign possible: in San Francisco, for example, or in those cities where the OCAW or UE are strong.

Obviously, elections are a limited tool, certainly not the means by which the working class will make basic changes in its situation. But for a working class party to give up in advance all possibility of presenting its own candidates is the same as saying it doesn't want to oppose the Democrats.

For LPA, now having forced the issue, it's a way to reassure the union bureaucracies that even while they have to choose, they won't have to choose: come join us; you can go on doing what you've been doing all along – occasionally directing angry words at the Democrats, while continuing to support them. And that implies that LPA is still basing its hopes for building a labor party on those same union bureaucracies.

Who Will Build Labor's Party

The union bureaucracies are not necessarily adverse to threatening the Democrats with the specter of a labor party. They've certainly done the same thing themselves. For example, during Jimmy Carter's term, Doug Fraser, president of the UAW, proclaimed that it might be necessary for the unions to create a labor party if the Democrats weren't more responsive to the needs of labor. And the UAW even organized a few conferences around this "idea".

There have been a few times when union officials actually got to the point of setting up organizational structures which had the professed goal of creating a Labor Party. Of course, this didn't happen very often; but in 1936, for example, CIO officials formed Labor's Non-Partisan League. The situation was certainly different than what we see today. A significant part of the working class was already moving to form its own party. LNPL was set-up by the bureaucrats to divert this movement. While affirming their future aim to present labor candidates, they put Roosevelt's name on their ballot slot so that workers who mistrusted the Democrats might still be brought to vote for Roosevelt.

Obviously, these are not the actions which lead to the construction of a real workers party. The trade union officials in this country have long shown that they are not ready to build anything really independent of the Democrats. To bank on them is to accept defeat in advance.

What Ross Perot did in 1992 demonstrates – from the right, unfortunately – that it is possible to break with the two big bourgeois parties and still be heard by the population. Of course, rhetoric aside, Perot did not challenge the basic policies of these bourgeois parties. And he can always rejoin one of them later on. But in 1992, by moving quickly, addressing himself directly to the population, asking them to oppose the Democrats and Republicans, calling for their votes, Perot demonstrated that there is a part of the population, including in the working class, ready to break with the two parties. The left, that is the working class movement, ought to be able to do more than Perot did on this account.

Although they began by focussing their attention almost exclusively on the existing union apparatuses, LPA eventually expanded its outlook. It began to talk about attracting the rank and file. Instead of the focus on getting local unions to affiliate, it shifted to talking about "recruitment committees [which] may consist of local leaders, activists and rank-and-filers from several different unions or ... members associated with a single local union."

Almost certainly they shifted primarily because there was no big rush of unions officially enrolling themselves in LPA. But whatever the reason, LPA was forced to look beyond those bureaucracies. Even, now, while banking on those bureaucracies, it is forced to look beyond them for forces.

It's certain that the rank and file has to be engaged in the work of creating a labor party. And not just the ranks of the unions, which are only a small fraction of the working class. The mass of the whole class has to be brought into this effort. People who want to build that party have to make that work their priority – addressing themselves as widely as possible, engaging the ranks in the effort to construct the party. No one can yet say today if the rank and file will respond to this kind of effort – maybe yes, maybe not. But if it's not ready to respond there won't be a labor party.

Obviously, LPA's evolution remains to be seen. If it pushes to really address and organize the rank and file, we may yet see a real workers party created in this country. And while the working class itself will determine what it is ready to do, the choices made by activists like those in LPA can help determine whether the working class gains the confidence it needs to mobilize itself.