Labor Advocate Online
A Tale of Two Conferences
A Modest Step Forward and a Giant Step Back
by Bill Onasch
If the Socialism 2004 conference can be considered a modest step forward for the working class political movement the 2004 Green convention has to be a giant step back from what seemed possible just four years ago.
The 2000 Green convention in Denver raised many hopes. Ralph Nader said he was ready to not only lend his prestigious name to the Green ballot, as he had done in 1996; this time he would actually carry out a vigorous campaign. And he did.
Prior to 2000 the Greens had little contact with the labor movement. In Denver Tony Mazzocchi, the "Founding Brother" of the Labor Party, and a long time collaborator with Nader on many issues, was a featured speaker. Although the Labor Party could not endorse the Green candidate—or anyone else—at the suggestion of Nader and Mazzocchi the convention endorsed the Labor Party’s basic program.
A Labor-Green caucus was established.
Shortly after the convention Nader was endorsed by two Labor Party affiliates—the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE), and the California Nurses Association (CNA). This was the first time in more than a half century that significant union bodies endorsed a ticket other than a Democrat or Republican.
In a few cities, including Kansas City, Labor For Nader committees were formed.
There was hope among some—including this writer—that the Nader campaign might draw thousands of Green activists, along with new forces reached as a result of the campaign, closer to the labor movement—and Labor Party.
Of course that didn’t happen. Nader did usually mention labor issues such as NAFTA, and calling for repeal of the Taft-Hartley act, in his speeches. He got photographed with a smiling James Hoffa—at that time upset with pro-NAFTA Gore—who acknowledged Nader’s many union friendly contributions over the years. But that was about as far as the labor connection to the campaign ever got.
Nader’s main pitch was to middle class values, for good citizenship, for compelling the corporate interests to behave responsibly. This not only coincided with the "key values" of the Greens; it was also embraced by an impressive number of big name intellectuals and artists. This enabled the "super-rallies," several giant events exceeding the biggest turnouts for Bush and Gore.
At one time the polls showed Nader support at around ten percent. In the end, of course, his actual vote was considerably smaller, a little under three percent. Nevertheless this showing had a major impact in more than one way.
There was, of course, the "spoiler" curse of Florida. The Democrats had to go no further than the apostate Nader vote to explain their loss of the White House. We’ll come back to this.
But there was also an up side, from the Green electoral point of view, to Nader’s impressive numbers. The Greens were now taken seriously, a credible electoral force. They were also assured of future ballot access in many more states than ever before. A few Greens were even elected to office.
Many more in the party now began to adopt a more European style "realo" approach to politics. More ties, fewer tie-dyes. More attune to the election cycle rather than a 24/7 issue movement perspective. Like their key value preference for locally grown vegetables their political focus shifted mainly to local contests.
The first manifestation of widespread Green discontent with their standard bearer came during the constitutional crisis around the election results. While the Greens were facing a Democrat lynch mob threatening all manner of retribution for the Greens "giving the election to Bush," Nader was nowhere to be seen or heard. The election over, he had moved on to other tasks. Resentment in the ranks was understandable.
With the departure of Nader and his entourage of big names the elected officials, and electoral campaign strategists, asserted themselves more in the Green Party leadership. Meanwhile, Nader dropped off the political radar not even participating in the mass antiwar movement that swept the nation prior to the invasion of Iraq.
When Nader made it clear last Fall that he was planning another run for the presidency the reaction from Greens was less than enthusiastic. Still, I believe, Nader could have won the party nomination once more if he had simply campaigned for it.
Instead Nader adopted a most peculiar strategy, not seen since La Follette’s campaign of 1924. He would run as an independent, accepting no party’s nomination, but accepting just about any party’s endorsement.
Thus far he has only won endorsement of the Reform Party, a curious bit of political flotsam abandoned long ago by its founder and principal benefactor, H Ross Perot. Perot got nearly twenty percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential contest, mainly as a result of his opposition to NAFTA. After a half-hearted try in 1996 Perot—and his deep pockets—gave up on this hobby. In 2000 far-right talking head Pat Buchanan picked up the party’s few remaining millions and ballot status to make a vanity run for president. With no more money, and ballot status surviving in only seven states, the current caretakers of the Reform Party eagerly embraced the first candidate nice enough to ask for their support.
Nader is also in negotiations with another odd group, the various state remnants of the dissolving Natural Law Party.
But, clearly, the Greens were the key to any high profile Nader campaign. As a gesture to the Greens, and perhaps to help compensate for the confusing signals generated by the Reform Party nod, Nader picked an old socialist and new Green leader, Peter Camejo, for his running mate. Camejo was put in charge of the endorsement effort at the Green Party convention while Nader worked to put together an independent nominating convention in the state of Oregon. Nader also found time to suggest Kerry pick Senator John Edwards as his running mate.
In 2000 Jello Biafra had been Nader’s main opponent at the convention. In a rare show of unity Nader’s nomination was assured before the convention was gaveled to order
By contrast, this year’s Green Party convention functioned like the big boys used to before the days of sound bites and photo ops. Delegation strength is linked to their state’s electoral college votes. There is much caucusing and rallying, cajoling and carping. Roll call votes are taken until a candidate gets a majority.
Long before Nader even announced, realo style Green leaders such as Ted Glick had been cooperating with liberal Democrats to try to pressure Nader into sitting this one out. When that failed they fought tooth and nail to block him at the convention. They united around a trial lawyer who acknowledges fellow litigator Nader as his mentor and had managed Nader’s 2000 campaign in Texas.
The voting at the convention was complicated to outside observers —and undoubtedly many inside as well. The choice was between nominating David Cobb or nominating no one. If the no nomination option had won there would have been another vote to endorse Nader.
Cobb clearly represented the "safe states" strategy. Safe states are those considered locked up by one of the major parties. Cobb’s realos want to campaign in those states and actually ask people to vote Green. But in the other "battleground" states, where the election is still too close to call, they accommodate the Anybody But Bush crowd by saying "vote your conscience."
Nader supporters complained about the convention process before and after the vote, which was fairly close. Cobb won nomination on the second ballot.
The Cobb nomination, sealing off the Green Party ballot line, is a real body blow to the Nader campaign. California becomes virtually out of reach. Democrats will be harassing Nader petitions everywhere. He has already been ruled off the ballot in Arizona and a second try in Oregon looks shaky. Unable to build on his 2000 electoral success Nader will be lucky to appear on the ballot in half of the states.
So what does all this mean to those of us who want to build an independent working class political movement? The results of the experiment that some of us tried in 2000 of attempting to influence the Nader/Greens movements, to bring them closer to the workers movement, are conclusive: it was a failure. It was worth trying but it didn't work.
In my opinion, it would be worse than a waste of time to get involved in either the Nader or Cobb 2004 campaigns. Neither will advance class consciousness and organization. Neither will make any serious effort to link up to, learn from, and try to influence the labor movement. Neither is going to help build independent issue movements. Both, in different ways, seek to influence the major parties rather than building a truly independent movement that can challenge for power. Not the solution they are part of the problem.
There’s no way of concealing our disappointment and embarrassment. There’s no campaign worth supporting and we’re too weak to run our own. Learn to live with it. We are guaranteed losers in the 2004 election. What we have to do is, as Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic entitled a recent article, Prepare Today to Fight Tomorrow.
Build our unions. Build the antiwar movement. Build our party of the future—the Labor Party.
July 7, 2004
Click here to go to Part One